James, 35, has won four M.V.P. awards, but none since 2012-13. He finished second to Antetokounmpo in this season’s vote after averaging 25.3 points, 10.2 assists and 7.8 rebounds and driving the Lakers to the best record in the West. He led the league in assists for the first time in his career.
James has seldom come off as the type of player who needs outside motivation to perform. But if additional fuel is available to him, he will consume it, and he went about his business against the Nuggets with a scowl — a stern, workmanlike experience for him. He finished with 15 points and 12 assists.
Afterward, James said he was not upset that he had not won the award — “Giannis had a hell of a season,” he said — but rather that he had received only 16 of 101 first-place votes from the panel of news media members who decide the award. (The New York Times does not participate in awards voting.) Yes, James knew the exact number: 16.
That, he said, is what irritated him more than anything. “I never came into this league to be M.V.P. or to be a champion,” James said. “I’ve always just wanted to get better and better every single day, and those things will take care of itself. But some things is just out of my hand and some things you can’t control.”
In expressing his support for his teammate, Davis suggested that it was a conspiracy. “They kind of choose the M.V.P. before the season even starts, you know,” he said.
In any case, the Lakers are now only three wins from the N.B.A. finals, and they are playing some of their best basketball at precisely the right time. It is more than a James and Davis production, though they seem to be emboldening their teammates. The Lakers’ depth, so questionable for so much of the season, is shining through.