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Stars set to shine in TNT doubleheader

Lakers-Bucks, Rockets-Clippers headline a tantalizing night of hoops

> Tonight on TNT: Lakers vs. Bucks (8 ET) | Rockets-Clippers (10:30 ET)

Anthony Davis was nine months old the last time the NBA saw a regular-season matchup like the one the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks will engage in Thursday at Fiserv Forum (8 ET, TNT).

It’s been 26 years since we’ve seen two teams with four or fewer losses match up this late in a season. (The only other occurrence was on Dec. 28, 1993, when the 23-3 Rockets beat the 20-3 SuperSonics in Seattle.) Lakers-Bucks is just one half of a blockbuster TNT doubleheader as the Houston Rockets visit the LA Clippers (10:30 ET, TNT) to close things out.

There will be Kia MVPs, superstars and All-Stars galore on the floor for these games. All four teams have their sights on the Larry O’Brien Trophy. So even though each matchup is just one game in each team’s 82-game marathon, there is no better test at this stage of the season than a best-on-best showdown.

In advance of TNT’s Thursday night showdown, we’re setting the table for the feast.

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Los Angeles Lakers (24-4) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (24-4)

Why you should be watching: The Bucks’ winning streak was halted at 18 games Monday, when the Dallas Mavericks (playing without Luka Doncic) knocked them off. The Lakers saw their 14-game road winning streak end Tuesday in Indiana, when they played without Davis (ankle). This game is a reset game for both teams and a chance, as Lakers guard Avery Bradley said, to “start another streak.” The sheer star power on the floor — the All-Star Davis, the four-time Kia MVP LeBron James and reigning Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — is enough to make this one a must-see. We’re only guaranteed to see these teams match up twice. The only way we’ll get more is if they both make The Finals. Don’t take this game for granted.

Keep an eye on: Davis and Kyle Kuzma are both battling ankle injuries. If they can’t go, someone else will draw the defensive assignment on Antetokounmpo. Seeing the two most dynamic two-way bigs in the league go head-to-head all night turns the heat up on a game that doesn’t need any extra fire. There will be all sorts of speculation about Davis’ status until we get the official word. It will be hard to focus on this game without dreaming about what kind of fireworks would result in Giannis and AD going at it.

The stat to know (from John Schuhmann): The Bucks and Lakers rank first and second, respectively, in points in the paint differential by a wide margin. Much of that has to do with their work defensively as anything. The Bucks have outscored their opponents by 14.4 points in the paint and have only been outscored in the paint three times in their 28 games. The Lakers have outscored their opponents by 10.1 ppg and have been outscored in the paint just four times in their 28 games. For perspective on just how far ahead of the rest of the league they are, Brooklyn is third in points in the paint differential … at +6.4.

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Houston Rockets (18-9) vs. LA Clippers (21-8)

Why you should be watching: James Harden is chasing history, leading the league in scoring at a ridiculous 38.9 ppg. That’s an affront to the Clippers’ defensive sensibilities. And you know good and well Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley have no intention of allowing Harden to have his way with them on this big stage. Remember, too, that Harden lit the Clippers up for 47 points in a Nov. 13 home win and 37 points in a Nov. 22 road loss. This a statement game for two Western Conference powers trying to establish themselves in the pecking order, while also continuing to integrate new stars into their mix. The history of all the stars involved — not to mention they all have Southern California roots — always makes for an entertaining game and atmosphere when they face off at Staples Center.

Keep an eye on: For all of the attention devoted to trying to slow Harden down, it’s odd that the Clippers have used Beverley to defend him most in their previous two matchups. No team in the league can boast the sizable perimeter defensive firepower the Clippers have with Leonard, George, Maurice Harkless and JaMychal Green. Yet coach Doc Rivers hasn’t gone exclusively with one of them against the NBA’s most difficult individual matchup. Maybe tonight is the night that changes.

The stat to know (from John Schuhmann): Ben McLemore has 222 total field goal attempts and 188 3-point attempts. None of those 222 have come from the midrange (between the paint and 3-point line). On the flip side, Russell Westbrook has taken 114 of the Rockets’ 151 midrange shots (no other Rocket has attempted more than 11). You might need a codebreaker to figure out the defensive plan for the Rockets come the playoffs, because no other team plays the way coach Mike D’Antoni’s crew does.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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