10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bucks -4, Over/Under: 238.5
Two teams occupying very different ends of the spectrum battle tonight in the City of Angels, as the surging Milwaukee Bucks travel to STAPLES Center to face the Los Angeles Lakers. From the moment they hired Mike Budenholzer in the Offseason, improvement was expected out of the Bucks (47-14, 1st in Eastern Conference), who after seeing each of their previous two seasons come to an end in the First Round of the Playoffs, sought to take the next step in the development. However, few could have predicted such a giant leap in such a short time, for Milwaukee currently owns the best record in the NBA, and have been on an absolute tear over the last month and some change, winning eighteen of their last twenty outings, including each of their last four since the All-Star Break. Granted, one can’t be too surprised at their success, given Budenholzer’s reputation as a coach that has routinely gotten the most out of his players; easily his finest work was guiding a balanced Atlanta Hawks team to a 60-22 record and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals back in 2014-2015, despite lacking any true stars to speak of. Conversely, the Bucks have precisely that in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.0 PTS, 58.1% FG, 23.7% 3FG, 12.6 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 1.5 BLK, 30.2 PER), who in just his fifth season since arriving from Greece has ascended to the very stratosphere of superstardom, with many firmly believing that he is indeed the frontrunner for the MVP award. At 6′-11″, 242 lbs, the Greek Freak is every bit deserving of his nickname, effecting the game in a variety of ways that few in the history of the sport have proven able to do. At the young age of Twenty-Four, there is still plenty of room for him to grow and further refine his skillset, particularly his perimeter shooting, and when he does that, we dare think just how formidable the Forward will become. However (as the New Orleans Pelicans have found out), being fortunate enough to have a player of this caliber also means that there is a real sense of urgency (or is it dread?) to surround him with quality contributors, lest they risk said player hastening their exit. By and large, the Bucks have done a solid job of doing so over the past two seasons, whether it was trading for Point Guard Eric Bledsoe (15.7 PTS, 49.2% FG, 32.2% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.4 BLK, 19.2 PER) midway through the previous term, drafting and developing the likes of two-way dynamos such as Kris Middleton (17.4 PTS, 43.5% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.7 PER) and Malcolm Brogdon (16.0 PTS, 50.7% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 18.1 PER), signing affordable veterans like Brook Lopez (12.1 PTS, 44.7% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 2.2 BLK, 14.0 PER) and George Hill (5.7 PTS, 40.0% FG, 27.9% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 10.6 PER), or most recently landing another sharpshooting big man in the form of Nikola Mirotic (14.8 PTS, 51.2% FG, 44.8% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.0 BLK, 26.8 PER) at the Trade Deadline. Each of these players can do a variety of things, proving to be seamless fits in Budenholzer’s system, while at the same complementing Antetokoumpo.
As you can imagine, this team has granted itself a good degree of depth and balance, which was on display in their latest outing, an entertaining 141-140 Overtime victory at the upstart Sacramento Kings. With Antetokounmpo limited to just under Twenty-Five Minutes of action due to a minutes restriction and Middleton suffering cramps down the stretch, Budenholzer was forced to rely on other figures, which worked out better than even he could expected. The aforementioned duo of Bledsoe and Brogdon carried Milwaukee in this one, with the former posting a Triple-Double consisting of Twenty-Six Points on 11-of-20 shooting (55.0%), Twelve Rebounds, and Thirteen Assists, while the latter chipped in with Twenty-Five Points on 9-of-11 shooting (81.8%), including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc (66.7%). Thirteen of Bledsoe’s point total came in the Fourth Quarter and Extra Period, while Brogdon nailed a crucial Three-Pointer to seal the deal. Despite cramping, Middleton managed to post totals of Twenty-One Points on 8-of-20 shooting (40.0%), while Mirotic looks be quite settled within his new surroundings, scoring Twenty-One Points of his own, to go with Eight Rebounds, Three Assists, and a pair of Blocks off the Bench. Antetokounmpo finished with Seventeen Points on 7-of-12 shooting (58.3%), along with Seven Rebounds, Two Assists, and Two Blocks, making a number of key plays in the fourth stanza, though was held out of Overtime in it’s entirety. The win marked the Bucks’ ninth straight win on the road, as they continue their best start to a campaign since 2000-2001 when they finished 52-30.
Meanwhile, as their opponent has excelled mightily despite relatively modest expectations, the Lakers (30-31, 10th in Western Conference) have been quite the opposite this season, largely failing to meet the loftiest of expectations. Then again, that’s going to happen when you sign a superstar the magnitude of LeBron James (26.9 PTS, 51.1% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 8.7 REB, 7.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.7 BLK, 25.6 PER) in Free Agency. Now, we are in no means advocating that signing the 4-time MVP was a mistake, because if you have an opportunity to acquire this guy, then you should absolutely move mountains to do so, but the expectations that were attributed to this team simply on the strength of James’ inclusion, is a bit ridiculous. The issue from the start has been the fact that the roster that has been assembled around him is far from a natural fit, with a stark contrast forming between a number of largely unproven, yet somewhat promising youngsters, and a slew of veterans who were brought in on cheap one-year deals, so as not to compromise Los Angeles’ future Cap Space. Compounding matters is the fact that by and large, these new acquisitions were hardly shooters, which has been a problem throughout the season thus far; James has historically been at his best when surrounded by snipers who can stretch the floor and create precious space for him to operate, but the Lakers have struggled greatly to do just that, shooting 33.8% from beyond the arc, ranking third-worst in the league. As a result, they’ve been forced to ramp up the tempo and get as many opportunities in transition as possible, but that hasn’t changed the fact that this has remained a largely ill-fitted collection of players that lack the consistency and chemistry to truly develop into something greater. Of course, the persistent rumors of who will be staying and who will be going, and the fact that just about everyone other than James (who himself missed nineteen games due to a partially torn hamstring) has been a proverbial bargaining chip for the past three months, it’s no wonder that the Lakers have been a bit of a mess. And with twenty-one games left on the schedule, the sense of urgency has never been greater as they sit around 3.5 games out of the Eighth Seed in the Western Conference.
When we last saw them, Luke Walton’s charges bounced back from consecutive ugly losses to the New Orleans Pelicans (115-128) and Memphis Grizzlies (105-110), to earn a hard-fought 125-119 victory over those same Pelicans. Of course, the underlying storyline of New Orleans’ star Forward Anthony Davis requesting a trade, with the pubic perception being that he’s obviously angling himself to join James with the Lakers, has largely overshadowed the matchup itself. Davis didn’t play in the previous meeting, and his teammates certainly appeared to take it personally, embarrassing Los Angeles in the process. This time around, Davis was relegated to just over twenty minutes of action, though still managed to score Twenty-Two Points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field (71.4%), along with Eight Rebounds and a pair of Assists. Fanning the flames further, he didn’t play a single minute in the Fourth Quarter of a yet another close contest. Los Angeles led by as many as Twelve Points in the final stanza, before the visiting side rallied back to make it 118-117 with 1:38 left on the clock. However, a driving layup courtesy of one of those “bargaining chips”, Brandon Ingram (17.9 PTS, 49.2% FG, 31.8% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 13.2 PER) pushed the lead to three, followed by a turnover which set up a clutch, one-legged Three-Pointer from James, effectively ending the affair. In the end, LeBron totaled Thirty-Three Points on 13-of-24 shooting (54.2%), along with Six Rebounds, Ten Assists, Two Steals, and a Block, while Ingram added another Twenty-Three Points, with fellow young swingman Kyle Kuzma (19.2 PTS, 47.2% FG, 31.7% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 15.1 PER) chipping in with Twenty-Two. Veteran Point Guard Rajon Rondo (8.4 PTS, 42.9% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 7.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 11.8 PER) dished out Sixteen Assists to accompany Eleven Points, while the team as a whole shot 52.1% from the field, assisting on a healthy Thirty-Seven of their Forty-Nine Field Goals. While they certainly have their faults, this has been the healthiest that the Lakers have been in months, and something as simple as a prolonged run of good health could be precisely what the doctor ordered in terms of getting into the Playoffs. The margin for error is razor thin, and their schedule isn’t necessarily ideal, but with LeBron James on their side there is a precedent that they’ll get the job done, for as he’s proclaimed already, they need to activate “playoff mode” now.