After a 12-2 run that covered both sides of the All-Star Break, the Bucks have lost three in a row to fall 2.5 games back of both the Nets and Sixers at the top of the East. Uninspiring losses to the Celtics and Clippers – the latter seeing Milwaukee outscored by 36 over the last three quarters – have led to a significant dampening of the mood around this team. It doesn’t get easier from here either with the Lakers, Trail Blazers, and Mavs headlining the remaining five games of this Western Conference road trip.
The good news is that the Bucks are still 29-17. As we’ve seen, they’re still close to the Nets and Sixers, and both of those teams are due for a cool-down as well. There’s no reason to pound the alarm, especially with a weakened Lakers team up tonight. This is a great opportunity to get back on track.
FAST FACTS –
The Game: Milwaukee Bucks (29-17) @ Los Angeles Lakers (30-17)
The Place: Los Angeles, CA
The Time: 9:00 Central
The TV: ESPN
The Likely Starters:
Bucks – Holiday, DiVincenzo, Middleton, G. Antetokounmpo, Lopez
Lakers – Schroder, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, Morris, Drummond. This is the lineup the Lakers have started with in three consecutive games with one change – new signing Drummond is in for Marc Gasol.
Bucks: Rodions Kurucs (abdominal injury), Bobby Portis (covid protocols), and PJ Tucker (calf) are all listed as out. At this point, it’s very possible that Portis will be out for a few more weeks. There haven’t been many details released, but the fourth game missed would probably suggest Portis has the virus himself.
Lakers: Star Jared Dudley (knee) is out. Lesser known role players in Anthony Davis (achilles) and LeBron James (ankle) will also be out tonight.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE LAKERS –
LeBron and AD are out
This is the main story surrounding the Lakers right now. Davis hasn’t played since February 14 (19 games). Los Angeles is just 9-10 since. James has missed the last five games, and the Lakers are 2-3 in those and really struggling offensively, where they rank 29th in scoring efficiency. With both out, LA’s only wins came over the Cavs and Magic, two teams that are a combined 7-17 in March. Since Davis went down, the Lakers have won only two of six games against teams above .500.
The numbers, the eye test, the narratives, and the records will all tell us the same obvious thing – James and Davis are absolutely crucial to this team’s success. It’s not a very complicated idea. Without one, and especially both, the Lakers are at a severe disadvantage. The Bucks need to take care of business against this diminished version of last year’s champion.
With those two out, this team is obviously going to look very different, so let’s find some themes from the last five games –
Look for Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell to score
Both have scored at least 15 points each in every game since James went down. Schroder is averaging 14 points on the season and Harrell is at 13, so this isn’t a surprise. Both are key rotation players capable of taking on a bigger scoring role if needed, and that’s what they’ve done recently.
Harrell will do all of his work inside the arc. He’s 0-9 from three this year. One thing to watch with him – he’s taking a ton of free throws right now. Despite averaging less than four per game on the season, he’s taken eight per game over the last five. He’s shot at least eight free throws in four of those five games. Expect to see him attacking and looking for fouls all night long.
Schroder is at least a viable threat from beyond the arc, but he doesn’t take that many threes either. A lot of his work – about 75% of his field goal attempts – will come from inside the three-point line. Expect him to fight to get to the line as well; he’s taken 9 or more free throws in three of these last five games.
Kuzma the main perimeter threat
Kuzma has led LA in three-point attempts in four of the last five games. He took fifteen triples against the Magic last time out. The good news is that he hasn’t been particularly effective, shooting 14-43 from deep. That’s good for 32.6%, which is a few ticks below the typical league average. The question is whether this mini-slump (Kuzma is shooting just below 37% from deep on the year) is due to a cold streak or the increased attention that defenses can now give him. If it’s the former, it would be very Bucks to see Kuzma go 9-11 from deep tonight. Either way, expect to see a huge shot volume from him. He’s led the Lakers in shots in four of these five games.
Morris, KCP, and old friend Wes Matthews worth watching beyond the arc
Morris is the only Laker other than Kuzma to have made multiple threes in more than one game during this stretch. KCP and Matthews are the third and fourth Lakers that have made 3+ threes in one of these games. All three are still very much role players. They’ll play defense and get some shots in the flow of the offense, but don’t expect a whole lot else. Morris, for example, has yet to make an unassisted three this season. With that said, locking them down and preventing a hot shooting night from either of these guys would go a long way. LA is probably going to need one of these role players to step up in a big way if they want to win tonight.
Don’t be surprised to see Talen Horton-Tucker find his own shot
Horton-Tucker has been doing it all year with about 58% of his twos unassisted, but there’s obviously more room for him now. His role has been very inconsistent in these games, but he’s taken 10+ shots in a few of them. The good thing for the Bucks is that he’s been terribly inefficient, shooting just 16-41 (39%) from the floor since LeBron went down. That’s not good, and an experienced team like the Bucks should be able to force him into contested looks.
Drummond will make debut
The Bucks and Brook Lopez are going to need to be ready. Milwaukee is one of the better rebounding teams in the league, but they’re coming off a terrible showing against the Clippers, who won the rebounding battle 46-32. If Drummond – the best rebounder in the league by pure volume – is allowed to control the boards tonight, the Lakers will have a much greater chance at taking this one and giving the Bucks their fourth consecutive loss.
WHAT TO WATCH –
The Bucks played a great first quarter against the Clippers before everything went wrong in a complete collapse. Can they sustain a strong effort for more than 12 minutes tonight? This would be a really nice one to have given the current situation of the Lakers and the current East standings. Seeing a determined effort from tip to buzzer would be a great sign for this team’s ability to buckle down and do what needs to be done.
Getting Brook’s efficiency up
Lopez is still well below 30% from deep in March. He was a good 8-15 from the floor against the Knicks and Clippers, so that’s a good sign. So is his high scoring volume from this month. It’s not really happening with consistent efficiency though, and Lopez’s ability to hit some threes come the spring and summer could determine how this season ends. We need to get his three-point hit rate before the playoffs start.
Finding someone to step up with Portis and Tucker out
Sam Merrill took advantage in the Celtics loss with 15 points in 20 minutes. We all know what Thanasis and Jordan Nwora did against the Knicks. Who steps up tonight? No one outside of the Big Three scored more than 8 points against the Clippers. That’s not an ideal formula for success.
Let the stars be stars
With LeBron and AD out, there’s quite simply a massive talent difference at the top of this game. The Lakers cannot handle Giannis and Khris going at them for 40 minutes, so let them do just that. Feed the best players on the court, and the game should be ours.
Prediction: Bucks 117, Lakers 98. Let’s get back on track.
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