When the Bucks play the Lakers, Giannis vs. LeBron matchups always have a different energy to them. Watching the future of the league take on the face of the league will naturally carry a certain weight. The youth versus experience matchup the two MVP candidates put on is, at this point, a rivalry of sorts.
This time around is different. Where both teams came into those matchups as equals, one team now stands as the defending champs, while the other has everything to prove after a humiliating exit.
Giannis is playing better this season. The Bucks are a better team. Most outlets have them as the biggest threat to the Lakers’ dominance in the wild, wild East. They’ve yet to lose two straight, but they’re coming off a heartbreaker against Kevin Durant’s Nets.
The defending champs, too, lost a close one to Stephen Curry and the Warriors. They hold the best record in the league, and a cursory glance at their roster tells you everything you need to know.
Both teams will be locked in and eager to rebound. Here’s a look at what to expect between these two top contenders.
"The Lakers are one of the best teams in the league. It's going to be a test for us."
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 18, 2019
Defense Wins Championships—and Hopefully, Against Champions Too
Defense will be the order of the day for this one, because the two teams are evenly-matched everywhere else. The Lakers and Bucks are the top two teams in net rating, in that order. That the Lakers are the league-leading defense, though, should be the biggest cause for concern. The Bucks might be second in offensive rating, but their appalling 11th-ranked defensive rating is far, far behind.
The main question on fans’ minds should be, who do the Bucks put on the freight train that is LeBron James?
Matthews was the main defender a year ago. He’s on the other side now and could very well be deployed against Middleton, slowing down his steady scoring.
Giannis has the brawn to take the assignment, which only leaves an Anthony Davis-sized hole in the Bucks defense. Bobby Portis, though a pleasant surprise off the bench, may not be up to that task.
Torrey Craig certainly has the size and mobility to slow down King James, but he hasn’t gotten much run this season. Mike Budenholzer is clearly infatuated with the logjam at the wings. With the lack of Craig minutes on Kevin Durant, Connaughton and Thanasis minutes against James are entirely possible.
Remember when Giannis played dominant defense on LeBron in the AllStar game? pic.twitter.com/TsuuOkc9Gp
— IKE Bucks Podcast (@IKE_Bucks) March 6, 2020
Defense isn’t about winning. It’s about making sure the other team loses. But there are no guarantees when the other team has the scoring arsenal of the Los Angeles Lakers.
This one won’t be pretty.
Scoring Will Be a Team Effort
At one point the best offense in the league, the Bucks have since conceded that spot to the Clippers. They’ve dropped to the second-best scoring bunch, and it’s easy to see why. The Bucks have ditched their five-out scheme from yesteryear, but they still live and die by the three-ball.
When their shooting dries up, so does their offense.
Still, Milwaukee has better shooters this year. DiVincenzo and Middleton are much improved as scorers, and the addition of Jrue Holiday has done wonders for their playmaking and defense.
Giannis won’t outscore two MVP-caliber players on his own. If the Bucks are to stand a chance against the league’s best defense, they’ll need to be on their A-game when it comes to scoring basketball. This rings true for their star trio as much as it does for their bench.
Breaking the Giannis Wall
It’s a test Giannis has had to face time and time again.
Los Angeles’ personnel affords them the ability to build the vaunted Giannis wall if they so desire. Marc Gasol, though aging, is still an excellent paint defender. Wesley Matthews has shown in his time on the Bucks that he has the strength to keep bigger matchups at bay.
Every coach in the league has taken notice of the strategy. The Celtics and the Magic have seen success with it. The Heat and the Raptors have gone all the way to the Finals because of it.
If Frank Vogel decides to pull this out, this puts a bigger responsibility on the Bucks’ deep-range bombers. Once Giannis inevitably gets clamped and kicks it out, can they make their shots?
The MVP vs The King
Giannis already faced an MVP in their last game. Though he didn’t come out with the win, he showed up.
In this matchup, the two MVPs are very similar to each other in many ways.
They’re both the heart and soul of their respective basketball clubs. It’s just a fact in the NBA: the Bucks and the Lakers will only go as far as their superstars will take them. Everything else is secondary and peripheral.
They’re both all-world physical specimens who can dominate in the paint and in transition. But they both entered the league without polished shooting ability. The difference is LeBron was able to transcend his weaknesses later on. In Year 18, his game has aged gracefully. At the age of 36, he’s putting up 27.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. He’s King James for a reason.
Their first game last season was something of a passing of the torch for Bucks fans. Besides coming away with the win, Giannis handled his matchups against LeBron and AD with relative ease. After draining a three on the eventual champions that night, the Greek Freak proudly crowned himself the new king of the league.
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) December 20, 2019
At the time, he was right to.
But being the king of the league means you have to earn it every night against other contenders looking for a piece of the crown.
Greek Freak vs The Brow
It’s tough being the league’s reigning MVP. It means a target is perpetually painted on your back. It means other stars and other MVP contenders are looking for a chance to prove their worth against you.
Entering this matchup, all eyes will be on Giannis versus LeBron. But his performance against Anthony Davis will also be picked apart and examined.
The two have always been compared. They’re the two best power forwards in the league. They were both finalists of the Defensive Player of the Year award a season ago, with Giannis getting the eventual nod.
Davis’ shooting means Giannis will have to guard him at the perimeter instead of being the team’s go-to help defender. This will force Budenholzer to be creative with how he adjusts to the contorting defense caused by the Lakers superstars.
Giannis not only has to prove himself against the King of the league, but he also has to do it against The Brow. Two MVP contenders is a tall order, but one fit for a Greek God.
Anthony Davis: 0 pic.twitter.com/I0OQLE1MSe
— IKE Bucks Podcast (@IKE_Bucks) March 7, 2020
Bucks in Four (Quarters)
It was said last year, but it would be disingenuous not to say it again. This might very well be the postseason matchup for the Larry ‘O Brien trophy.
This is no regular-season game. It won’t be easy, but going through the Lakers is a test the new-look Bucks need to go through to see what they’re made of.
After their close loss to the Brooklyn Nets, expect the Bucks to come out guns blazing.
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