Records: Lakers 8-2 (3rd in West), Bucks 5-5 (6th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 116.7 (1st in NBA), Bucks 99.8 (29th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 107.5 (16th in NBA), Bucks 96.9 (1st in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Bucks: Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Luc Mbah a Moute, Drew Gooden, Andrew Bogut
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out), Theo Ratliff (out); Bucks: Carlos Delfino (doubtful), Chris Douglass-Roberts (out), Michael Redd (out)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are a favorite to win the championship come June. Something drastic and truly catastrophic would need to happen for that to no longer be the case this season. But that doesn’t mean things will always be roses and rainbows for this group and right now is one of those times. They’re coming off consecutive losses, are still operating without Andrew Bynum, and now face a couple more injury issues to deal with to their frontcourt.
Both Theo Ratliff and Lamar Odom have undergone MRI’s and while Lamar’s diagnosis is a bone bruise that should allow him to play (albeit in some discomfort), the news is not as good for Ratliff who will require surgery on his knee to aid what ails him. This means the Lakers will be without a back up Center for the foreseeable future and with a potentially limited Odom too. So, expect even more minutes for Gasol (who’s already been averaging his most minutes since the ’06 season), for Caracter to see more burn (no trips to Bakersfield in his immediate future), and for the Lakers to explore more small ball lineups where Artest and Barnes get even more run at PF than they have so far this season.
Mind you, this doesn’t create a situation that the Lakers can’t overcome but it does stretch them quite thin up front and means that the little things the Lakers haven’t been doing that well already – rebounding, protecting the paint – will get a bit harder. However, such is life in the NBA and I can guarantee no one is weeping for the defending champs. On a side and completely related note, get well soon Andrew Bynum…
The Bucks Coming in: Milwaukee is a hot team right now as they’ve won 3 games in a row and 4 of their last 5. And like every other team coached by Scott Skiles, they’ve been winning games on the strength of their defense. The Bucks lead the league in defensive efficiency and have only allowed one team to score 100 points or more against them all season (and it took an overtime period for Boston to break that threshold). They’re a hard nosed team that will pressure the ball, rotate well, and contest every shot you take from any position on the floor.
However, whe’re they’ve been struggling is on offense. They’re second to last in offensive rating and don’t have any single player that is a consistent threat on that side of the ball. Their leading scorer (Brandon Jennings) averages 15.7 points a night and their four other best scorers all chip in with about 13 points per game. It’s no wonder they’re playing .500 ball as they can suffocate teams on one end but can’t score enough for it to really matter on the other.
You’ll notice some new faces on this year’s Bucks as they’ve added Drew Gooded via free agency and Corey Maggette via trade. These two were supposed to add some punch to their offense but, again, that hasn’t really been the case. In essense, this team has taken on the identity of their head coach for better and for worse. Until they can consistently score the ball, they’ll need to hope that their defense is strong enough to limit the other team so that they grind out the wins.
Keys to game: This is the first night of a three game in four nights trip to the mid-west as the Lakers finally leave the comfy confines of the west coast to get some games in. Personally, I love when teams go out on the road as it gives the guys a chance to really come together and start to build that chemistry that fuels championship teams. However, winning tonight will take more than a group dinner at one of Milwaukee’s great steakhouses.
It will take an effort that’ been somewhat lacking in the past week or so. While effort is usually equated to defense, rebounding, etc, I’m really talking about focus and attention to detail and then following through by actually acting out what needs to be done. This means executing the offense by making the post entry pass in a timely manner and then cutting and screening hard. It means understanding that when shot goes up that players need to be boxed out and the ball secured before racing down court to try and set up on offense. Mostly it means playing hard and smart basketball because you can bet the Bucks will be playing that way.
From an offensive X’s and O’s standpoint, the Lakers need to run a bit less P&R and more straight post ups on the strong side with screen actions on the weakside to open up slashers for easy shots in the paint. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in recent games it’s the Lakers tendency to run more P&R as an initial option rather than relying on the traditional ball movement that develops from the motions of the Triangle. If the Lakers continue that trend tonight, they’ll find mobile bigs like Bogut and Mbah a Moute closing down penetration lanes while still showing the ability to recover to the paint and rebound. The Lakers will be much better off if the ball goes into the hub of the Triangle in the strongside post with the weakside big flashing into the paint to score over the undersized (outside of Bogut) Bucks front line. These cuts and interior passes will not only lead to easier buckets inside, but will also loosen up the perimeter D and give the Lakers guards/wings open shots as the Bucks have to help in the paint more.
Defensively, the Lakers must control Jennings operating in space and in the P&R. Jennings likes push the ball and see if there’s an opening in transition and if there isn’t he’ll slow the ball up and run P&R to try and penetrate to create for himself or a teammate. Traditionally the Lakers do a good job keeping ball handlers to one side of the floor and tonight that will be tested as Jennings is very good at going to his left from the right side of the floor in order to find cracks in the defense. If the Lakers can force him to the right side and keep him there, it will go a long way towards slowing an already stagnant Bucks offense.
The other two players I’ll be watching closely are John Salmons and Corey Maggette. Salmons has traditionally been a Laker killer who thrives in isolation and curls off screens to get open and shoot his mid range jumper. Artest and/or Kobe will have their hands full when dealing with Salmons and could use help from their big men when he comes hard off screens looking to catch and shoot. Remember too, Salmons is another player who seems to play his best when the Lakers are the opponent so focussing in on him should go a long way tonight. As for Maggette, he can be a real spark off the bench for the Bucks and will always be in attack mode. He’s excellent at drawing fouls and considering the Lakers current depth issues up front, this team can ill afford Corey crashing his way into the paint and getting early whistles against LO or Pau. The Lakers wings must do a good job of marking him in transition and making him pull up for jumpers by laying off and not getting beat off the bounce.
Tonight isn’t a season maker by any means but it’s another good test for a variety of reasons. This is only the 4th road game for the Lakers but the first that is further than Denver when looking at a map. That extra travel can wear on a team and this is first time LA is going on any kind of extended trip. It’s also the first time this year that the Lakers have lost twice in a row and it’s pretty rare that this incarnation of the Lakers (with Kobe/Pau) would drop three straight. So, the Lakers will be looking to come together on the road and beat a playoff team in order to avoid dropping three in a row. Again, not a season maker but this game has some value to the Lakers. Here’s hoping they come out and play like it.
Where you can watch: 5pm start time out west on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.