Preview and Chat: The Milwaukee Bucks

Darius Soriano —  January 28, 2012

Records: Lakers 11-8 (8th in West), Bucks 7-11 (9th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 102.3 (16th in NBA), Bucks 100.6 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.1 (10th in NBA), Bucks 102.9 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Bucks: Brandon Jennings, Shaun Livingston, Carlos Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute, Drew Gooden
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Derrick Caracter (out); Bucks: Andrew Bogut (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers may be coming off a big win but the question is if they know how to keep that momentum going. The key to the last game was a balanced Laker attack in which Pau Gasol’s aggressive play was the fulcrum. When Pau attacks off the dribble, finds a way to the post, and doesn’t settle for his jumper on two out of every three possessions, the Lakers are a better team. The rest of the team can play off of him because he’s still their best non-Kobe facilitator of offense which also means that Kobe can work off Gasol to get easier shots for himself.

Also key, though, is playing with energy. The Lakers had two days off before that Clipper game and have had another two days off before tonight’s contest (though they did travel yesterday). That rest (and subsequent practice time) led to fresher legs and more consistent, determined effort. It showed on defense and it showed in how they moved around the court on offense. It also seemed to help their outside shooting (especially Fisher’s) as they had more lift on their J’s which led to a better success rate. Throw in a little bench help and voila, a formula for winning games is spawned. Here’s hoping they can keep it going tonight.

The Bucks Coming in: The Bucks have won three of their last five games and sit right outside the playoffs in the East. After their run two years ago where “Fear the Deer” was a common phrase all over the internet but a disappointing follow up last season, this team was hoping to get back to their winning ways this campaign.

But so far, they’ve been very up and down. A shake up to their roster – they traded Corey Maggette for Stephen Jackson and John Salmons for Beno Udrih – has taken time to come together as Jackson (a noted malcontent when things don’t line up for him the way he’d like) at first complained about his contract and then a move to the bench. Injuries have also greatly affected the Bucks, first to their combo forward and defensive stopper Mbah a Moute and more recently – and more importantly – to Andrew Bogut.

The injury to Bogut is huge and for obvious reasons. First because he’s a fantastic defensive big man that plays the pick and roll well, protects the paint, and can control the defensive glass. And while his offense has been wanting since his horrid elbow injury two years ago, he’d been making strides this year, showing a willingness to attack more using that bad arm. Now though, with a fractured ankle and questionable return this season, the Bucks miss all that he brings to the table while also pushing players up their depth chart that are ill-fit to replace what Bogut provides.

Not all is awful for this team, though. Brandon Jennings has taken a big step forward from his first two seasons, improving his efficiency on offense by finishing better at the rim and consistently hitting his mid range jumper. Jackson, after the aforementioned issues, has found that a reserve role isn’t so bad – especially when he’s closing games out as a compliment to Jennings on the wing. Shaun Livingston has also, finally, found a role with a team as a secondary ball handler and playmaker that allows Jennings to work off the ball in some of their half court sets.

How this will all come together with Bogut out remains to be seen. They’re a fringe playoff team at best but do have a scrappy coach that will surely find ways to compensate on the defensive side of the ball. Whether they can score enough points – long a problem for this team – will likely decide if they see the second season or not.

Bucks Blogs: Buckstetball provides very good insight and analysis on this team. Check them out.

Keys to game: With Bogut out, the game plan couldn’t be simpler on offense – attack the interior. Drew Gooden (who did come into the season in very good shape) will likely get the nod in the pivot and will have to contend with Andrew Bynum. Gasol, meanwhile, will likely see a heavy dose of the Bucks’ best defender (Mbah a Moute) but the Spaniard still has an advantage with his height and length. L.A.’s bigs should get a heavy dose of the ball throughout the game to make the Bucks either double team or give up shots in the paint. If they do see the 2nd defender, the Lakers must take advantage by hitting some shots but they must also look to move the ball quickly and change sides of the floor so they can get the ball back into the paint via penetration or another post up on the weak side so they’re not so reliant on hitting jumpers to make the Bucks pay. To accomplish this though, the Lakers must get into their offensive sets quickly so that they have time to move the ball in and out of the post. It’s hard to work the ball around if a set isn’t initiated until there’s under 15 seconds on the shot clock.

Defensively, the Lakers must make their size advantage a strength and not a liability. The Bucks will run a variety of small ball lineups out on the floor and the Lakers must make that group attack the teeth of the defense and finish over their size. The outstretched arms of Pau and Bynum can make the Buck’s lives hard, but the Lakers’ perimeter D must force them into spots on the floor where the bigs can affect those shots. If the Lakers’ rotations are late or they don’t contest outside jumpers with the tenacity that’s needed, open jumpers will result and Jackson, Jennings, Ilyasova, Delfino, Dunleavy, and rookie Jon Leuer can hit those shots. So, the Lakers must close out hard, make these guys put the ball on the floor and funnel them to their help where shots can be better contested and altered. If the Lakers can then close down the lane on the weak side and rebound, they’ll be able to control this game on that side of the floor.

The individual match up that will need the most attention is Jennings against the Lakers’ PG’s. As mentioned earlier, the Compton native is having his best season as a pro by breaking his man down off the dribble and using the P&R to get into the lane to finish. He’s doing a lot of damage 15 feet and in so the Lakers must be quick to react to him and close down his space once he’s below the foul line. If the Lakers can keep him to his right hand and make him take long two pointers off the dribble, that’s their best bet for success but that will take a team effort and for Fisher/Goudelock/Morris to play smart and show discipline when Jennings gets into attack mode.

Ultimately, this is a game the Lakers should win. The Bucks are missing their best big man and also played last night in Chicago. Meanwhile the Lakers have been in Milwaukee since yesterday afternoon and haven’t played since Wednesday. L.A. should be rested and be looking to carry their momentum from the Clipper game over to this contest. That said, the Lakers have been horrid on the road and will need some role players to play well which is always a dicey proposition on the road. The Bucks have given the Lakers problems for the past several seasons and if the Lakers think that this will be a walk, they’ll be wrong. They must keep their energy high and play smart basketball. In a season like this, there are no nights off. Here’s hoping the Lakers understand that tonight.

Where you can watch: 5:30 start time on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.

Darius Soriano

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