The Lakers were able to hold off and then run away from a solid Bucks team, ultimately earning a convincing win 104-88. The win gave the Lakers their first back to back wins since their Christmas Day win over the Knicks and established a bit of momentum as they head into a Thursday game against the Heat.
Ultimately, this victory was the product of the Lakers two best players not only playing like it, but also proving to be the two best players on the floor. Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant both scored 31 points and did so very efficiently by only taking a combined 37 shots from the field. And with Dwight adding 16 rebounds and 4 blocks while Kobe chipped in 6 assists and a couple of boards of his own, the duo made an impact in ways that went beyond their ability score the ball.
Their impact was especially present on the defensive side of the ball.
Kobe again set the tone by guarding the opposing PG, helping to hold Brandon Jennings to 12 points on 14 shots by harassing him all over the floor. Kobe picked up Jennings full court on many possessions, denying him the ball entirely or at least making him use up precious seconds on the shot clock before initiating the Milwaukee offense. When the Bucks did get into their sets, Kobe hounded Jennings around picks and muscled him off the ball to make every catch difficult and every move contested. By the time Jennings got up a lot of his shots, Kobe was right there to challenge it or had moved him into a position where a make was less likely. Just a tremendous job by Bean all night.
And Dwight was just as good on the back end of the D. Besides a few goaltending calls where Dwight was just a hair late in swatting the ball away, his rim protection was nearly flawless. I already mentioned his 4 blocks, but it was the shots he changed and deterred that really made the difference. Guys simply never felt that comfortable trying to finish in the paint while Dwight was in the game. He stepped up early and made the Bucks think about whether they should shoot or pass and that split second of hesitation often caused a shot to go awry or it gave the Lakers’ wings time to recover to shooters around the arc.
Of course, not everything was clean and precise about the Lakers’ D in this one. With Dwight roaming to block shots, perimeter defenders scrambling to rotate to shooters, and Steve Nash strategically placed on a bigger man, the team’s work on the defensive glass was pretty bad (and that might be understating it). The Bucks grabbed 21 offensive rebounds in this game, and while some of them were simply the product of them missing a bunch of shots (they clanked 61 of their 95 field goals) and some bounces just going their way, many of the ORebs were due to them outworking the Lakers and beating them to spots while the defense was shifting around.
Overall, however, the Lakers’ offense was more than good enough to make up for their lapses on the glass and the occasional missed rotation. As mentioned, Dwight and Kobe were tremendous in setting the tone on offense, hitting the shots that were available to them at a tremendous rate. But one of the reasons that both could be so efficient was because the team as a whole moved the ball extraordinarily well, consistently hitting the open man with the quick extra pass. The Lakers totaled 30 assists on their 42 made baskets, but were even better than that early in the game when they tallied 21 dimes on 23 makes.
Steve Nash was in the middle of it all with his 11 assists, consistently probing the defense to draw defenders and then picking out the open man or simply making a quick read early in a possession and picking out the scoring threat with a pinpoint pass. Besides Nash, though, Earl Clark (4), Jamison (3), and Ron (3) also chipped in with heady plays, making the right read and the moving the ball onto a teammate who was in position to do something with it.
If there was a downside to this game it came late in the 1st period as Mike D’Antoni put in a lineup without any of the Lakers big 3. The Lakers had built up a solid lead to start the game, but once the all reserve unit came in the team struggled to score (only putting up 4 points over the last 3 minutes of the period) and saw that early cushion evaporate. That Bucks push (along with their relentlessness on the O-glass) kept them in the game the rest of the half and drew out the tension in this game. However, later in the game, D’Antoni didn’t take the same risks with his lineup and made sure that at least on of the Kobe/Dwight/Nash trio was on the floor the entire second half. And besides a sluggish end to the 3rd quarter, these units did the job and were able to keep the Bucks at bay before a run through the first part of the 4th quarter broke the game open.
Ultimately, this game was won the way the Lakers will need to win games from now through the end of the year. They picked up their defensive intensity and then shared the ball offensively. Dwight and Kobe set the tone early and carried that intensity and energy through the rest of the contest whenever they were on the floor. This game offers the blueprint moving forward. Surely they’ll still have their bad games and there will be mistakes along the way, but for the first time all year this game actually feels like the foundation the team can build on. There were some things to clean up for sure, but the effort and teamwork on both sides was there and with the talent this team has that will be enough on most nights.