Records: Lakers 16-21 (11th in the West), Bucks 19-17 (8th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.3 (6th in the NBA), Bucks 99.6 (25th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.7 (20th in the NBA), Bucks 100.4 (7th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Bucks: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Steve Blake (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Bucks: none
The Lakers Coming in: After the Lakers got their win against the Cavs, one of the key buzzwords coming out of their locker room was defense. Kobe’s on-ball pressure of Kyrie Irving was highlighted as especially meaningful and moving forward the team will look to Kobe for more leadership via tougher defensive assignments on that side of the ball. This is something I’ve advocated for as well, with the implication that for the Lakers to be their best on that side, Kobe must play better defensively than he has so far this season.
But individual defense can only go so far. Dwight Howard has tremendous individual defensive numbers this season. Kobe and Ron are still also above average when asked to pay full attention to the man with the ball. Darius Morris has flashed good defensive ability this season too while Gasol has been very good in defending post ups and in contesting jumpers when he recovers to his man. But team defense isn’t just the product of a bunch of individuals guarding the ball when it’s their turn to. It’s about helping and recovering, shading and anticipating, thwarting a drive and then rotating back to another position. Team defense is a choreography of movement where the individual becomes part of the whole.
The Lakers haven’t performed well in these areas and must be better as a team. Kobe’s leadership can help in this area. If he raises his game and is more attentive, others will follow. But know that it will take everyone moving in lockstep. It’s the only way it’s going to change.
The Bucks Coming in: Four games ago, the Bucks and Scott Skiles decided to mutually part ways. At the time, the Bucks were 16-16 and, in what’s typical for a Skiles team, were a scrappy bunch defensively. Since then, the Bucks have won 3 of 4 contests under interim coach Jim Boylan. The philosophy of the team hasn’t changed much with Boylan in charge, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been changes.
Mostly, what’s been shifted has been who the minutes go to; who starts and who doesn’t. Irsan Ilyasova has been moved to the starting lineup in order to get more offense and versatility into the game. With him, Monta Ellis, and Brandon Jennings starting the last 4 games, the team has scored 104 points or more 3 times, a feat they’d only accomplished 8 times previously this season.
All in all, the Bucks will remain a defense first team. But with Jennings playing better lately and Ellis able to put up big numbers on any given night, they may be able to piece together enough offense to stay in the playoff hunt. Their recent play says they have a good shot.
Keys to game: The Bucks have the type of roster that can really bother the Lakers on several levels.
First, the Bucks possess two quick, attack style guards and a small forward who has size and skill to play an all court game. This means that there is player to hide Nash on defensively and he will either be chasing Jennings to start possessions, guarding Monta in isolation on the wing or in the post (Ellis is one of the better post up guards in the league), or he’ll have to deal with Ilyasova all over the floor while keeping him off the backboards.
None of these options are desirable, so it will be interesting to see which direction D’Antoni goes in. Having Nash on Jennings seems like the best option, but as stated earlier Jennings has been playing well of late and attempting to get Kobe to slow him is also a good strategy. In any event, Nash will have his hands full on D and his mates will need to be there to help him and then recover back to their own man.
Second, the Bucks have the type of active big men who can wall off the paint defensively and really bother the Lakers when they do attempt shots inside. Larry Sanders leads the league in blocked shots and does an excellent job of defending the rim in one on one and help situations. Mbah a Moute is one of the more versatile defenders in the game, offering length and quickness that allows him to cover from the three point line to the rim with equal effectiveness. With Epke Udoh, Samuel Dalembert, and John Henson on their bench, the Bucks big man depth can make a real difference on both ends of the floor with their activity.
The Lakers, then, need to play smart and make the most of their opportunities when they get them inside. Dwight should still be featured inside, but it would be good to get him the ball on the move so he can finish going towards the hoop rather than having to create his own shot against a collapsing defense. P&R’s with lobs and pocket bounce passes can be effective, but would also be more effective in early offense against a D that isn’t set or after the ball has moved from side to side to catch the defense in the middle of their rotations.
Furthermore, tonight is a night where made three pointers would really aid the Lakers’ cause. The Bucks are one of the better teams defending the three point shot (opponents only shoot 33%, good for 5th in the league), so the Lakers ability to hit shots in the face of their defense would not only generate points, but hopefully create more spacing against a team that typically does a good job at covering a lot of ground defensively.
One offensive option that could also be explored is the man that Monta Ellis guards. I’d be surprised if one of Ilyasova or Mbah a Moute wasn’t guarding Kobe with the other taking Earl Clark. That leaves Ellis to likely guard Ron and that’s a matchup the Lakers can take advantage of with quick post ups and duck ins on the weak side after the ball is swung. Ron could also go hard to the offensive glass and keep Monta close to the defensive paint rather than running out and hurting the Lakers in transition.
In the end, this is a game the Lakers need to win and must dial in their focus to tonight (and not look forward to Thursday’s game against the Heat). A win tonight gives them the chance to build some momentum and get a win against a solid team. Confidence is needed as much as victories with both only feeding each other as the season goes on.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.