Records: Lakers 37-35 (8th in the West), Bucks 34-36 (8th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (8th in the NBA), Bucks 100.8 (21st in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (18th in the NBA), Bucks 102.3 (12th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Bucks: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Marquise Daniels, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders
Injuries: Lakers: Metta World Peace (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Bucks: none
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers were able to snap their three game losing skid with a win over the Wolves last night, but that win doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence considering how that game evolved. The Lakers did look better on offense, finding ways to incorporate Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol for most of the game while still showing balance with their perimeter attack. These are positive strides and shouldn’t be dismissed even if the Wolves aren’t the most stout defensive team.
However, the Lakers’ defense continued to struggle especially in the 2nd half where the Wolves put up 71 points. A lot of that was related to the sloppiness of the Lakers’ offense and subsequent fast break chances, but there were also more than a few breakdowns in the half court that need to be looked at. Gasol still looks a step slow in going after rebounds and was hesitant to leave the paint in closing out on Dante Cunningham’s mid-range jumpers. Giving up both of those gave the Wolves too many second chance opportunities and some clean looks that they hit at a respectable rate. Gasol will need to improve, but so will the guards chasing around screens and in the P&R as well as the other bigs stepping up to contain dribble penetration to help ensure that plays are bottlenecked early rather than allowing them to fully develop.
The Bucks Coming in: The Bucks have lost 4 straight games and have not been able to take advantage of the Celtics’ poor play in the race to avoid the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs out East. Their most recent loss was last night against the 76ers, a game that saw Brandon Jennings benched for the entire 4th quarter while his team struggled and only scored 14 points to Philly’s 24. That 10 point difference sure does seem important when the Bucks only lost by 2, but I digress.
After the game Jennings was not happy and one has to wonder if that carries over to tonight or beyond. One of the reasons the Bucks are even in the playoff hunt (besides the East being a wasteland at the bottom of the standings) is on the strength of Jennings’ (and Monta Ellis’) recent play where he’d shot better and really distributed the ball well. The Bucks are already a solid defensive team but with improved offensive execution from their backcourt (and not just Jennings and Ellis, but J.J. Redick too) has helped them establish themselves firmly in the conference’s top 8.
But their recent play has fallen off and that will lead to frustration from everyone, including the head coach (who may end up benching a key player who’s playing poorly) and the players (who may lash out for seeing their minutes cut). For their sake, they need to turn this around and see if they can make one last push over their final 12 games to try and catch Boston. That seems unlikely, but being served up as a sacrificial lamb to the Heat in round one should be motivation enough to try.
Keys to game: The last time these teams met, there were two pretty big keys to the Lakers winning. First was that Kobe guarded Brandon Jennings all game, pressuring him full court and pretty much disrupting the Bucks’ offense whenever they shared the floor. Second was Dwight Howard having a pretty strong game by dominating the paint, scoring 31 points on 14-18 shooting and grabbing 16 rebounds.
Considering Kobe won’t be guarding Jennings tonight (now that he’s playing SF and Meeks is a starter, Kobe will have to guard a different player) it may be hard to duplicate the first part of that equation. But the second part — the Dwight dominating inside part — is very much possible again and should be a major part of the game plan.
For as great a defensive player as Larry Sanders is — and his excellent, not only at blocking shots but deterring them in the paint entirely — he lacks the bulk to bang with Dwight inside and can be exploited with power moves. Dwight will need his touches tonight, not only to try and get easy buckets, but to also establish the paint in a manner that forces the Bucks’ defense into hard decisions. If Sanders gets in foul trouble or if the Bucks decide they have to send help to Howard, it will open up the outside shooting that can turn a close game into one that’s clearly in the Lakers’ favor. So, go to Dwight early and often and see what they can get from it.
Besides pounding the ball into Dwight, the Lakers must do the same for Gasol against the Bucks’ power forwards. if Ilyasova starts at that spot, Pau will have a distinct size advantage and should be able to get shots inside just as he did against the Wolves last night. Pau will need to be assertive, however. He must fight for position in the post more often and must turn down his mid-range jumper in favor of putting the ball on the ground and using his dribble to get into post position. Once the post is established, he can initiate a move or kick the ball out to re-post and then go back to work. Either scenario is fine, but he and the wings must make a concerted effort to make it happen.
Kobe should also be able to create against some of the wing defenders he’ll see tonight. Whether he’s guarded by one of the smaller back court players (Ellis) or any of the Bucks’ SF options (Daniels or Dunleavy), Kobe can go to work both in the post or from the wing in isolation or in the P&R to get himself shots 15 feet and in. Kobe mustn’t settle for the long jumper too often in this one and instead force the defense to help (especially Sanders) which should lead to good shots or opportunities for the bigs to get involved through passes or on the offensive glass.
Defensively, the Lakers primary concern should be the perimeter game the Bucks bring to the table. Nearly every one of their best players — Jennings, Ellis, Ilyasova, Dunleavy — are threats from the wing and that will mean the Lakers defense will need to be sharp all over the floor and beyond the arc. Jennings and Ellis are especially dangerous in the P&R with both having the ability to step back and hit the long jumper or turn the corner and attack the paint. Ellis has been especially good at slashing to the rim lately so the back line defense will need to be prepared for him to dart into the paint and finish at the basket.
Ilyasova offers an interesting match up in this game as well. Much like Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham last night, the Turkish forward has good range on his jumper and will look to draw Pau away from the rim and defend his jumper. If Pau doesn’t get out on the floor, he will yield jumpers to a capable shooter. So, the Spaniard will need to leave his safe zone in the paint and venture out to the wing and trust his help behind him by closing out hard and contesting shots when they go up. Pau is still not back to 100% in terms of mobility, but this is the only way to defend this team when they spread you out.
The Lakers haven’t won both ends of a back to back all season and tonight will be a tough game to do so. The Bucks are a scrappy team and typically play hard all night. That said, they’re only 18-17 at home and, like the Lakers, played a road game last night. And while Jennings should be fresh from not playing in the 4th quarter, the rest of the guys fought through the final buzzer trying to get that W. Fatigue should be an equal issue for both sides and a lot of this game will come down to the ability to stay disciplined mentally while playing to their own collective strengths. If the Lakers attack inside out, share the ball, and help each other on defense they have a very good chance in this game. If they don’t, they’ll likely play a close game with the home team having the advantage down the stretch.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.