I’m having a hard time remembering the last time I was as frustrated about a Lakers game as I was during and after Monday’s loss to the Warriors. I can understand not playing well,1That happens with every team, after all. Some nights you just don’t have it. but I cannot understand playing with the type of arrogance and utter disregard of an opponent that the Lakers showed in the process of blowing a nearly 20 point lead in losing to Golden State. With the Bucks first up on a long road eastern road trip, the Lakers would be wise to remember that they’re still in the mode of building good habits and understand that the approach they showed on Monday isn’t one of them.
Just to clarify, I’m not overly concerned with what transpired on Monday. I think the Lakers will be fine and aren’t the type of team to perpetually show that specific type of disrespect to their opponents in a way that would trigger the type of loss they suffered Monday repeatedly. I think their leadership is strong, from the coaches on through Bron and AD, to set the right tone. I particularly think that vs. a team like the Bucks — a contender who should be seen as a real threat — the right mindset will be there. But, I do think there needs to be an acknowledgement that the approach they took vs. the Warriors was fundamentally wrong.
With that out of my system, tonight’s game vs. the Bucks is a real test for the Lakers. They have the reigning MVP, added Jrue Holiday in the offseason, and Khris Middleton has been absolutely phenomenal this year. Add in Brook Lopez and some solid (though, in some cases, defensively challenged) guard depth and this team is sure to be a top regular season team again this year. The Lakers will have their hands full simply trying to defend Giannis, but Middleton playing to the level he is and Holiday a better version of the already good Bledsoe he replaced, there’s a layered and multifaceted challenge to conquer.
This all starts with Giannis, in both similar and differing ways than the past. He remains a monster in transition, so getting back and building a wall to cut off driving lanes is most important. He continues to work from the post, effectively, both in turn and face situations and with a developing back-down game that leads to jump hooks. Ensuring the proper help is there and ready to disrupt these attacks is key. You still feel comfortable letting him shoot long jumpers, even if they fall. You can’t, after all, take away everything.
But, one thing that Giannis is doing more of this season is operating as a screener in the P&R with the Bucks ball handlers. The volume of him setting these on ball picks is way up from season’s past and finding ways to effectively contain both the man with the ball and Giannis in his roll can create problems — particularly when it’s Middleton, Jrue, Bryn Forbes, or DJ Augustin who is the partner. Those four can all hit the pull up jumper effectively, so the Lakers must ensure their bigs are not dropping too far in this action. Dropping or bailing early in order to catch back up with Giannis is going to be the first instinct, so they just need to be aware and trust the help behind them to do their jobs.
Considering Vogel has mentioned this is an area the Lakers need to improve in as part of their overall rim protection defense makes this point even more important. The Lakers need to be sharper here in general and the Bucks are going to test them repeatedly to see if cracks exist.
Another challenge when gearing up to protect the paint will be the shooting big men the Bucks deploy. We know Lopez will camp behind the arc in order to space for Giannis and crew. But new addition Bobby Portis will do the same. There will also be the 5-out lineups with Giannis at C that need to be countered and schemed for. Marc Gasol will be put in situations where he’ll need to defend more space than he’s accustomed to, particularly when put into rotation. How effective he is at doing so will determin the overall success rate of the team’s defense, both because of how vital he is in their best performing units, but also because the team’s rim protection will suffer when either Trez or Keef sub for him.
On the other side of the ball it’s important to note that the Bucks are not the same defensive monster they were last season. Having Holiday helps, but swapping DiVincenzo in with Wes Mattews now a Laker, George Hill replaced by Forbes and Augustin, and Portis playing a prominent role mean a weaker defense overall. The Lakers will have more advantages in specific matchups, particularly as the bench units face off against each other.
Today, then, my hope is to see a bounce back game from the bench units that struggled so much against the Warriors. Yes, I get that LeBron was a key driver of those low energy units and if he’s better today then it can cure a lot of those ills, but beyond him I’d like to see consistent paint attacking from Caruso, Kuz, and Dennis rather than settling for jumpshots. I’d like to see these goups push the pace, and really force Augustin and Forbes to defend at the point of attack and get into rotation on the back side.
I also hope to see Anthony Davis get going tonight. AD has scored under 20 points in 4 straight games and while those first couple of games were blowouts where he didn’t take many FG’s, in his last 2 contests he’s shot a combined 11 for 32. AD is sure to see a lot of minutes with either Giannis or Lopez defending him, which won’t make breaking out very easy. But he’s talented enough to score well against anyone in the league and I’d love to see him get back on track.
It’s too early in the season for any single game — even against a top flight opponent — to mean too much. Last year’s group didn’t break through against either the Clippers or the Bucks until losing to both in their first games vs. them. And we all saw how last season ended. So, I’m not looking at this game as some sort of measuring stick game or anything. That said, coming off the performance the Lakers had on Monday, I’d love to see a spirited game from them vs. the Bucks tonight. Win or lose, just compete hard and let the chips fall.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.