Bucks: Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Grayson Allen, Bobby Portis
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, Avery Bradley, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis
Bucks: Khris Middleton (probable); George Hill (probable); Brook Lopez (out); Donte DiVincenzo (out)
Lakers: Austin Reaves (out); LeBron James (technically “day-to-day”, but still out); Trevor Ariza (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
Writing these previews on a regular basis has brought with it a particular challenge: writing (essentially) the same thing two or three times a week without it seeming like that way. The extent to which (if at all) I’m succeeding in this is ultimately up to you. From a personal perspective, this recurring exercise is proving very valuable. The hamster wheel on which the Lakers (and, by extension, we) are running? That’s tougher to spin positively.
The Lakers have played twice since I last popped up here. Those outings have delivered the two types of performance of which this season (thus far) has been comprised: the closer-than-it-ought-to-have-been win against lesser competition, and the beatdown, complete with third quarter humiliation.
The Spurs game played out, by and large, as expected, with the Lakers leading just about the entire way (including the game’s last 38 minutes), going up by as many fourteen in the first half, leading by eleven after three, and ten with 5:25 left in the game, before ultimately winning by eight.
Of course, as this is the ’21-’22 Lakers, the Spurs needed barely two and a half minutes to cut that double-digit fourth quarter lead to two. A run of buckets from Talen Horton-Tucker, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook over the next minute put the game to bed, but not before it had left another tiny smudge on our collective psyche.
The following night, the Bulls rolled into Staples, their starting lineup stacked with SoCal natives (Zach Lavine, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball) and ex-Lakers (Lonzo and Alex Caruso), hung 33 in the first quarter, led by nine at halftime and slapped the Lakers with 37 in the third quarter, led by as many as 25, and cruised to an 18-point win.
The Spurs win, annoying as the last few minutes were, is a solid result against a young, well-coached (duh) and underrated group. That Keldon Johnson (24 points), Dejounte Murray (a second straight triple-double against the Lakers, with 22, 10 and 10) and Devin Vassell (19 points) did significant damage makes some sense, given the Lakers undermanned on the wings.
Offensively, though, AD (34, with 15 boards and 6 assists) dominated, while Russ and Carmelo were strong in support (29 combined, on 10-of-18, and 5-of-8 from 3), Wayne Ellington and Malik Monk were excellent off the bench (31, on 11-of-18, and 7-of-11 on 3s), and THT hit the ground running in his season debut, with 17 (on 7-of-14 shooting) and four boards in 27 minutes as a starter. There was a late scuffle, but there are positives to be taken.
The Bulls game affords far fewer such luxuries. Most notably, THT was, without qualification, excellent again, with 28 points (9-of-19; 4-of-9 from 3) and 6 rebounds in heavy (37), if not entirely competitive minutes. And Russ started phenomenally, hitting seven of his first eleven shots, and sitting on 14 points after 12 minutes on the floor. And the Lakers did win the various hustle categories: rebounds (43-36), offensive rebounds (8-4), steals (10-9) and blocks (5-2), while not being disastrously turnover-prone (17, vs. 16 for the Bulls).
Unfortunately, in his final 19 minutes of action, Russ hit just once in eight attempts (he was 0-for-6 on 3s for the night) and wound up with a “meh” 25. Until the latter stages of the second quarter, AD was basically anonymous, with just two points and two rebounds. He did find his stride individually, running his tally to 20 by the late third quarter – but was tossed for his second technical foul with 2:20 left and the Lakers down 21. It’s all downhill from there, as the Lakers shot an awful 6-of-32 on 3s, and their #4-10 scorers combined to shoot 13-of-32 (2-for-17 from 3).
At the other end, the Lakers were positively eviscerated – yup, on the wings – as the Bulls’ top three combed for ninety-one points – DeRozan had 38 and 6 assists, Lavine had 26, 5 and 5, and Lonzo (probably quite satisfyingly) hit 10-of-13 (7-of-10 3-pointers) for 27, to go along with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and a pair of steals.
I suppose there are injury- and continuity-based excuses to be made. And, to a point, they’re reasonably valid. A problem with taking this route is that the issues predate LeBron’s absence, and stem more from effort and intensity, especially against teams with young, top-end offensive weapons.
Another, equally large problem is that, even if we masterfully excuse every last one of the Lakers’ sins, this start represents nothing more than a golden opportunity squandered. This opening month was the season’s cake walk. 15 games, 12 at home, 5 against good-or-better opposition, and a single back-to-back. That was the good bit.
The Lakers now kick off their first true road trip of the season, in Milwaukee, in a matchup between the NBA’s last two champions. Like the Lakers, the reigning champion Bucks have had a tough, injury-riddled start to the season. Going into Wednesday night’s game, the shockingly 6-8 Bucks have gotten a combined one game from Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo, just six games from All-Star Kris Middleton, eight from Jrue Holiday and nine from Bobby Portis. They’ve lost seven of their last ten, including their last two in Boston (in overtime) and Atlanta (a blowout loss).
They are, of course, still led by two-time MVP and NBA Finals god Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s putting up characteristically outstanding numbers (26.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6 assists per game), but doing so on just 49% shooting, as opposed to the mid-to-high-50s marks of recent seasons.
Giannis’ mini-slump and those injuries have the Bucks playing to the level of their lackluster record. Unsurprisingly, the Lakers, too, are proving the standing fairly accurate.
Entering play tonight, the Bucks rank mid-pack leaguewide in offensive efficiency (they’re 17th; 107.9 points/100 possessions), while the Lakers ranks 24th (105.2). The opposite is true on D, where the Bucks rank in the NBA’s bottom third (21st; allowing 109.8/100), while the Lakers sit a perfectly average 14th (107.7). Put it all together, and you’ve got the NBA’s 21st (Bucks, -1.9) and 22nd (-2.5) best teams by net rating.
Both teams are creeping back to full health, though it’s worth noting that the Bucks are farther down that particular road that are the Lakers, with Holiday and Portis having already returned, and Middleton slated to be back in the lineup tonight. The Lakers, meanwhile, are still without Trevor Ariza, Austin Reaves, Kendrick Nunn and LeBron James, though some optimistic reports have the King possibly returning to the lineup Friday night in Boston.
The fact is that these two teams, though confident that brighter days lay ahead, are both reeling and well off their respective bests. These are the circumstances under which a team’s superstars MUST step up. Anthony Davis needs to at least offset Giannis. Russ must equal Jrue. And Carmelo or THT must provide as much as Grayson Allen and a potentially rusty Middleton. Manage that, and it’s a battle of supporting casts. I don’t know that I love the remainder of the Laker crew against Portis, George Hill, Pat Connaughton and Rodney Hood, but that at least feels like a fair fight.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and ESPN.