Clash of the Titans – Lakers hold off League Best Bucks in Staples Center Duel

Friday night saw the best in the West take down the best in the East and you can’t say you didn’t get your money’s worth. The teams with the two best records, the Lakers and the Bucks, and also the two top MVP candidates in LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, clashed in Staple Center. The Lakers were looking to avenge a loss earlier in the season and prove that they could beat the Bucks in a theoretical Finals matchup. The Bucks meanwhile are on a historic tear, some even suggesting they might become just the third team ever to have a 70 win season. But in order to keep on pace, the Greek Freak would have to dethrone the King – and for one night at least, LeBron showed no sign of passing the torch.

If you saw the Raptors play the Bucks last week, this game began very similarly. The Lakers know they have to win by hitting from deep, but instead of probing the Bucks and seeing if they could get inside early, they settled for outside shots every time down the court. Los Angeles opened up with a pair of missed 3’s, including Davis from deep, where he has struggled this year. It’s an unusual struggle given his excellent form and high skill level, he went 0/4 from 3 for the game.

As Jeff Van Gundy noted, if Giannis hits three’s you lose, it’s as simple as that. An NBA team defense can’t take away everything, cheating off Giannis a couple of steps gives defenders crucial time to stymy the Greek Freak’s charges into the paint, if he ever gets to shoot so well as to need serious attention outside – there simply isn’t a good choice to be made when guarding him. Knowing this Giannis has studiously attempted to improve from outside, with mixed results.

Luckily for the Lakers, he went 1/6 on the night, a trade they’ll gladly make in a potential Finals series.

Van Gundy also noted that the Bucks allow a lot of three’s, which they do, by design. While the rise of 3 point shooting has changed the geography of an NBA court, the Buckschoose to allow above the break 3’s from certain opponents. Layups, dunks, and free throws remain the most efficient points in basketball – even though analytics is often portrayed as only valuing 3’s but one of the greatest values of shooting 3’s is that it creates court spacing that makes scoring layups easier. By sacrificing some open 3’s, the Bucks can shutout opponents at the rim, and it’s been a very successful tradeoff for them.

To begin the game Giannis penetrates and draws attention as he always does, but Bledsoe passed up an open 3. The Lakers were fouling Giannis over and over as he attacked, and the Bucks were relentless getting to the basket.

Anthony Davis quickly picked up a second foul against Giannis, but he stayed in the game, an admirable gamble – most coaches are too prone to pulling players with early foul trouble. Often players sit longer in total time than they would have if they had simply played normally until fouling out. In a matchup like this, it’s a necessary risk – the Lakers will not beat the Bucks if Davis plays 25 minutes. If he fouls out, you lose, but if he sits, you lose anyway – most coaches take themselves out of it without giving their player a chance to not foul out. And particularly with players that aren’t prone to fouling out like Davis, it’s a good trade-off. 

But later Davis committed his 3rd foul on an illegal screen, and Vogel didn’t have the stomach to stick with his gambit. Down 9, he took AD out, he only played 10 minutes in the first half and added a mere 5 points. 

The Bucks players outside of Giannis were shooting erratically, they seem to get tight in big games.  Middleton shot a brick off the backboard and started 2-8 from the field. You would never know he was in the 50/40/90 club.

It wasn’t just a matter of good defense, teams were missing makeable shots. Now some of that you can credit the two defenses for not allowing any flow or rhythm, and you’d have a point, but neither team was executing on offense at a high level to start. After the first half, the two teams had combined for 25 3 point attempts and only 3 makes.

Mark Jackson said during the first quarter that Brook Lopez was the worst defender among the Bucks starting lineup. For what it’s worth, Brook is number 2 league-wide in defensive PIPM – and is widely considered among the best rim protectors in the NBA. It’s an ignorant statement and not one that can be defended as a mere difference in opinion, while Lopez made his money as an all offense All-Star during his Net’s years, he hasn’t been that player in years.

It was 22 – 19 Bucks after one, very low scoring quarter. As Mike Breen noted, it is only the second time this season that Lakers finished with fewer than 20 points in the first quarter – the only other instance had been the previous game against the Bucks.

But in the second quarter Lopez starts reversing the shooting trend, he as he added his second and third triples of the night. That’s a big deal because he’s shot below average this year and his spacing opened up the Bucks offense last year. If it stays dipped, opposing teams might decide to leave him open behind the arc. If he and Giannis are both missing from deep in a game, the space around the basket could get awfully crowded for the other Bucks players. 

The Lakers managed to win the minutes where Lebron, AD, and Giannis were on the bench. And entering halftime it was all tied up at 48 apiece.

When the third quarter started, Vogel shifted defensive assignments so LeBron was guarding Giannis, to keep AD from fouling out. This led to moments of heightened excitement as the two squared up one on one, leading to roaring cheers from Staples Center as the wily LeBron outmaneuvered Giannis.

LeBron’s movements are brush strokes, an elegant calligraphy, while Giannis plays like young LeBron in many respects. Giannis is a dropping hammer to anvil.

The 3rd quarter was an avalanche for the Lakers. The Bucks committed countless turnovers and LA hit shot after shot. The Lakers went on a run totaling 18 straight points. Milwaukee did themselves no favours by fouling early and often. They were in the penalty less than 4 minutes into the quarter. By games end the free throw disparity was 38-23 in favour of LA, clearly showing

Dante Divenchenzo was one of the few Bucks roleplayers to be a positive difference-maker. If not for his solid play in the 3rd, it would have been a verifiable rout for the Lakers. He had 12 of his 17 points in the quarter.

Giannis looked gassed early in the 4th. It’s not something you see often. Giannis only averages around 30 minutes a game because the Bucks typically annihilate the competition, and it could be he’s simply not used to this level of and length of exertion. It didn’t help that most of his teammates were having off nights offensively and he had to carry an even larger than usual load.

All that said, the Bucks chipped away with LeBron on the bench and after Giannis hit is 9th and 10th free throws the game was within 4 points. They might have cut it to one, if not for an impressive block by a trailing AD on Middleton in transition. Davis redeemed an otherwise pedestrian game with a killer 4th quarter full of timely shot-making.  LeBron had another masterful performance, and though Giannis is the rising star of the next era of the NBA, tonight at least, the student could not surpass the master. LeBron’s line was 37-8-8, and the Lakers downed the Bucks 113-110.

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