Giannis guarding LeBron

Lakers at Bucks: Three Things to Know (1/21/21)

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

The Lakers (11-4) begin a 7-game road trip at Milwaukee (9-5) in the first matchup between last season’s respective regular season conference leaders, at 4:30 p.m. on Spectrum SportsNet.

Below are three things to know about the matchup:

MVP/DPOY SHOWDOWN
Last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo took home both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis finishing second despite both having a very strong case for a win. To the degree to which they cared about the individual honor, LeBron and AD did have the opportunity to comfort themselves with an NBA championship, plus a Finals MVP award for LeBron.

The wins for Giannis – who was terrific, of course – seemed to come down, for many, to his advantage in net rating. And Milwaukee’s edge over the Lakers in that category (10.7 to 7.1 before the Bubble) was in part due to the Bucks playing in the weaker East, and their having a bevy of 20+ point wins over the likes of New York, Chicago, Charlotte and Detroit.

So far this season, LeBron sits atop many too-early MVP rankings for his role in leading the Lakers to the NBA’s best record.

Heading into Thursday’s matchup, the Lakers have a slight net rating lead despite letting Golden State erase their double-digit fourth quarter lead, at 10.0 to 9.6. We’ll see how relevant the net rating “battle” is this season.

PAINT BATTLE
The fundamentals of the defenses of both Frank Vogel and Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer have long been geared towards taking away the rim. This season, the Bucks rank fourth, allowing 42.6 per game, but the Lakers rank just 23rd at 47.9. For comparison’s sake, last year, LAL allowed 44.6 to rank 7th, and MIL 37.8, No. 1 by far. The Lakers more than make up that difference by allowing only 34.4 points per game from 3-pointers, to Milwaukee’s 40.9, which has them ranked 4th and 24th.

Vogel said after Wednesday’s practice that he challenged L.A.’s last line defenders to be better at the rim, where he’s seen a trend over the last four games that needs to get better. Of course, the Lakers are still No. 1 overall in defensive efficiency, but it’s something to think about.

And while the Lakers typically have either Marc Gasol or AD as that backline defender around the rim, and wings like LeBron or Kyle Kuzma sweeping in from the perimeter, the Bucks have Brook Lopez and Giannis on the back line, with Khris Middleton or newcomer Jrue Holiday pinching in from outside.

The Bucks are making 20.1 field goals in the paint since Jan. 4, after going for 15.5 before that, to rank 4th in the NBA. And of course, Antetokounmpo is the leader there, scoring 13.4 points per game in the restricted area, second only to Zion Williamson (15.6).

FASTBREAK RACE
Another commonality between these two teams is their elite collective ability to score in transition, boosted by stops and great athletes.

Last season, the Lakers were 2nd (17.6 per game) and Milwaukee 4th (17.0) in fastbreak points; this season, LAL are 8th (14.7) and MIL 4th (16.1). L.A.’s number took a hit in their loss to Golden State, when they somehow amassed only four fastbreak points. How did it happen? They got away from their typical style, and while nursing a 10-plus point lead for much of the game, they weren’t getting out to run. So, it’s not that they’ve lost anything in that sense in terms of capability, they’ve just dominated games in other ways against some weaker opponents of late, winning their previous four by no less than 17 points.

The Bucks have a good transition defense, ranking 2nd in fastbreak points allowed with 9.1, while L.A. are 9th in that category (12.2). LeBron and Giannis are clearly the centerpieces of this category, both devastating when running at a retreating defense in space. The other key for the Lakers is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who after missing nine days with an ankle sprain, returned against Houston and helped the Lakers to 32 fastbreak points in a 120-102 win. He prides himself on sprinting corner to corner, and his teammates typically take advantage of the space he opens up.

The FB points battle could be decisive on Thursday, as it’s a pretty good indicator that LAL and MIL have played their preferred style.

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