The Lakers (8-12) face Milwaukee (15-5) on Friday in the first of their six-game Eastern Conference road trip. The game tips at 4:30 p.m. on Spectrum SportsNet, ESPN and 710 ESPN radio.
Below are three things to know ahead of the matchup:
LONG ROAD AHEAD
As the Lakers begin their longest road trip of the season, they will be away from Los Angeles 11 days and will ping-pong across the midwest to the east coast and back again, going from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. to Cleveland and then to Toronto, Philly, and back through Detroit.
Beyond the rigors of this trip, however, December begins a month of games mostly away from the friendly confines of home, with 12 of their 16 games taking place on the road, including a second long trip to the east coast to close out the calendar year. The Lakers are currently one of only three teams to play fewer than 10 games on the road at this stage of the season and the only team with fewer games than their eight is, ironically, the Bucks who have played seven away from home.
On the season the Lakers are 2-6 on the road. Their two wins is tied with four other teams (Warriors, Rockets, Pistons, Heat) for 2nd fewest in the NBA. The Mavericks and Magic both have a single win in 17 combined road games.
PUPIL VS. THE TEACHER
In a season of "firsts" for Darvin Ham as a head coach, one of the more meaningful of those moments will be when he stares down the sideline in this game and sees Mike Budenholzer on the opposing bench. Ham spent nine years as an assistant under Coach Bud, first in Atlanta and then in Milwaukee -- where he was the lead assistant on the 2021 championship team.
In the aftermath of Ham being hired by the Lakers, he spoke about how Budenholzer helped prepare him, and the other assistants on the staff with the Hawks, to grow in their positions and ultimately become head coaches in the NBA.
"Coach Bud heaped on a ton of responsibility. Doing scouting reports, presenting to the team, taking a lead role in player development with Millsap, Al Horford, Dennis Schroder … and that was the cool thing about Bud. Every coach had their main guys that they’d work out for pregame warmups, but non game days, we’d rotate players. So I could be working with Jeff Teague one day, or Kyle Korver or DeMarre Carroll. In a team like that, when you have a lot of very good players but no top-level, elite superstar, they were more compliant. Easy to coach. And they liked playing together. Learning how a team can really function together as a unit, they were so connected that I think we surprised the hell out of everyone in 2015-16 when we won 60 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. So, that time in Atlanta really helped me mature."
Ham is very open about the opportunities Coach Bud provided him, just as you can see the influence from him in Ham's own coaching style and the principles he uses schematically. So, tonight is surely one of those special nights that differs from the typical "one-of-82" approach that the marathon of the NBA season offers on a random December night.
ANYTHING YOU CAN DO...
Because of the closeness of these coaches and the fact that Ham spent so much time working with Budenholzer, that the Lakers and the Bucks do similar things on both sides of the ball should be no surprise. This begs the question -- which team can do those things better against the specifics of the team they're facing while taking into account the knowledge both sides have about countering and exploiting the weaknesses in those philosophies?
The schematic chess match and which adjustments can crack the other team's code, then, is the game within the game worth paying particular attention to.
Beyond details like which team can handle the other's drop-coverages the best or how one side tries to negate the other's transition offense attack or which team can get to their preferred spots on the floor to attack offensively, this is, ultimately, a game of individual matchups and, more specifically, a game of great players locking horns and trying to outdo one another.
Of those matchups, the ones that offer the most intrigue are in the front court. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James and Anthony Davis is a top of the marquee affair and worth the price of admission. In past years, Davis would be the one who draws the primary responsibility of matching up against Giannis on both ends, but with his move to center full-time and LeBron's shift to power forward for nearly all of his minutes, it remains to be seen if that holds true or if Davis spends most of his time dealing with Brook Lopez.
And then, in the back court, Jrue Holiday's two-way play vs. the Lakers guards promises to be hard-fought battle. Whether it is Russell Westbrook vs. Holiday in the middle portions of the game or Austin Reaves and Patrick Beverley doing their best to limit and neutralize him at the start of each half, who can control these terms of engagement for longer stretches will go a long way in setting the tone and tenor of the game.
Lastly, a wild card that could have a major impact in this game is the availability of injured perimeter players on both sides. On the Lakers side, Lonnie Walker IV and Troy Brown Jr. both missed Wednesday's win over the Blazers with foot issues, but Brown is ready to go while Walker is been upgraded to "probable" which is good news on both fronts. On Milwaukee's end, Khris Middleton has missed the entire season recovering from a wrist injury but could return to the lineup in this game. The possibility of both teams getting back such important players offers the potential for a boost on both ends and a shot of energy that only brings more anticipation to the game.