The Lakers and Bucks may be the reigning No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, but neither had managed to earn a marquee victory so far this season. Both had the chance to do so in a heavyweight clash on national television, and it was the defending champion Lakers that came out on top, 113-106, giving them their second consecutive victory against Milwaukee dating back to last season.
And just like last season’s battle, LeBron James was the star of the show with 34 points, eight assists and six rebounds. He may have led the way, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did his share of the heavy lifting as well in hitting seven of 10 3-point attempts to boost the Lakers to the victory. The Bucks, meanwhile, came up flat from behind the arc just as they did Monday in Brooklyn, making only nine of their 28 3’s, and despite 67 points from their star trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, their role players just couldn’t pick up enough of the slack to carry the Bucks to victory.
The Lakers have now reclaimed the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed with a 12-4 record. The Bucks, now 9-6, fall to No. 3 in the East. With Brooklyn coming together and Boston and Philadelphia surging, Milwaukee will have to figure out these issues against top teams quickly if it wants to repeat atop the conference’s regular-season standings.
Old man LeBron is here at last
There isn’t exactly a blueprint for stopping LeBron, but at least defenses could cling to the fact that he largely hasn’t been an elite shooter. Duck under on screens, sag off-ball when a lesser player is trying to cook, the basic methodology has largely boiled down to “well, he might miss 3’s, but he won’t miss dunks.” Sadly for NBA defenses, he’s not missing 3’s anymore. Through 16 games, James is now 39.6 percent from behind the arc. Were it not for that last miss, he’d be at 40 percent on the season.
That is a marker he has hit just once in his career, during the 2012-13 season with the Miami Heat. He did it on 3.3 attempts per game. He’s doubling that this season at 6.6. James’ newfound emphasis on the long-ball isn’t exactly new. His volume has steadily risen over the years, and he’s quietly grown comfortable from longer distances as well. But it’s all coming together this season in a way that should terrify his opponents. Their last reasonable method of defending him is no longer viable, and if his shooting holds, he’ll be able to hold off Father Time a little while longer.
The entire Lakers roster is in on the fun
It would be one thing if LeBron was the only Laker on a hot streak. Defenses could then justify sagging off of everybody else. But the Laker role players have shot it just as well as LeBron has. The Lakers reached the 40 percent marker as a team on Thursday. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are both above 50 percent. Kyle Kuzma has hovered around 40 all season. Of the 14 players to take the floor for the Lakers this season, eight entered Thursday above last season’s 35.8 percent league average.
This might just be random variance. It might be a benefit of playing without fans. But if that’s the case, the rest of the league would theoretically decline by just as much when they return. Last year’s Lakers were one of the NBA’s worst shooting teams. Now they’re one of the best, and they’ve sacrificed nothing defensively or in terms of ball-handling to get there. The defending champions are even better than they were when they won it all.
Bad luck Bucks, or bad D Bud?
The Bucks have now played four relatively healthy contenders this season. They’ve lost to all of them, but there’s been one common denominator to those losses. Look at how their opponents have shot in those games from behind the arc.
Celtics: 18-of-40 (45 percent)
Jazz: 25-of-53 (47.2 percent)
Nets: 15-of-31 (48.4 percent)
Lakers: 19-of-37 (51.4 percent)
The question here is how much of that is random and how much of it is poor decision-making on Milwaukee’s part. The Bucks play the NBA’s most aggressive drop-scheme. It is designed to protect the paint at all costs. That cost, against good teams, is easy 3-pointers, but these numbers are extreme even under those circumstances. To some extent, this is just bad luck. No team should ever be expected to shoot as well as those four have over a sustained sample.
But the Bucks are being naive if they don’t acknowledge what they’re giving up by playing this way. The Heat exposed the system’s flaws in the playoffs last season. Every good team is doing so now. Milwaukee has tinkered with some adjustments. They’re switching more than ever, but still not nearly enough. If the Bucks plan to beat the Lakers or any of these teams when it counts, they need to be a bit more flexible defensively.
My kingdom for a George Hill
Milwaukee’s bench shot 7-of-19 in this game. They were 5-of-14 on Monday against the Nets. This is an extremely troubling trend for a team whose starters, historically speaking, have struggled to score in the playoffs. They’ve been better this season (leading the NBA in offensive efficiency entering this game, in fact), but the lack of any form of reliable bench scoring has become a major problem against good teams.
The Bucks made meaningful investments in reserves after the Bogdan Bogdanovic trade fell through. D.J. Augustin got $21 million over three years, but he’s made only one-third of his 2-pointers. Bobby Portis has come back down to Earth after a hot start. If this continues, the Bucks will become over-reliant on Giannis, Holiday and Middleton to score. If one of them has an off night, as Middleton did in shooting 6-of-15 against the Lakers, beating the best teams in the NBA becomes nearly impossible offensively.