Monday night’s loss to the Golden State Warriors felt like the first time all season that confidence towards the Los Angeles Lakers dwindled. Yet another home loss to inferior competition – while blowing another lead heading into the fourth quarter after not doing so all of last season – had fans questioning whether this iteration of the Lakers was destined for the same success as last year’s.
At least momentarily, the Lakers shut down those rumors on Thursday night, securing a convincing, albeit close, win against the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the presumptive favorites in the Eastern Conference.
The Lakers’ did not play their best game on Thursday. They struggled early to contain penetration and to meet the Bucks at the rim, ultimately giving up 58 points in the paint. Anthony Davis had a mediocre night. And the Lakers had to use some hot shooting to get past Milwaukee. Still, the Lakers showed their strengths, the traits that could ultimately get them a repeat of an NBA championship.
It started on the defensive end where the Lakers held the previously top-ranked offense in the NBA to just 106 points. They were aided by the Bucks’ poor shooting from range (9/28) but they also were able to stymy the two-time reigning NBA MVP. Giannis Antetokounmpo was able to get his (25 points on 11/17 shooting from the field), but the superstar forward struggled to draw fouls – his bread and butter – and was repeatedly frustrated by the Lakers’ ability to draw charges and explode into passing lanes. Antetokounmpo finished the night with nine turnovers to just three assists and was in foul trouble for portions of the night.
Offensively, the Lakers relied on old faithful. LeBron James bounced back in a major way after a poor showing in the loss to the Warriors, once again reminding everyone who holds the crown in the NBA. James finished the night with 34 points, six rebounds, and eight assists, making six 3-pointers in the process almost as a dig at his counterpart who was left open to shoot on many occasions. James’ repeated jabs and daggers felt like a supernatural form of psychological warfare, demoralizing opponents taking repeated blows from a 36-year-old right down to his exclamation point slam in the closing seconds.
James wasn’t alone, of course. The Lakers had four players score in double-digits; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope poured in seven of his 10 3-point attempts. Alex Caruso was a pest in a passing lanes and added yet another corner three to his expanding list (the Lakers have two of the three best-shooting players in the league between KCP and Caruso). Kyle Kuzma played solid defense throughout the night; Montrezl Harrell brought the energy and cleaned up the glass.
Most importantly was the Lakers’ mentality throughout the night. While not totally focused at all points, no one could accuse the Lakers of sleepwalking through this one. From LeBron’s minutes (most minutes played in a game this season) to the intensity of matching every Bucks’ blow with one of their own, it was clear the Lakers had no interest in losing this game. And it’s even more clear than when they go into a game feeling that way, they are damn hard to beat.
This doesn’t mean the Lakers are magically fixed now. Their rim protection is an issue, Davis has not hit the highs he did last year, certain lineups have not performed well, and they have a tendency to let their feet off the gas. But the Lakers get judged by their performances against top teams and the Bucks are just that. An impressive regular season win may not mean much in the grand scheme of things but it should ease the minds of anyone doubting the Lakers’ chances of a repeat.