Over the last two years, a clash between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks would be widely tipped as a possible NBA Finals matchup.
While the two teams might still end up battling it out for the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2021-22, they will lock horns in dramatically different circumstances on Wednesday — occupying positions in or around the bottom half of their respective conferences.
Just as the Lakers, the Bucks can’t quite escape the miasma of their slow and underwhelming start to the current campaign. Milwaukee ranks 11th in the Eastern Conference with a 6-8 record, interspersing wins with two- or three-game losing streaks.
The NBA champions struggle in the paint even though Giannis Antetokounmpo averages MVP-caliber numbers — 26.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game — in yet another season. The Bucks are the eight-worst rebounding team in the NBA and score the third-fewest points in the protected area.
Brook Lopez’s injury could be partly to blame. The 33-year-old center has not played since the Opening Night game against the Brooklyn Nets due to a back injury.
The Wednesday clash might still come too soon for his comeback. Milwaukee will also face the Lakers without Donte DiVincenzo, who has not yet made his season debut due to a foot injury.
However, Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks’ starting lineup after an eight-game pause caused by the NBA’s health and safety protocols. George Hill is expected to play after a back issue forced him to take a night off on Sunday.
L.A. will still play without LeBron James, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn and Austin Reaves.
But even without them, the Lakers have the personnel that can profoundly capitalize on the Bucks’ weaknesses. L.A. ranks third in blocks per game, ninth in rebounds, and in the middle of the pack in points in the paint — in big part thanks to Anthony Davis.
The 28-year-all forward features in the top-4 among both players blocking the most shots and scoring the most points in the protected area this year.
Russell Westbrook’s performance will play a major factor in the outcome of the clash, too.
The 32-year-old guard has the skillset to help Davis cause a great deal of damage in the Bucks’ paint. If he keeps attacking the basket, L.A. will come way closer to collecting a road win.
Coming up against Jrue Holiday, Westbrook will also need to make sure he keeps his composure and protects the ball. Holiday will pounce on every opportunity to punish the 2017 NBA MVP if sloppiness creeps into his game again.
Finally, the Lakers should watch out for Bucks shooters. The Chicago Bulls flooded L.A. with 3s to notch a commanding victory at Staples Center on Monday. Meanwhile, Milwaukee creates plenty of open looks behind the 3-point line this season and boasts the 10th-best field goal percentage from downtown (35.5%).
If the Lakers want to avoid a déjà vu, they need to stop leaving rival shooters with plenty of space to enjoy on the perimeter — especially amid Middleton’s return. The time has come for L.A. to step up on the defensive end or the Purple and Gold could be in for yet another long night.
Lakers (8-7) vs. Bucks (6-8)
4:30 p.m. PT, Nov. 17, 2021
Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
TV: ESPN, Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Avery Bradley
SF: Talen Horton-Tucker
PF: Carmelo Anthony
C: Anthony Davis
Key Reserves: Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Malik Monk
Projected Bucks Starting Lineup:
PG: Jrue Holiday
SG: Grayson Allen
SF: Khris Middleton
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Bobby Portis
Key Reserves: Semi Ojeleye, Jordan Nwora, Rodney Hood, George Hill
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