The Los Angeles Lakers may have snapped their six-game losing streak, but things are far from looking up for the team.
The Bucks have been on a hot streak of their own, of late. Ever since assistant Jim Boylan took over as head coach following Scott Skiles' departure, the team has won three of four, including a major upset victory against the Chicago Bulls on January 9.
Young Milwaukee will be looking to do the same against the Lakers. Los Angeles may not be playing like an elite team this year, but their collective experience makes them the team to beat tonight, despite the inferior record.
That isn't to say that the Lakers have this one in the bag. As great as they have looked in head coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense, they have also looked incredibly bad at some points. Given the Bucks' new balanced attack under Boylan, this has every chance to be one of those nights.
Time: Tuesday, January 15th, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, FSN Wisconsin
Records: Milwaukee Bucks (19-17) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (16-21)
Betting Line: Milwaukee (+7), Los Angeles (-7), via Bovada
Injuries: Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (concussion, day-to-day), Steve Blake (abdomen, out)
Key Storyline: Can Young Bucks Pull Off Charge Against Lakers?
If there is one thing that the Bucks have going for them, it's their youth.
So many of the team's key players, most notably guards Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, are under 30, and that definitely helps in games against more experienced squads. Milwaukee won the season series against the aging Boston Celtics, 3-1, and also defeated the defending champion Miami Heat on December 29.
They'll have quite the challenge against the Lakers tonight. Los Angeles has elite players at practically every position, whereas Milwaukee's production outside of Ellis and Jennings tends to get a bit unpredictable. Larry Sanders and John Henson, for example, have shown that they can be fine defensive assets in the paint, but still are young and have a lot to learn.
Regardless of their youth, the Bucks have still shown that they can be a giant-slayer this season. They have beaten the Chicago Bulls twice, the Boston Celtics three times and the Miami Heat once. Those are impressive wins no matter how some may look at it.
The team will thus be looking to do the same against a struggling Lakers squad. Los Angeles has not performed up to par despite a lucrative offseason that brought in both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Boylan having his men slow down D'Antoni's run-and-gun game would immediately throw a monkey wrench into the Lakers' approach.
It's a game that can go one of many ways. The Lakers' offense can be in perfect form and take the young Bucks to school, or could falter and suffer defeat at the hands of Milwaukee's defense. For all we know, both teams could be off tonight and have to fight and claw their way to the finish.
Either way, this is going to be one fans should not miss.
Key Matchup: Monta Ellis vs. Kobe Bryant
The Lakers' problem all season, apart from injuries, has been a lack of consistent defense. While ranking fourth in points scored, the team is near the bottom of the barrel in terms of points allowed, ranking 26th.
That could change in the future, as D'Antoni appears committed to actually getting some of his players to play lockdown defense. As the offensive guru told Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles following Los Angeles' victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 13, star guard and scorer Kobe Bryant will likely have a greater role on defense in the future.
"He disrupts the whole offense on the ball," said D'Antoni, who added that Bryant will draw either Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis when the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. "He's done that a couple games, so we'll continue to milk that one."
Point guard Steve Nash also had his own take on the matter:
Lakers guard Steve Nash said that a more difficult assignment actually makes Bryant a better defensive player than when he's left to guard someone who is not as big of a threat.
"Kobe's a guy that likes a challenge, so to give him a challenge I think sometimes is best for us," Nash said. "Sometimes when he maybe is guarding someone who isn't going to demand his interest, he can wane a little bit. But when we put him in a position where he's challenged, he can be phenomenal."
Bryant's defense shone bright against the Cavaliers, as he limited the talented Kyrie Irving to just 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting. He'll have an equally tough task in shutting down Ellis, who has more experience than Irving and a more well-rounded offensive game.
However, based on the man's numbers this season, one would not think him to be a major offensive threat. Ellis is averaging 18.8 points and 5.4 assists per game this season, but has shot just under 40 percent from the field and 25 percent from long range. These are well below his career percentages of 46 and 32.
Bryant will thus need to be in full Mamba mode on the defensive side. He has been named to the All-Defensive First Team 10 times and is averaging 1.5 steals per game this season.
Bryant also has a significant size advantage against Ellis, standing 6'6" to Ellis' 6'3", and will need to exploit that in his new defensive approach.
On offense, the five-time champion must be great, as per usual. He leads the league with 29.8 points per game, and must use his superior experience to fake out Ellis both off the dribble and in driving past him for a layup. There is no way to stop Bryant when he is in a groove, and if he can balance his offensive and defensive games, Ellis will be in for a long night.
X-Factor: John Henson
Larry Sanders is the Bucks' best defensive player, but he is going to have his hands full with Dwight Howard all game long. Thus, in order for Milwaukee to keep up in the frontcourt, rookie John Henson will need to have a solid performance.
Selected out of North Carolina with the 14th pick in the 2012 draft, Henson has the makings of a solid defensive big man who can also chip in his fair share on offense. He has good size at 6'11", 220 pounds, and his 7'6" wingspan gives him a bright future.
However, up until Boylan replaced Skiles as head coach, Henson's playing time—and thus his production—was unpredictable. He would receive 20-plus minutes of play one night, and not even reach the 10-minute mark another. As a result, he has only posted 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per contest.
In Boylan's four games as head coach, Henson has averaged a respectable 17.5 minutes per game to go with 10.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. Unlike his time under Skiles, the former Tar Heel now has a fully-defined role.
As the Bucks' backup big man, he must bring his balanced game and then some against the Lakers. This means being a force on the inside, using his length to utilize his hook shot and make layups against more experienced defenders.
Henson must also not hesitate to go after rebounds, even if he's a bit on the skinny side. He needs to have a solid performance just to give the Bucks a remote shot at winning the game, not an easy task against the Lakers.
Still, the man is talented and has what it takes to overcome obstacles. He has a good attitude, and that can only help him when approaching the Lakers' tough frontcourt.
The Bucks are a scrappy team, and have earned the respect of elite teams this season. Unfortunately for them, Los Angeles will not be so quick to give them the same type of courtesy.
As much as the Lakers have underachieved this season, they will be in full "defend our home floor" mode and use their veterans to dominate Milwaukee from start to finish. Kobe Bryant will have another fine defensive performance, shutting down Monta Ellis and also leading the way on offense. Dwight Howard will own the paint, though Larry Sanders will manage a blocked shot or two.
Who will win?
That isn't to say that the Bucks will be blown out completely. Brandon Jennings and Mike Dunleavy will keep Milwaukee in the game, with the team going on its fair share of runs in the second and third quarters.
Unfortunately for the young Bucks, it will not be enough. Los Angeles has gone 11-9 at home this season, and will stop at nothing to defend the Staples Center.
In this instance, they will come out on the winning side yet again.
Los Angeles Lakers 108, Milwaukee Bucks 97
All statistics in this article are accurate as of Monday, January 14, 2013