Three thoughts on Milwaukee’s convincing 111-104 win over the Lakers:
The Bucks make a statement
Without overstating the importance of a December regular season game—one of 82, long way to go, etc.—this was a big win for the Bucks. Milwaukee is the conference frontrunner with a glistening record, but the schedule hasn’t been especially stiff—the Bucks lost to Boston and have yet to play Philadelphia—making the white-hot Lakers a compelling test.
And they passed—in a big way. Giannis Antetokounmpo was brilliant (more on him below) but this was a strong team effort. Five Bucks players finished in double figures. The bench outscored the Lakers' second unit 34-4. They shot 47% from the floor. They made 41% of their threes. They out-rebounded the Lakers, 40-38. When LA surged in the fourth quarter, the Bucks defense never let it get closer than seven.
This was a confidence boosting win for a team that has all the pieces to win the whole thing. We all know the stakes in Milwaukee: A trip to the Finals likely ensures Antetokounmpo signs a super max extension this summer. Anything less and, well, who knows? Against the Western Conference’s best team, against two top-five NBA players, the Bucks were brilliant. Sign me—and everyone else—up for this matchup in June.
The legend of Giannis grows
Two players, two sets of numbers.
Player A averaged 29.7 points, 13.6. rebounds and shot 57.4% from the floor.
Player B averaged 31.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and shot 56.4% from the floor.
Player A is Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-2000 season, when he came one vote shy of winning unanimous MVP.
Player B is Giannis Antetokounmpo.
LeBron James and Stephen Curry have won back-to-back MVP’s this decade. Antetokounmpo is a strong favorite to join them. Spending most of his 32 minutes on Thursday faced off against two elite defenders (James, Anthony Davis), Antetokounmpo was outstanding. He scored 34 points on a tidy 11-19 shooting. He pulled down 11 rebounds. He handed out seven assists. Most terrifyingly, he banged in five three-pointers. For the month, Giannis is connecting on 41% of his threes. Davis—as good a defender as the NBA has—was biting on ball fakes from 25-feet. Many have said that when Giannis develops a reliable three-point shot, the MVP award is a wrap for the foreseeable future.
He might be there.
Watching Giannis, he played like this was more than a regular season game. He was aggressive. He was physical. He battled possession after possession with Davis. He attacked James. When the game was over, he exchanged hugs with James and Davis. But the serious expression never left his face.
There are some good stories in the NBA this season. James has been great. Luka Doncic has been electrifying. James Harden continues to be a dynamic scorer. But you can’t watch Giannis play and think anyone is better. Thursday night was a high profile example of just that.
Are there cracks in the Lakers armor?
Let’s not get too concerned over the Lakers' new losing streak. LA is wrapping up a tough five-game road trip and has played well so far through a challenging December schedule. But you can see how they might scuffle. Turnovers have been a problem of late. The Lakers are averaging nearly 15 per game and kicked it away 19 times on Thursday. Danny Green made seven threes against the Bucks. James and Kentavius Caldwell-Pope accounted for the other five.
There are things about the Lakers that you know are sustainable. Davis will be great—so long as these nagging injuries don’t pile up. James, too. The defense is built to last. But this team has some shaky guard play. Outside of Green, there are few historically reliable shooters. The Lakers will play seven of the next eight at home, which should help. But the flaws that the Bucks exposed certainly bear watching.
And there is this: The Lakers don’t like to talk load management. But Davis, who played 43 minutes, has been battling through injuries, tugging at his rib cage on Thursday. James, who will be 35 at the end of the month, played 37. The Lakers don’t have to sit these guys. But to be playing at the highest level in April, the stars may need to throttle back some in January.