Yardbarker NBA writers Pat Heery and Sean Keane address the hottest issues in the NBA. This week’s topics: Thursday’s Lakers-Bucks matchup — a potential NBA Finals preview — and teams that could challenge those powerhouses.
Heery: Outside of opening-night and Christmas Day games, there aren’t many regular-season NBA matchups the average basketball fan gets excited about. Thursday night, when 24-4 Lakers play in Milwaukee against the 24-4 Bucks, will be an exception. You want great basketball? This game has it — both teams have top-five ranked offenses and defenses, and both are first in their conference.
This game will feature three of the top-five MVP candidates (Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and L.A.’s LeBron James and Anthony Davis). Besides being a potential NBA Finals preview, the game could determine which team ends up with home-court advantage in those Finals. Both seem destined to win more than 60 games.
So what interests you most about this battle of the NBA’s best? Is it the Bucks’ “sneaky” 18-game win streak that nobody was really talking about? Or is it the fact that the Lakers are “finally” playing an opponent with a winning record?
Keane: I love everything about this matchup, even if a Luka-less Mavericks team broke the Bucks’ streak earlier this week. It’s almost exactly four years after Milwaukee fans wore “24-1” shirts to the game where they broke the Warriors’ season-opening 24-game win streak, so perhaps this was karmic retribution. The last time the Bucks won so many games in a row was the 1970-71 season, when they won 20 straight and earned their only NBA title.
Giannis (31.7 ppg. and 12.8 rpg.) is a lot like the first Cleveland version of LeBron: unstoppable, huge, does it all, but still has to prove himself in the playoffs. Plus, the Greek Freak probably wants payback for Team LeBron’s win over Team Giannis in last season’s All-Star Game.
The Lakers have crafty veterans Danny Green and Rajon Rondo, who get by on their smarts as they’ve aged. The Bucks have hyper-athletic, young players who occasionally make brain-dead plays (Eric Bledsoe, for one). They both have effective benches featuring an unconventional-looking Caucasian guard in receding hairline hero Alex Caruso and the Michael Jordan of Delaware, Donte DiVincenzo (though honestly that should be Elena Delle Donne’s nickname).
The Bucks play at the league’s fastest pace, and the Lakers are more deliberate. Transition defense is one of the Lakers’ only defensive weaknesses, so the Bucks are primed to take advantage by running past Rondo and Jared Dudley. Of course, the Bucks also allow the most three-pointers in the league, and when you leave players open behind the arc, LeBron will shred a defense. Anthony Davis is impossible to stop one-on-one, but the Bucks have a set of twins to defend him. And it’s a revenge series for the Lopez twins — Brook had an unsuccessful season in L.A. Also please note that the Lakers are the closest basketball team to the twins’ spiritual home, Disneyland.
Both teams have excellent coaches who lost their jobs because LeBron kept beating them in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Luckily for Frank Vogel, King James is on his team now. Of course, having said all this, watch the matchup come down to a fourth-quarter shootout between Khris Middleton and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.