So this is why the Lakers were supposed to be title contenders, eh?
The Bucks may have entered Tuesday night's encounter with L.A. sporting a better record than Mike D'Antoni's bunch, but you wouldn't have guessed it from the superstar exhibition delivered by Kobe Bryant (31 pts, 12/19 fg) and Dwight Howard (31 pts, 14/18 fg, 16 rebs, 4 blks). The Bucks had no answers for the league's leading scorer and rebounder, and in that sense the biggest surprise about this game was how long it ended up taking L.A. to deliver its knockout a punch--a 21-7 run to start the fourth quarter that turned a six-point game into a 20-point laugher in seven minutes. Only the Lakers' awful bench could prevent L.A. from running away earlier, particularly with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis firing blanks most of the night (combined 10/30 fg, 5 ast, 5 to).
As per usual, the Bucks found themselves down by double digits just minutes into the game, only to ride their reserves back into it. This time it was Kobe setting the tone with alley-oops to Howard for the Lakers' first two buckets, a combination that would quickly become a recurring theme of the first half. Jim Boylan even went so far as to trot out Marquis Daniels and Sam Dalembert to defend L.A.'s two superstars--a reasonable use of his deep bench I'd say--but the Bucks found few answers as Bryant and Howard combined for 32 points on 14/17 shooting in the first two quarters.
Bryant's impact was also felt on the defensive end, where he expertly denied Jennings the ball for much of the half, leaving Ellis to carry the scoring load for better (10 points in the first quarter) and worse (2 points in the second, 2/7 ft). That left the Bucks to once again work their way back into the game behind their reserve unit, with Beno Udrih (6 pts, 5 ast in the half) and Mike Dunleavy the predictable leaders of the surge. Milwaukee would lead briefly in the second before a 12-4 Laker run to close the half, though D'Antoni likely wasn't thrilled to enter halftime leading just 57-50 margin. The Lakers' starting unit was virtually unstoppable as L.A. shot 55% from the field and piled up 21 assists with just two turnovers, but Milwaukee compensated for its 40% shooting with 11 offensive boards. Oh, and can I point out that Ersan Ilyasova actually played like a big man for some extended periods tonight? Really, he did. Rebounding, a nice block in transition--some good things. Did I mention he's now eligible to be traded as well? Just saying.
Jennings sprung to life early in the third with seven quick points to keep the Bucks close, but too many things were going the Lakers' way (example: Metta World Peace hitting off-balance jumpers, Kobe doing his unstoppable fadeaway thing) and no one in particular was playing well for the Bucks, whose shooting dipped to a tepid 36% when all was said and done. The only bright spots: Udrih steadied the ship with his scoring (14 pts, 6/12 fg) and distribution (7 ast), while Larry Sanders held his own when he wasn't battling foul trouble (6 pts, 11 rebs, 3 blks), including a pair of terrific blocks on Kobe and Dwight in the third.
Still, Boylan let Sanders watch from the bench with just three fouls for most of the fourth quarter, which was surprising given that Howard annihilated a very rookie-looking John Henson to start the period and then continued piling up points after Dalembert replaced Henson. Not that Sanders was going to win the game on his own, but watching Henson get thrown to the wolves (or in this case, the best center in the league) didn't seem like the Bucks' best option for staying in the game. Virtually everyone wants to see Henson get regular minutes, just not those minutes. As for the rest of the rotations, Boylan's use of Daniels and Dalembert was theoretically prudent even if it didn't move the needle much in the right direction; if you have these guys on your roster, then this is the night when you dust them off and see what they can do.
Either way, this was never going to be a contest the Bucks would be favored to win, which is why Thursday's trip to Phoenix might be the most important game of Milwaukee's West Coast swing. While L.A. and Portland are never kind, nothing matches the Bucks' futility in Phoenix, where it's been a quarter century since they last won. But as the Bucks saw last week in Milwaukee, the Suns are not in a very happy place right now, meaning this "should" be the game to win if any. Taking care of business in Phoenix would also guarantee Milwaukee a winning record when they head home to face the Sixers. And while that might not be aiming high, at least it's aiming for something.