Lakers vs. Bucks Preview | Battered Lakers look for payback in Milwaukee

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
2013/2014 NBA Season
(24-46, 11-24 road)
vs.
Mil_medium
(13-58, 8-27 home)
March 27, 2014
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:00 CT
FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Kendall Marshall PG Brandon Knight
Jodie Meeks SG Ramon Sessions
Wesley Johnson SF Khris Middleton
Jordan Hill PF Jeff Adrien
Chris Kaman C Zaza Pachulia
2012/13 Advanced Stats
98.4 (2nd) Pace 91.9 (25th)
103.8 (22nd) ORtg 102.5 (26th)
110.0 (28th) DRtg 111.3 (30th)

On the LakersSilver Screen and Roll | Lakers Nation | Forum Blue and Gold

UPDATE: No Ersan tonight as he's been shut down for the remainder of the season to rest his sore ankle. We'll guess that Jeff Adrien starts for the second straight game.

New Year's might have seemed like a turning point for both the Bucks and Lakers. With Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova both back in the starting lineup, Brandon Knight detonated for 37 points as the Bucks ran riot 94-79 over a bewildered Laker team still reeling from the knee fracture that re-wrecked Kobe Bryant's season on December 19.

But was it really an inflection point for either team?  For the Bucks the answer would be a definitive, deafening no. Milwaukee proceeded to lose nine in a row following their win in L.A. and have won just six times in 40 games overall in 2014, including an epic 1-14 showing in January. Three months later, we're left to debate tanking and all the unpleasantry that comes with that.

A better case can be made for the Lakers' season taking a turn on the last night of 2013, and not for the better. After starting a surprisingly respectable 13-18, Mike D'Antoni's club has slumped to 11-28 since then, thanks in no small part to Bryant's season-ending injury, Steve Nash's general unavailability (questionable tonight with back pain), and the carousel of point guards that has followed. Though they still have some of the hallmarks of a D'Antoni offense--they play fast, occasionally explode, and are dangerous from three (38.6%, third)--they simply haven't had the firepower to win with any regularity, and their defense predictably hasn't done them any favors either.  All of that has led to regular speculation about D'Antoni's future in Lakerland, with Phil Jackson's departure for New York offering another reminder of everything that hasn't happened since Jackson left the Laker bench.

No Pau. Pau Gasol is the latest future hall of famer to join the Lakers' injury list, having been hospitalized with vertigo over the weekend and missing L.A.'s explosive 127-96 home win over the Knicks on Saturday. He didn't make the trip to Milwaukee, which will presumably mean another start for Chris Kaman, who delivered a tidy 13/9 performance against New York. Though he's been mostly forgotten in an all-around forgettable Laker season, Kaman hasn't been bad: his per-36 numbers (19.4 pts/11.2 reb), PER 16.7 and TS% (53.7%) are the highest they've been in half a decade. Still, he ain't Pau Gasol, who for all the noise about his imminent departure this summer has still posted Pau-like numbers (17.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 19.6 PER) at the ripe old age of 33.

Jordan Hill has also put up strong numbers this season, as he's quietly become a quality complementary big man over the past few seasons. His 15.6 points and 12.9 rebounds per 36 are obscured by the fact that he only plays 20 minutes per game.

Second chances. L.A. has proven a sanctuary for failed lottery picks this season, with Kendall Marshall, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson all regular parts of D'Antoni's rotation after struggling to find minutes in their previous lives. Not that their reclamation projects have proven them worthy of their original draft hype: for all his athleticism, Johnson isn't much more than a spot-up shooter (37% from three), while Henry has struggled with injuries and inconsistency since a very promising start to the season. By the way, did you know that David Kahn picked Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward and Paul George? Sorry, Timberwolves fans.

Marshall has likely been the best of the bunch, as he's piled up huge assist numbers (9.0 apg, 11.0 per 36 min) and proven capable of hitting open three (42.6% on 4.6 attempts per game) since being signed from the D-League in December. Just don't expect him to do anything else: he can't create his own offense (just 10.0 pts/36), isn't familiar with the concept of free throws (just 13/26 in 42 games) and has good size but little else to offer defensively (0.7 spg, 0 blocks all season). Still, a good find for the minimum.

Lotto look. By now you know all about the Bucks' draft narrative, which is pretty straight-forward: it's a two-horse race to the bottom with Milwaukee (13 wins) and Philadelphia (15), which is the only thing that gives a game like this any real significance. There's no more winnable game on the Bucks' remaining schedule than this one, so losing tonight would be a major victory for the tankers (choose your side as you will).

Things are decidedly murkier for L.A., which is part of the six-team Blob of Despair including Utah (23 wins), Boston (23), Sacramento (25), and Detroit (26). The Lakers currently sit in the middle of that group at #6 in the lotto standings, though they could easily swing to #4 or #8 depending on how the final two weeks of the season go. Perverse incentives, huzzah!

But as depressing as a focus on the lotto might be to some, better news seems to be on the way: Adrian Wojanrowski reports that Kansas center Joel Embiid will indeed enter the draft (phew), leaving Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker as the two biggest names yet to declare (remember that Dante Exum is also in). Much will understandably be made of the stress fracture in Embiid's back that sidelined him for the final weeks of the season, though it was encouraging to hear that he did expect to return if Kansas had advanced to the Sweet 16.

Giannis. There's been no shortage of warm and fuzzy profiles of Giannis Antetokounmpo this season, but be sure to check out Lori Nickels' latest long-form on Giannis in the Journal-Sentinel. Nickels' piece takes more of a focus on the rookie's relationship with Larry Drew, which as always serves up its share of additional reasons to love our favorite 19-year-old:

On the first day that the Bucks assembled as a team last fall, Drew handed out his playbook. It was a big book, a booster seat for a toddler at the kitchen table. The players collected the materials and dispersed. Hours later, Drew was at home.

"Giannis texted me and told me he was going through his playbook," said Drew. "Now, I would guess that he was the only one from the team that picked that playbook up on Day 1. He was going through, page by page by page by page and caught an error in one of the offensive plays.

"And he corrected me. I made a mistake, in the playbook. I was shocked that he was able to discover that."

In the less warm and fuzzy department, Yahoo's March Spears offered this nugget in his latest power rankings:

The Bucks believe rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo has been too offensive-minded since his return from the Rising Stars Challenge, sources said.

Oh no!

It's worth noting that while his shooting efficiency has been way down in general since a strong December, his usage is actually down even further since the all-star break. So other than an occasionally itchy trigger finger from three point range (where he's shot the same 31.4% both pre- and post-all-star break on marginally higher attempts), it's tough say he's really forcing anything in terms of shots. If anything he's still a bit tentative attacking the rim in halfcourt, where he still has a fairly limited toolbox in terms of making plays. Still, we have seen some promising stuff from him out of the post and in P&R, and it's also encouraging to note that his assists are up and turnovers down since his trip to New Orleans. He was a shade over a 1:1 assist/turnover ratio before the break and has been slightly better than 2:1 since returning, which is a big difference for a guy expected to develop into a playmaker over time.

More likely Spears' note is just a comment on some occasionally wavering focus defensively, though broadly speaking his awareness on that end seems to have improved notably since the start of the season. Though he still commits silly fouls and struggles chasing smaller guards through screens at times, he's getting better in that department. And let's be honest: the Bucks as a team aren't playing much defense right now anyway, so it's not like he'd be unique in taking a more "offensive-minded" approach to the game.

Knight and day. What's wrong with Brandon Knight? Since losing Nate Wolters as his running mate over the weekend, Knight's streak of 25 straight games in double figures (and seven of eight games scoring 20+) has gone up in smoke with a combined 5/24 shooting, nine turnovers and just 15 combined points against the Clips and Kings.

While Wolters' ability to operate as a secondary ballhandler and versatile defender made him a convenient complement to Knight, it's also not as if Wolters was directly facilitating Knight's scoring either. Knight's big improvements this season as a scorer have mostly been driven by up-ticks in both P&R and isolation, which contradicts the theory of Knight being set free by playing shooting guard or "off the ball" as many have suggested. Sometimes it might seem that way due to the HORNS offense the Bucks run--lots of touches for big men at the elbows, who then also serve as screeners for guards on pin-downs and the like--but it's still Knight playing point guard most of the time.

Nevertheless, don't sleep on Wolters' effect on his teammates. His impressive on/off numbers have been trumpeted all year, and while Knight scored at the same rate regardless of whether Nate was on the court (19.3 pts/36), he did score more efficiently with Wolters as his running mate--53.2% true shooting vs. 52.1% overall, via NBAWowy.com.

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