Five things to watch in Lakers-Bucks matchup
1. Will the Lakers' focus come back?
After appearing completely dialed in for the first seven games of the season, the Lakers (8-2) at times in the past three contests have appeared to be going through the motions. Whether it was playing down to Minnesota, lacking front-line help against undersized Denver or refusing to fully contest Phoenix's hot three-point shooting, the Lakers' energy level has taken a dip. That's somewhat predictable given the initial adrenaline to start the season and the newcomers wanting to prove they can fit in, but I thought that the decreased focus wouldn't happen this soon.
With the Lakers facing Milwaukee (5-5) today at 5 p.m. at the beginning of a three-game trip, the change of scenery alone could have a psychological affect. The Lakers have played seven of their 10 games at home, while the three road contests have only been isolated events. Since the Lakers have a game at Detroit Wednesday and at Minnesota Friday, this will mark the team's first extended trip this season.
A large chunk of road games can prove taxing on a team, particularly in the middle of the season when injuries, fatigue and boredom can reach alarming highs. But I've heard anecdotally from various teams that I've covered in both college and pro ranks in the past few years that it becomes easier to win on the road after a flurry of home games because all the daily responsibilities at home aren't there and the team feels in complete work mode during the first extended trip.
Coach Phil Jackson supported that sentiment, and it comes at a good time since the team is coming off a two-game losing streak.
"The challenge of playing on the road will help us as a team, regardless of how we go about it," Jackson said. "It just helps a team focus on themselves and get themselves together and recognize the importance of playing a defense together."
2. Will the Lakers' defense improve?
As much as I've criticized the Lakers' D, particularly their poor effort against Phoenix, this shouldn't be as alarming as it sounds. Part of the reason why the Lakers have allowed a 20th-ranked 103.6 points per game can be attributed to the following factors: The team built plenty of sizable leads through the first 10 games and the reserves understandably conceded more points as they ironed out their chemistry, the Lakers' league-leading 112.5 points per game resembles a high-octane offense that shows a willingness to give up points, and the team's defensive communication is still sharpening up.
These are easily correctable issues early in the season, but I don't think it's good for the team's foundation if this becomes a common theme. It's a good sign the Lakers have instantly forged offensive chemistry so early in the season, but it's not in their long-term interest to play like the Phoenix Suns and the Golden State Warriors.
They're designed to be a post-oriented team. They will constantly need to monitor injuries and fatigue. And a fast-paced offense further exposes the Lakers' weaknesses in defending quick points guards, switching on screen-and-rolls and getting back on transition defense. As Laker fans well know, those latter three factors have been weaknesses for some time, but never enough to derail their past two championships. That's because the Lakers' approach on offense with working in the post, dominating the glass and playing at a deliberate pace offset that. There's no reason to switch that now.
3. How will the Lakers' offense match up with Milwaukee's league-leading defense? With L.A. averaging a league-leading 112 points per game and Milwaukee limiting teams to a league-best 89.4 ppg, something is obviously going to have to give in this matchup. The Bucks have sour memories of Kobe Bryant's game-winner against them last season at the Bradley Center and are preparing with the right approach in having Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and John Salmons recognize Bryant will get his points but force him to take difficult shots and hope he doesn't get others involved. Although Bryant has made tremendous strides with his right knee, the past three games have proved a mixed bag. He rightfully took over the game in the first half against Minnesota but then forced shots in the second half. He maintained a good balance against Denver, though he shot unnecessary fourth-quarter three-pointers. And Bryant played a well-balanced game against Phoenix but yielded eight turnovers.
On the Lakers' end, an important aspect to their defense involves how they're going to guard Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings. Though Jennings has shot at an inconsistent rate this season, he leads the team in assists (6.3) and turnovers (2.5), meaning he's going to be a major part of the offense. This isn't so much a question on whether the Lakers can handle another speedy young guard but more so how they go about defending them. On paper, it seems the best strategy entails letting Jennings get his points so long as no one else gets involved.
4. How will the Lakers' frontline perform? The news today that Theo Ratliff is expected to sit out four to six weeks elevates concern to an already depleted front line. Ratliff provided no more than 8.4 minutes per game and it was painful to see the 37-year-old provide a full but limited effort. But the problem concerning his absence doesn't necessarily involve his presence so much is that those 8.4 minutes will only prove more taxing for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, who rank first and second, respectively, in minutes played.
ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin listed a few possibilities the team may pursue, such as acquiring Erick Dampier or pick up a player from the NBA Developmental League. But no matter how you slice it, the Lakers are going to feel stretched thin until Andrew Bynum returns, an unclear timetable since he's not expected to begin practicing until sometime after the team returns from its three-game trip. Meanwhile, Gasol will have to fight through his fatigue, Odom will have to absorb the pain in his right foot (bone bruise) and rookie Derrick Caracter will have to make the most of his opportunity.
5. How will the bench play on the road? The immediate uncertainty regarding this unit involves the health of Lakers guard Steve Blake, who missed Sunday's game against Phoenix. Blake's wife, Kristen, tweeted that he's with the team but doesn't feel 100%. That caused the entire Lakers' backcourt to play heavier minutes, particularly Sasha Vujacic (11). But the question marks surrounding the unit mostly points to the fact that this is its first extended regular-season trip. For all the inconsistency the Lakers' bench faced last season, most of that came in road settings. And though there hasn't been too much of a difference in minutes played and production so far between the Lakers' seven home games and the three road contests, it's been hard to discern anything definitive from such a small sample size. Three consecutive road games should provide a clearer picture.
-- Mark Medina
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