If Friday's battle between the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks truly was a preview of the NBA Finals, then the basketball world should start gearing up for a 17th Lakers championship in June. While the two juggernauts traded blows on their way to a 48-48 halftime tie, the Lakers took control with a commanding 39-28 advantage in the third quarter that pushed their lead up to 11. The Bucks made things interesting in the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit down to four midway through, but the Lakers pulled away late to not only win the game, but clinch a playoff spot.
Leading the way for the Lakers was, as expected, LeBron James. While Giannis Antetokounmpo remains the heavy MVP favorite, it was James that dominated this game with a stellar line of 37 points, seven assists and eight rebounds en route to the victory.
While he started slow thanks to foul trouble, Anthony Davis wasn't far behind. He finished the game with 30 points of his own, including 10 in the fourth quarter. James needed some help from his teammates down the stretch, and Davis provided it.
Antetokounmpo put up numbers for the Bucks, but not nearly as efficiently as usual. His 32 points came on 10-of-21 shooting as the Lakers effectively walled off the paint for much of the game. He didn't help matters by making only one of his six 3-point attempts, a far cry from his 5-of-8 explosion in the first matchup between these teams.
His teammates didn't help him nearly enough to offset his own less than a spectacular evening. Donte DiVincenzo's 17 points led the non-Giannis Bucks while Khris Middleton went 5-of-19 from the field. If the Bucks plan to beat the Lakers in June, their supporting pieces will have to be better. Fortunately, these teams still have several months to prepare for a potential rematch.
With that in mind, let's look at the most important takeaways from tonight's game.
The Lakers found an interesting way to overcome Milwaukee's rim-protection
If you disregard the era, the Bucks have had one of the greatest defensive seasons in NBA history. By allowing only 101 points per 100 possessions so far this season, they have created a four-point gap between themselves and the No. 2 Toronto Raptors at 105. That's identical to the gap between the Raptors and the No. 12 Chicago Bulls at 109. Their elite defense is built largely around rim-protection. No team allows fewer shots at the rim or a lower field goal percentage on those shots. For a Lakers team that lives and dies at the rim, that represents a very real problem in a potential Finals matchup.
So how did the Lakers get around it? By running directly through it. Literally. When their big men set ball screens, they didn't roll to the basket with the intention of scoring. They did so essentially as legally moving screeners, clearing an easy path for James to attack the basket.
The Lakers are not the first team to use this trick this season. It's grown increasingly popular because it's nearly impossible to legislate. A typical moving screen usually comes from players jogging up to the ball or starting in a stationary position. McGee was in nearly a full sprint here, as rollers often are, and there is so much contact in a typical pick-and-roll that discerning the difference between that and a screen in real-time is extremely difficult, even if it's obvious on replay.
The Bucks will have a solution by the time these teams meet again, if they even do, but on Friday, it helped LeBron carve up the NBA's best defense.
When the chips were down, both teams went small
Size is one of the biggest advantages these teams have over the field. The Lakers are one of the few NBA teams to consistently play two traditional big men. The Bucks almost always have at least one, plus Giannis, who exists outside of categories but provides all of the things a traditional big might. Defensive length is a rare gift, and both teams have it in abundance.
But both teams eschewed it in favor of ball-handling and shooting late in this one. The Lakers went to their traditional crunchtime alignment with Davis at center, James at point guard, and three shooters in between, but on Friday, all three of those shooters (Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley and Danny Green) were guards. The Bucks took things just as far. Antetokounmpo played center down the stretch, with Middleton as the only true forward on the floor with three guards.
Calling these small-ball lineups is unfair in the grand scheme of things. Davis and Antetokounmpo are giants who happen to do fit in any lineup structure. But they were small by the standards these teams have set. It goes to show that even with the Warriors gone, small-ball is still going to be a defining characteristic of the postseason's game of matchup chess.
So... are we sure the Bucks can score late in close playoff games?
Yes, it's a tired narrative, but in perhaps the most important close game of their season so far, the Bucks scored nine points in the final 5:52 of this game. Middleton shot 5-for-19 for the game, and Eric Bledsoe, who melted in last year's postseason, was only 5-for-13.
Ironically, the Bucks have actually had a better clutch offense than the Lakers this season. The Lakers are ranked 17th in scoring only 105.7 points per 100 clutch possessions, while the Bucks are 12th at 109.2. But LeBron's clutch credentials are verified. Antetokounmpo's aren't, and without a traditional second star teammate, questions about Milwaukee's clutch offense are going to persist until they are put to bed in the postseason. Tonight didn't exactly help matters.