MILWAUKEE — The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks are the past two NBA champions, and were among the title favorites again heading into this season. Neither has looked like it through the first month, however, in large part due to injuries. The most notable of which is LeBron James‘ abdominal strain, which kept him out of Wednesday night’s matchup and sapped some of the juice from the game.
But Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were still out there, and you’re never going to be bored when that’s the case. Especially not when the former put up a dominant 47 points and nine rebounds to lead the Bucks to a 109-102 win.
The Lakers got out to an early double-digit lead, but the Bucks worked their way back into the game late in the first quarter. From there, they were largely in control and led by as much as 12 before the Lakers went on a run to briefly retake the lead early in the fourth. That’s when Khris Middleton — back in the lineup after a bout with COVID-19 — stepped up and put the Bucks back in front for good with a part of 3-pointers. He finished with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists on the night.
Westbrook led the Lakers in defeat with 25 points and 12 rebounds, while Davis added 18 points and nine rebounds. The Lakers have now dropped back to .500 on the season at 8-8 but should be bolstered by LeBron’s return later this week.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
1. Giannis dominates from the opening tip
It took Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks a few minutes to get going, but once they did they never looked back. He threw down an emphatic dunk for Milwaukee’s first points of the game, and in the next 90 seconds added three more finishes at the rim. He kept up that aggressive mindset all night long.
“He was in attack mode,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He really, competitively and from a mindset, really wanted to be his best. When he’s in attack mode that’s usually when he’s at his best. I thought he made some great passes too. Giannis was special tonight.”
That he was. He had 28 points in the first half and finished with 47 points, nine rebounds and three assists on 18-of-23 from the field. It was a season-high for him, and also made him the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1995 to go for at least 45 points and shoot 75 percent from the field against the Lakers.
The Lakers had no answer for most of the night and were only able to slow him down for a brief period when they switched to a zone in the second half. Giannis eventually solved that, however, and took over down the stretch. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, including eight in the final 3:09. The most important of which came with just over two minutes remaining, as he bullied Talen Horton-Tucker under the basket, converted an and-one and flexed to an ecstatic crowd.
Giannis has been terrific all season long, but it hasn’t always translated to wins for the shorthanded Bucks. This time, though, with another great player in Davis on the other side, Giannis brought a little extra and it didn’t go to waste.
“[Davis is] one of the best players in the league,” Giannis said. “You have to come ready. If you don’t come ready it’s going to be a long night. You have to have your guard up. You have to be ready to compete against a guy like Anthony Davis. Guys like that, if they smell fear they go at you. And vice versa. If I see somebody scared of me, I’m like going all night. I’m not gonna stop. You gotta be ready to take the challenge, and you gotta be willing to take the challenge also.”
2. Middleton returns, comes up clutch, makes history
The Bucks have been beset by injuries and absences all season long, but they’re finally starting to get back to full strength now that Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are both in the lineup again. Middleton had missed the past eight games after testing positive for COVID-19, but was cleared and ready to go for this one.
That proved to be crucial for the Bucks. Though he was rusty early, missing his first five shots in the first half, he started to find a rhythm later on. He went for 12 points, four rebounds and three assists on 4-for-7 from the field in the second half alone, and hit some huge shots in the fourth quarter.
“It was just, my form was way off,” Middleton said. “But I kind of expected that. First game back after a while, not really touching the ball for almost two weeks. Knowing that, you know, gonna be a little rusty. Just try to take the best shot possible. Play within the game but be aggressive at the same time. Just staying with it and knowing that at some point I was gonna find it.”
After leading by as much as 12, the Bucks fell behind early in the fourth with Giannis on the bench. At previous times throughout the season, the game has gotten away from them at similar points. Now, with Middleton back, they have a secondary option who can carry the offense for stretches. With just about nine minutes left, Middleton hit back-to-back 3s to turn a one-point deficit into a five-point lead. The Bucks never trailed again.
“Feels good to have him back,” Giannis said. “Good to be back on track. We’ve missed him. Just having him out there, he draws a lot of attention. Like, people gotta guard him and he’s gonna make the right play… He definitely helped the team. Hit two back-to-back 3s for us, gave us momentum, made great plays down the stretch defensively, offensively. It’s good to have him back.”
If getting back on the court wasn’t enough, Middleton also put his name in the history books. With the second of his clutch 3s in the fourth quarter, he tied Ray Allen for the most 3s in Bucks franchise history with 1,051.
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3. Bucks have a chance to get back on track
Between a rash of injuries and Khris Middleton’s COVID-19 absence, the Bucks have not looked like themselves. Even after their win over the Lakers, they’re 7-8 and would not even be in the play-in tournament if the season right now. The last time they were under .500 this late in the season was back in 2017.
After winning the title last season, the team is far from panic mode. At the same time, they know they have to start stringing some positive results together before the gap between them and the top of the Eastern Conference gets too big.
“We gotta start winning games,” Giannis said. For me it’s not the most important thing. For me the most important thing is to get better and build good habits and play the best basketball down the stretch in May and June. But at the end of the day it leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you keep losing so now we gotta switch that mentality. We gotta win games, go out there and play hard, play together.”
They have a chance to do just that in the next few days. For one, they have Giannis, Middleton and Jrue Holiday all healthy again for the first time since the first week of the season. Including the win over the Lakers, that trio has now played three games together this season, and the Bucks are 3-0 with a plus-40 point differential. In addition, the rest of their homestand features games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons and the Orlando Magic (twice) — three of the worst teams in the league.
“This is a good opportunity now that Khris is back for us to start getting back on track,” Giannis continued. “Start building some games right here. We’ll see. I cannot predict the future but we’re in a good place right now.”