NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: Lakers and Bucks looking to bounce back

By Sports Desk January 21, 2021

The Milwaukee Bucks host the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday in what most expected to be the matchup from last season's NBA Finals.

The Miami Heat put paid to that in the injury-enforced absence of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Lakers battled their way to the championship.

This will be their first meeting since then, though it could be lacking in star power with LeBron James questionable to appear due to a left ankle sprain.

The Bucks will be keen to bounce back and make a statement against one of the league's strongest teams after a five-game winning run ended at the hands of James Harden, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets last time out.

The Lakers also have a point to prove, though, having suffered a fourth-quarter collapse against the Golden State Warriors in their previous outing.

Milwaukee are their first opponents on a gruelling seven-game road trip, though they are yet to be beaten away from Staples Center this season.

KEY PERFORMERS

Khris Middleton

Middleton has the best offensive rating of any of Bucks starter (126.5) and his net rating of 16.5 is only marginally bettered by Jrue Holiday (17.5).

He is making a career high 2.6 three-pointers per game this season and is doing a better job of punishing teams when he gets to the free throw line – he is shooting at 93.2 per cent from the stripe, a solid improvement on the career mark of 87.6 per cent he entered this season with.

He is not only a perpetual threat from beyond the arc, either. This season he has made 75 per cent of his field goals at the rim – that's better than Antetokounmpo (70.1 per cent).

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

There can be no doubt that James and Anthony Davis are the most important players on the Lakers roster, but Caldwell-Pope is proving that the decision to hand him a three-year, $40million contract to return to the team last November was a great decision.

He is shooting at 53.7 per cent from beyond the arc this season, second only to Seth Curry (59.5 per cent) among players with a minimum of 40 attempts in the league.

Caldwell-Pope also has the highest plus minus per game (11.4) for qualifying players in the league this season. It is a significant jump from the 2.3 he averaged over the previous campaign and shows just how much of an impact he is having early on.

KEY BATTLE: CAN DAVIS CONTAIN GIANNIS?

When the teams met back in March – before the season was shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic – Antetokounmpo drew two fouls from Davis within four minutes of the first quarter.

It piled the pressure on the Lakers, who were forced to try to defend the Bucks' best player using a backup option. But when your backup option is LeBron, you are in good hands.

Antetokounmpo ended the game with 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, but it was the Lakers who emerged 113-103 winners.

While defending Giannis, LeBron still shone on the offensive end and finished with 37 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and three steals.

Davis was limited to just 29 minutes due to his foul trouble and, particularly if James misses out due to his ankle injury, will need to be more disciplined on Friday.

HEAD TO HEAD

That was only the third time Antetokounmpo has faced the Lakers since LeBron joined the team ahead of the 2018-19 season and it was his first lost.

Los Angeles benefited from keeping Giannis to 47.6 per cent shooting from the field but it is not a guarantee for success – the Bucks are 20-17 when Antetokounmpo shoots below 50 per cent on at least 20 attempts.

Still, since Giannis entered the league in 2013, LeBron is 16-5 against the Bucks with an average of 27.4 points per game.

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