An unfortunate truth that has become increasingly evident this season is that LeBron James probably isn’t the best player in the NBA any longer. Friday night, the Los Angeles Lakers will take on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks as “The Greek Freak” makes his own case for that title.
Antetokounmpo has a particularly concerning set of skills that the Lakers, as currently constituted, are not at all that well-equipped to deal with. Giannis has made more shots (459) from within five feet of the basket than any other player in the league, and the gap between him and second place (Andre Drummond, 360) is larger than that between second and 18th (Nikola Jokic, 262). Antetokounmpo is hitting those shots at an astounding 73 percent clip.
As Luke Walton intends to stick with the small starting lineup he used against the New Orleans Pelicans (Rajon Rondo, Reggie Bullock, Brandon Ingram, James and Kyle Kuzma), Giannis might break the record for consecutive shots made.
Milwaukee also employs Brook Lopez, whose outside shooting ability has opened up the court for Giannis to attack the basket at will. Now, one benefit of the Lakers’ starting unit is that everyone is capable of guarding a stretch five like Lopez, but he is also very capable of taking anyone on the Lakers’ roster inside, let along anyone 6’8” and shorter.
Even in Wednesday’s win against New Orleans, the Lakers were out-rebounded to the tune of 52 boards to 39. Had Anthony Davis played the fourth quarter, that number (as well as the final score) could have been even uglier. Look for that trend to continue Friday night against a similarly talented Milwaukee frontcourt.
For the Lakers, they’ll have to hope Bullock, Ingram and Kuzma continue their strong play, and maybe one or two other non-LeBron players step up. Lonzo Ball (ankle) remains out for at least another week and Josh Hart (knee tendinitis) and Lance Stephenson (toe) are dinged up. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee have been highly disappointing this season, but at some point they’ll need to stop moping and start producing.
The Lakers have their work cut out for them. Milwaukee boasts the league’s best record and Antetokounmpo is in the middle of an MVP-caliber season. There are matchup problems across the court. But if the Lakers can elevate their game as Kuzma says they tend to against better teams, an upset win would go a long way in making up for one of last week’s disappointing losses.
Tipoff for Friday night’s game is scheduled for 7:30 PM PST. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.