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Lakers vs. Bucks Preview: How will Russell Westbrook respond?

Russell Westbrook did not play in the entire overtime of the Lakers’ most recent game against the Knicks after one of his worst performances of the season. How will he respond against the Bucks on Tuesday?

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers are coming off a 122-115 overtime win against the New York Knicks. But although the game was a victory for the purple-and-gold, the night still included plenty of negatives and drama for the team.

Those negatives resulted in the Lakers being down by as much as 21 points in the second quarter, with — you guessed it — Russell Westbrook at the root of the Lakers’ problems once again.

He finished the night with a -15 plus-minus, the worst on the team, and tied with Nerlens Noel as the worst mark in the entire game. He only made one of his 10 field-goal attempts, missed 4 of his 7 free-throw attempts, and played the typical lackadaisical off-ball defense that we have come to expect from him.

It honestly wouldn’t have been much different from any other bad Russ game, however, it stands out because of head coach Frank Vogel’s decision to sit him down for the entirety of overtime. And as opposed to the lone other time Vogel benched the Lakers’ $44 million player — the 111-104 Jan. 19th loss against the Pacers — Vogel’s decision was validated this time with a Lakers win.

All parties seemed to move past that game with no issue, but how will they move forward? That is definitely the most important question heading into the front end of their upcoming back-to-back, starting with their game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.

Will Russell Westbrook get benched two games in a row?

The benching could have created a disgruntled Westbrook yet again, just as it did on that Jan. 19th night where he left the arena without talking to the media. Instead, Westbrook did talk to the media on Saturday night following the team’s win, saying he doesn’t care about anything just as long as the Lakers win. Given the difference between his media availability on Saturday contrasted with his absence following that game against the Pacers, either Westbrook just wasn’t as upset with the benching this time, or he really is telling the truth about not caring as long as the Lakers win.

But what if it happens again? Frank Vogel now has vindication to bench Westbrook late in a game, and given the fact that the 26-28 Lakers need every win they can attain to keep their heads afloat and get into the play-in tournament, there may be more tough late-game decisions in the near future.

The Lakers will be lucky if the score Tuesday night is close with the 34-21 Bucks, as they are possibly in the midst of their best stretch of the season. They’ve won three games in a row and are 7-3 in their last 10. In those 10 games, they have a preposterous 117.5 offensive rating, which ranks 3rd in the league over that span.

One of the Bucks’ key contributors has been point guard Jrue Holiday, who has averaged 19.2 points per game in his last 10 games. To make matters worse, he is coming off what is tied for his 3rd-highest-scoring game of the season, a 27-point performance on Sunday against the Clippers, a night in which he also dished 13 assists.

A lot of opponents this season have put taller wings on Westbrook with LeBron and/or Davis out, negatively affecting his ability to convert what should be his most efficient attempts, ones that come right at the rim. Now that James and Davis are back, causing opposing wings to focus on them, it seems likely that Holiday may be matched up on Westbrook at times. And even though Holiday isn’t a taller wing, he does have a lot of strength and defensive prowess that could spell trouble for Russ.

I doubt Westbrook would be guarding Holiday on the other end, but if he isn’t, that means he’s guarding Pat Connaughton or another one of the Bucks’ shooters that fly around off-ball. That might spell even more doom for the Lakers than Westbrook guarding Holiday, with another defensive dud possibly on the horizon as a result.

Depending on his performance throughout the game and what the score is late, would Vogel bench him for the second straight time? The Bucks don’t really present a favorable matchup for Russ, so another late-game benching seeming entirely possible.

If that happens and the Lakers get their second win in a row against one of the best teams in the league... Vogel, Westbrook, Davis, and LeBron may have to continue answering the awkward questions revolving around a player being paid $44 million to sit when games matter most. And the team will have some real deliberations to make by Thursday’s trade deadline.

Notes and Updates

  • Dwight Howard missed the Knicks game due to lower back tightness, and it appears he will miss another, as he didn’t practice Monday while being listed as questionable for Tuesday.
  • Carmelo Anthony is already ruled out due to the hamstring strain he suffered the other day against the Clippers. However, it sounds like something he will return from soon.
  • Sadly, it doesn’t sound like Kendrick Nunn will make his debut soon, as Vogel said on Monday that he’s not “ramped up to where he’s close to playing.”
  • You can read more on the injuries Howard, Anthony, and Nunn have going on here.
  • The Bucks will be without George Hill (neck soreness) and Brook Lopez (recovering from back surgery) against the Lakers. Lopez has been out for a significant portion of the season, while this will be Hill’s fifth straight missed game.
  • Grayson Allen is also listed as probable with hip soreness.
  • Around the league, a couple of big trades have been completed in advance of the Feb. 10th deadline. The Clippers acquired Normal Powell and Robert Covington from the Trail Blazers with a package that included Eric Bledsoe and recent draft pick Keon Johnson, while the Cavaliers bolstered their bench by acquiring Caris LeVert from the Pacers.

The Lakers and Bucks will tip-off at 7 p.m. PST, with the game being nationally televised on TNT, and locally broadcast on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.

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