Through the first half, at least, it seemed as if the Bucks were drinking from the same well as the Suns had Sunday night. A hot start for Milwaukee kept the game close into the third quarter before the Lakers asserted control and kept it the rest of the way.
A good, if imperfect, start to the road trip over a solid team.
Here's how it broke down ...
1. Shannon Brown -- ShannonFest '10-'11! continues, as once again we learn what Brown can do for the Lakers. Seven-of-nine from the floor, including a blistering four-of-five from beyond the arc for 21 points, not quite his high in purple and gold but among his higher output games. More than simply shooting well were the types of shots he made. Confident, important looks reaching into the fourth quarter. With 10 minutes to play, Brown hit a critical jumper, pushing L.A.'s lead back to 10 after a cold start to the final period for the second unit. From there, Brown kept trucking. He scored 10 of the team's first 14 points in the quarter. No wonder he was still on the floor to drill the dagger three with about 2:30 to go. Phil Jackson couldn't have pulled him off the floor if he wanted to.
Brown is earning himself a lot of fourth-quarter minutes thanks to play like this, with Kobe Bryant sliding to the three (and Ron Artest sliding to the bench). If he keeps it up, talk of a Most Improved Player award at the end of the year will build like the push to get Brown into last year's dunk contest.
"I've never stopped trying to get better," Brown said after the game of his play this season. "I love this game. This is what I love to do. ... I'm just trying to get better every year."
Last week, Jackson described himself as "enamored" with the quality of Brown's shot. Can't believe P.J. is any less smitten after Tuesday's outburst. Brown acknowledged he's as good a shooter now as he has ever been, but were that the only leap, he'd be a different player, but not the guy we've seen through the first 11 games of the year. "I'm a smarter basketball player," he said, which is the key. His understanding of spacing, of where to move the ball and himself, is vastly better now relative to his earlier days in L.A. Health helps -- the injured right thumb hampering Brown last season is fully healed -- but doesn't explain it all. He's a better, more confident player.
Brown was out front of a very positive night for the Lakers bench. Matt Barnes had his typical Swiss Army game, with nine points, five boards, two assists, two steals, and a block. Steve Blake, back in the lineup after missing Sunday's game because of flu, hit two key threes. Even Devin Ebanks pitched in with a steal and bucket in the first half. They were particularly good in the second half with Bryant on the bench, helping keep his minutes at a very tidy 33:18.
2. Patience -- Something about the Lakers makes teams shoot the lights out, it seems. The Bucks, not exactly noted for their outside gunning, came out red hot from the perimeter, making five of seven 3-pointers in the first quarter, part of a 12-for-19 outburst that included a ton of long jumpers. Milwaukee kept it up through the first half, really. But rather than get impatient, the Lakers kept doing what they needed to do offensively. They didn't fall in love with the three, taking most of their looks from downtown off passes from the interior or penetration. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol was a steady force inside, scoring 14 first-half points. Artest put himself in the post, as did Bryant. Lamar Odom did good work there, as well, and as a team the Lakers piled up fouls against the home team, earning themselves 19 trips to the line in the first 24 minutes (they'd finish with 29, making 24).
Generally speaking, the Lakers executed very well on that side of the floor, resisting the temptation to go shot for shot with an uncharacteristically torrid Milwaukee squad and against one of the better defensive teams in the Eastern Conference.
3. Stars -- Bryant's final shooting percentage wasn't unusually brilliant -- 10-for-23 -- and he has scored 31 points in more spectacular fashion. But he was particularly big in the third, scoring 13 points in a wide variety of ways, from transition to the three to a nice little jumper at the right elbow, coming off the high screen. He took the shots available to him, passed out of doubles, and generally managed the game in a way you'd want him to. Meanwhile, Gasol was equally impactful. He had 18 points, 10 rebounds, four assists (including a great post-repost-kick sequence earning Blake a corner three in the first half), and three blocks. While Andrew Bogut did pull down 18 rebounds, Gasol helped limit Milwaukee's star center to five-of-13 shooting. All in all, a steady night for both of L.A.'s A-Listers.
1. Defense, though it wasn't as bad as it initially looked -- The Bucks aren't an overwhelmingly good offensive team. Nor are they noted gunners. I realize some of this is the refrain from Sunday's loss to Phoenix, but you want them shooting some of the shots they took in the first half. Stepback 22-footers from Drew Gooden are fine. Brandon Jennings taking mid-range pull-ups at the end of the shot clock are OK, too. So are Corey Maggette jumpers. These are things you live with. And after shooting an absurd 57.8 percent in the first half, Milwaukee finished at 46.1, a pretty substantive fall. They regressed to their mean, and the Lakers turned up the intensity.
That said, there were still moments of very poor D, some more pronounced than you might see typically. Guys being beat down the floor in transition off a free throw, for example, something that should never happen. A few times the Lakers didn't get Jennings wide enough on the floor coming off the high screen, allowing him easy penetration into the lane. And, of course, there was ...
2. Defensive Rebounding- ____th verse, same as the first. Bogut had nine offensive boards, nearly equaling Gasol's high mark for the Lakers ... on both ends. And while all those ORBs and tips were good for my fantasy team -- "Slavon Waferdenko" needs all the numbers we can get -- they were bad for the Lakers. This sort of thing continues to be a major weakness for the Lakers, really the only built-in problem found on a near-nightly basis. Obviously Andrew Bynum's impending return will help but won't solve every problem.
3. Punt. I thought they played pretty well. Feel free to leave your "third down" in the comments, if you'd like.