5-on-5: Is Bucks-Lakers an NBA Finals preview?

ByESPN.com ESPN logo
Friday, December 20, 2019

The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers -- the NBA's two best teams at the moment -- face off on Thursday in the premier matchup of the 2019-20 regular season so far.

What are the biggest things to watch in this game? Where are these two championship contenders weakest? And what is the most striking thing about LeBron James' season so far?

Our NBA experts answer the big questions about Bucks-Lakers and the NBA title race.

MORE:NBA predictions -- MVP, Finals matchups and future stars

1. What will you be watching most closely in this Bucks-Lakers matchup?

Tim MacMahon:I'll be watching the MVP candidates. I'm hoping that reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and four-time MVP LeBron James will spend at least a decent amount of time matched up against each other. Even if they don't, it'll be fun to watch these historically dominant, entertaining players compete on a stage that's a bit brighter because of their teams' records.

Jorge Sedano:Defense. Who guards Giannis and what tactics do they use? I'd like to see Anthony Davis be the primary defender.And if Giannis is going to guard either LeBron or AD, then who defends the other star? I believe a game like this will be won in the margins on defense.

Malika Andrews: LeBron versus Giannis. Sure, Antetokounmpo said at Wednesday's practice that it's more about the team playing well than his matchup with James. But are there going to be any other moments as charged as when we see No. 34 driving straight at the hoop with only No. 23 in his way?

Bobby Marks:AD and Giannis. Davis will be tested right away by Antetokounmpo. And I want to see Giannis in the role of closer at the end of the game. The Bucks have a league-high plus-12.9 point differential. They have rarely been tested this season in close games.

Kevin Pelton:How Milwaukee matches up defensively, particularly against Davis. The Bucks will probably need Giannis on AD, presumably leaving LeBron James with a size advantage against the 6-foot-7 Khris Middleton. Middleton is strong for his size, but LeBron is a difficult matchup for the vast majority of wing players.

2.What is the Bucks' biggest weakness?

Andrews:The Bucks rank near the top of the league in 3-pointers made, free throws attempted, rebounds, points scored, offensive rating and defensive rating -- basically any way we measure team success. The question is now that their 18-game winning streak has been snapped, how will they bounce back? It has been a while since the Bucks dropped a game. Thursday will test their resilience.

MacMahon:With all due respect to Middleton, the Bucks lack a second superstar. There's a very short list of teams that have won NBA championships with a lone superstar, though you could argue the Raptors were a rare exception last season. Milwaukee is so deep and so solid defensively that Giannis' minutes can be managed during the regular season. But the deeper the Bucks get in the playoffs, the heavier the burden gets on his shoulders, as we saw in last season's conference finals.

Pelton:Giving up 3s, particularly outside the corners. Mike Budenholzer's scheme has put less priority on defending these shots in favor of taking away higher-value ones near the basket and in the corners. That has worked well, as Milwaukee has the league's best defensive rating, but it does leave the team vulnerable to big men who can pop to the 3-point line. Davis might be able to take advantage.

Marks:Right now, it has to be the play of Brook Lopez. Coming off one of his more efficient seasons, Lopez has struggled in 2019-20, shooting a career-low 38.2% from the field and 29% from 3. In a loss to the Dallas Mavericks this week, Lopez finished with three points on 1-for-8 shooting from the field. Lopez's ability to stretch the floor last season proved to be a game changer. This season he has been more of a liability.

Sedano:Without the injuredEric Bledsoe in the lineup, it's the lack of playmaking beyond Giannis. Middleton has done a solid job. George Hill is certainly capable, and they've used Donte DiVincenzosome as well, but even more is falling in the lap of Giannis at the moment.

3. What is the Lakers' biggest weakness?

Marks: Injuries. We have seen how dominant the Lakers can be when James and Davis are on the court. The loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday helped show that the Lakers are not undeniable championship contenders without both players on the court.

Pelton:When LeBron goes to the bench. Despite the addition of Davis, the Lakers are still getting outscored without LeBron, and it's imperative that the Bucks take advantage of their superior depth and gain ground in the minutes when James rests.

MacMahon:Shooting. The offseason addition of Danny Green, the epitome of a 3-and-D guy, helped. But the Lakers still lack shooting by today's NBA standards, which makes James' league-leading assist numbers that much more impressive. L.A. is tied for 23rd in the league in 3-point attempts (30.4 per game) and hits them at a mediocre clip (35.7%, 16th). The good news: Shooters in the buyout market will surely have the Lakers at or near the top of their list.

Sedano:Like the Bucks, it's playmaking beyond the top star for the Lakers as well. Once LeBron is out of the game, there is a significant drop-off in initiating offense. Yes,Rajon Rondo is capable. Alex Carusois serviceable but not great. It's more of a minor issue, but the Lakers' lack of a secondary creator is noticeable.

Andrews:It's the 3-point shooting. Coming into Thursday's game, the Lakers are 13-for-62 from beyond the arc in their past two games. Lakers coach Frank Vogel noted it after the loss to the Pacers on Tuesday, saying the team has to start shooting the ball better.

4. What have you found most compelling about LeBron's season so far?

Sedano:First of all, he's leading the league in assists, which is a wild accomplishment as he approaches age 35. And he just looks incredibly spry for this stage of his career. James is redefining the game all the time.

Andrews:His turnaround from the 2018-19 season to now. After failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005, the "Washed King"has reinvented himself again. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, James is on pace to average 25 points and 10 assists per game -- something that no player over 30 has ever done.

Marks:How Vogel has managed his minutes, and how James has paced himself in each game. James is certainly in the MVP conversation, but he's doing so while playing a career-low 34.7 MPG. The Lakers have won nine games by double digits, allowing James to remain fresh -- something that will pay off when we get to the postseason.

MacMahon: I think LeBron's renewed commitment to defense -- something we haven't seen from him in the regular season for at least a few years -- is one of the most important ingredients to the Lakers' success. But I consider him leading the league in assists (by a wide margin) for the first time in his career more compelling. A skeptic might say that King James is chasing an assists crown because he can. But the instant chemistry with Davis (assisted 86 times by James already) is a credit to LeBron.

Pelton:His ongoing feud with believers in load management, most recently seen in his back-and-forth with Clippers coach Doc Rivers on the teams' contrasting approaches to rest. That's interesting partially because it's a new stance for LeBron, who sat out six games for rest purposes in 2015-16 and five in 2016-17, and mostly because I'm intrigued how well it will work for him as he approaches his 35th birthday.

5. Is this an NBA Finals preview?

Pelton:I think the Bucks are the clear favorites in the East. In the West, which L.A. team is better is less clear, so I think it's more likely we get some other matchup than this one even if it's the single most likely matchup.

Andrews:ESPN's Basketball Power Index sure thinks so. It projects a 29.1% chance the Bucks and Lakers face off in the Finals -- a more likely outcome than any other combination.

Marks:No. The Lakers are clearly the best Western Conference team during the regular season and probably will be the No. 1 seed when the playoffs start. However, when the Clippers are at full strength with both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, they look like the team most likely to be playing in early June.

MacMahon:Is it the most likely Finals matchup? Yeah. Would I bet a week's salary on the Lakers and Bucks meeting in June? Nah. Neither one of them will have an easy road to the Finals. They could both end up on the couch watching Clippers-76ers or a handful of other potential matchups.

Sedano: It's certainly possible. I believe if the Sixers get adequate shooting at the trade deadline or buyout market, they should be the East representative. Of course, the Lakers will have to contend with the Clippers at some point, though I'd currently make the Lakers the favorite.

MORE:NBA predictions -- MVP, Finals matchups and future stars

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