Analysis: The Lakers are rolling, but don’t forget the Bucks

Sports
Jeff Green, LeBron James

Utah Jazz forward Jeff Green, right, defends against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, as he drives to the basket in the first half during an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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No team in the NBA has a better record than the Los Angeles Lakers, who are off to a 19-3 start. LeBron James looks very much like an MVP candidate. They are grabbing headlines almost every night. There is a buzz around them again.

The Lakers have been so good, in fact, that they’ve manage to cast a shadow over Milwaukee.

Just like the Lakers, no team in the NBA has a better record than the Bucks, who are also off to a 19-3 start. Giannis Antetokounmpo not only looks like an MVP candidate — he is the reigning MVP. They lead the league in scoring. They lead the league in field-goal percentage, rebounds and scoring margin.

So it’s a mistake, even a disservice, to forget the Bucks.

The Lakers have earned every bit of their attention, of course. James is playing like a man on a mission. Anthony Davis might be the top early candidate defensive player of the year. They’ve won 10 in a row on the road, just the fourth time in franchise history they’ve put together such a streak.

“I believe in our guys,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “If we play to our abilities, there’s nobody we can’t beat and nowhere we can’t get a ‘W.’”

Same goes for the Bucks.

Maybe people are just used to the Bucks being good again by now. Maybe it’s because they’re in a small market or that their best player hails from Greece. Maybe it’s because they were supposed to be great again this season. They won a league-best 60 games last season. Remember, they led Toronto 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals and had a look at a 3-pointer with 9 seconds left in Game 3 for what would have been a 3-0 series lead. It missed, they lost in double overtime and didn’t win another game for the rest of the season.

They, too, are driven. James is driven by a fourth ring and a desire to disprove the notion that he’s washed up. The Bucks are driven by a bad week last year at the end and having to watch Toronto not only go to the NBA Finals but throw itself a parade for winning the title.

“We lean on our daily routines, lean on our process, just kind of get ready to come and play basketball, do what we do every day,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Take care of the defensive end of the court, play unselfishly, all the things that we preach and good things usually happen when you kind of follow that.”

If history holds up, it’ll be either the Bucks or Lakers celebrating come June.

This is the seventh time that at least two teams have gotten off to 19-3 starts (or better) in the season’s first 22 games. The most recent was 2008-09, with the Lakers (19-3), Cleveland (19-3) and Boston (20-2). In 1996-97, it was Chicago (19-3) and Houston (19-3). In 1993-94, Seattle (20-2) and Houston (21-1). In 1985-86, the Lakers (19-3) and the Celtics (19-3). The Lakers and Celtics were both 19-3 again in 1972-73. So were the Lakers and Bucks in 1971-72.

In the previous six instances, the NBA champion was one of those 19-3 or better teams five times — the Lakers in 2009, the Bulls in 1997, the Rockets in 1994, the Celtics in 1986 and the Lakers in 1972. The only year where a different champ emerged was 1973, when New York wound up beating the Lakers.

This time last year, the Lakers were 13-9 and looking like a playoff team — which they were until James got hurt on Christmas and everything fell apart. This year the Lakers know they can be elite.

“It’s a good start,” James said.

The Bucks, meanwhile, just keep rolling along relatively quietly. They entered the year slated to have nine fewer nationally televised games than the Lakers — those numbers could change a bit, given how the national outlets are dropping Golden State games like wildfire with the Warriors now at the bottom of the standings.

Antetokounmpo won the MVP vote easily last year and his numbers are even better so far this season — sans for an inexplicable dropoff in his free throw percentage. Go figure: He’s now starting to make the 3-pointer, the former supposed “weak” link in his game, but he’s bricking free throws at a baffling rate.

“He’s in a good place,” Budenholzer said. “He just needs to keep playing, taking what the game gives him.”

That’s the Bucks. Understated, all business, almost quiet.

The Lakers, they’re certainly not understated. There’s nothing quiet about them.

They took different paths to the best record in the NBA at the quarter-pole. But it wouldn’t be wise to think that the team that isn’t from Los Angeles isn’t capable of this season’s Hollywood ending.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds@ap.org

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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