Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA

Imagining a potential Bucks-Lakers series in 2020 NBA Finals

We don’t know when the season will return, but since we’ve got time to kill, here are the questions that would define a 2020 NBA Finals matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.

Before coronavirus interrupted the NBA season and all of our lives, there seemed to be a fairly clear separation at the top of each conference. The Milwaukee Bucks were 6.5 games ahead of the next-closest team in the East, while the Los Angeles Lakers were 5.5 games in front of the next-closest team in the West. In plenty of people’s minds, these two teams were on a collision course to meet in the 2020 NBA Finals.

While we don’t know when the season will resume or what kind of condition these teams will be in if and when it does, the seemingly interminable wait for those things to happen allows us plenty of time to imagine what such a matchup might look like. In the space below, we’re going to examine a few key questions that would define a potential Bucks-Lakers Finals series, based of course on what we knew about those teams when they last took the floor.

Who guards LeBron?

One might be tempted to conclude that Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton would get the unenviable assignment of defending LeBron James. It makes sense. There is nothing more important against the Lakers than making LeBron’s life difficult, and Giannis and Middleton each have the type of size and length that is necessary to be workable in that matchup.

But in Milwaukee’s two games against L.A., it was actually Wesley Matthews who drew the job more often than not. According to Second Spectrum, Matthews defended LeBron for 91 of his 146 half-court possessions in those two games. That’s 62 percent of the time. The next-closest player was Giannis, with only 19 possessions. So, in all likelihood, Matthews is going to get the first shot at this.

Is Matthews going to shut LeBron down? Of course not. I’m not even sure it’s possible to do that. But he’s going to fight through every screen. He’s going to stay in a stance and keep his hands up. He’s going to use his chest and his feet to defend instead of his hands. In short, he’s going to work. How successful that work is depends just as much on the help he gets from his teammates as it does on anything he actually does himself.

Milwaukee’s defense calls for everyone to cut off access to the paint at all costs, and they execute it about as well as possible. In the history of Basketball-Reference’s shot location database, no team has ever allowed its opponents to take a lower share of its shots from inside the restricted area.

In exchange for not allowing anyone anywhere near the paint, however, the Bucks freely give away shots from beyond the arc. Which brings us to our next question.

Do the Lakers have enough shooting?

Take a look at the box scores of the Bucks’ 12 losses and look for a commonality. You’ll find it pretty easily. In 10 of those 12 games, Milwaukee’s opponent made at least 15 3-pointers (and they shot 39 percent from 3 of better in nine of them). For context’s sake, know that the league average is 12.1 made 3s per game.

The only two losses where the opponent did not make 15-plus treys? A February game against the Indiana Pacers where Giannis didn’t play … and March 6 against the Lakers. L.A. shot only 6-of-32 from deep in that game, and still managed to hang on for a win. That makes the Bucks 34-2 in games where their opponent made fewer than 15 shots from outside the arc. So, it’s pretty unlikely that we’d see a repeat in the Finals.

The Lakers’ inconsistency and inaccuracy from beyond the arc would then play a key role in deciding a series between these two teams. L.A. took only 35.5 percent of its shots from 3, 23rd in the NBA, and they connected on only 35.5 percent of those shots, 17th in the league. Even the players who shot 3s well (Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley) tend to run a bit hot and cold; and guys like LeBron (34.9 percent), Anthony Davis (33.5 percent) and Kyle Kuzma (29.7 percent) just could not get their shot going consistently during the regular season.

Can Bledsoe hack it?

Eric Bledsoe has essentially fallen apart in the final series of each of Milwaukee’s last two playoff runs. He was badly outplayed by Terry Rozier two years ago, then looked like he had put his playoff demons behind him by excelling early in last year’s postseason before spontaneously melting down again and shooting 29 percent from the field and 17 percent from 3 in Milwaukee’s six-game loss to the Raptors.

If the Bucks manage to make it to the Finals, it’s likely that Bledsoe will have played a big role in getting them there. It’s not a coincidence that they lost the two series where he was a no-show these past couple years. He’s important. Especially on defense, where his point-of-attack tenacity is a key component of how the Bucks keep players from getting where they want to go.

When his offense suffers as badly as it has in his two playoff disasters, though, it becomes tough to justify keeping him on the floor despite all he does defensively, because opponents sagging off of him allows them to choke off the paint access that Giannis needs to be his best self. That’s why there was so much criticism when the Bucks let Malcolm Brogdon walk last offseason. Not only was he the team’s starting off-guard, he was also their Bledsoe insurance policy. The Bucks weathered Brogdon’s absence during the regular season with Matthews’ solid play and George Hill‘s almost unbelievable run of hot shooting. It’s likely that Hill would take on the Brogdon role were Bledsoe to falter, but it’s important to remember that he was basically available for free about a year and a half ago. There’s no telling what he might look like when we come back from this hiatus.

Luckily for the Bucks, however, the point guard matchup is the single least-challenging one against the Lakers. Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley … none of these guys is going to challenge Bledsoe all that much when he’s on defense. Caruso and Bradley are tenacious defenders and it’s likely Bledsoe would see at least some of Green or KCP if he ever really got going, but compared to some of the matchups he’s likely to face in the East, this is a relative breeze.

Who goes small first and how does the opponent respond?

This is the question that has defined almost every playoff series over the past five years or so. The Golden State Warriors’ Death Lineup, and how opponents countered it, was pretty close to the only thing that mattered in the entire league from 2015-19. Those Warriors are gone now, but teams’ supercharged offenses are still capable of playing opposing centers off the floor.

The Lakers prefer to stay big if they can, but Brook Lopez‘s shooting is likely to stretch JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard too far outside their comfort zone for them to stay on the floor — assuming he’s making his shots. Remove those guys from the paint and Giannis has free rein, so long as he can manage to get by Anthony Davis at some point. That’s likely to prove unacceptable to the Lakers, which means going small with Davis at center.

The question then becomes, who shares the floor with him, LeBron, and Danny Green? Presumably, it’s some combination of KCP, Kuzma, Bradley, Rondo, Caruso and Markieff Morris. Do they need Morris out there to body Giannis or guard Lopez? Does KCP’s flexibility to defend anyone from Bledsoe to Middleton mean he needs to be out there? Do they just go with whichever of those guys happens to be hitting their shots that night and figure out the defense based on that?

And then what does Milwaukee do? Lopez is nearly as important to the team’s defensive scheme as Giannis, but if the Lakers go small in an attempt to space the floor, he might be removed too far from the paint to matter as much as he normally does. Marvin Williams seems to have been acquired for that exact reason, in order to give Mike Budenholzer another option as a small-ball center beyond Giannis himself or Ersan Ilyasova.

Next: How the hiatus will affect all 30 NBA teams

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