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Lakers hope to improve rim protection with stiff test against Bucks – Press Telegram

When you’re going to be out of town for two weeks, the packing list gets long. The Lakers brought four variations of their uniforms, packed into bag after bag in an enormous trailer.

But what might help them most is to bring along their defense, beginning with Thursday’s game against the best scoring team in the league.

The Lakers are poised for another compelling matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks (9-5), a team that has started another season with astronomic offensive numbers (a 117.7 offensive rating) and a promising bid to finally break through to the NBA Finals behind two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis, it’s a headline-grabbing tilt featuring three of the NBA’s best players.

But what Coach Frank Vogel asked for during Wednesday’s film session was more attentiveness protecting the basket: With fewer traditional centers patrolling the paint, the Lakers are more reliant than ever on help defense rotations, and the low men in their scheme haven’t been pulling their weight.

“I’d say the last few games, three or four games, even though we’ve won, hadn’t been done at a high enough level for my liking,” he said. “It’s something that we’ll get better at. We’re doing a good job overall on that side of the ball but always you can get better.”

It’s a responsibility that is generally assigned to the Lakers’ big men by the baseline, including Davis and James. When drivers get penetration, they have to swing inside to challenge shots at the rim. It’s one reason Davis has at least three blocked shots in seven of his last eight games.

As far as blocks go, this year’s Lakers (6.5 bpg) aren’t far off their 2019-20 mark (a league-best 6.6 bpg). But it’s not a number that tells the whole story. Last season, they allowed 58.9 percent shooting inside the 5-foot mark, which was fourth-best in the NBA. This season, they’re allowing 59.7 percent shooting inside of 5 feet (13th in the league) – and 61 percent over the last five games.

Monday night saw the issue come to a head against Golden State. Of the Warriors’ 24 second-half baskets, 14 came within 3 feet of the rim. Even for a Lakers team lacking the rim protection of last year’s roster, that’s not a good figure. Clips of those drives to the rim show indecision, confusion or even inaction from the Lakers’ players assigned to challenge drivers at the rim as the last line of defense.

It was the focal point of the Lakers’ morning practice before flying to Milwaukee to start their seven-game, 12-day road trip.

“The low man hasn’t been as great as it’s been all season,” forward Kyle Kuzma said. “So little shortage of it but it’s something we’ve got to get back to.”

The opening game against the Bucks will be a stress test: Milwaukee is one of the best finishing teams inside of 5 feet (65.3 percent, fifth in the NBA) thanks largely to Antetokounmpo. There are few players who can put as much pressure on the rim as the 6-foot-11 forward, who is known for his hard-charging toward the basket, and the Milwaukee offense has incorporated a player into the “dunker” spot on the baseline, waiting to pounce if Antetokounmpo draws too much help and passes out.

It will require, perhaps more than anything, discipline – which is something the Lakers haven’t always shown during their 11-4 start to the season. Vogel said he could see how the fourth-quarter letdown against Golden State might inspire some additional effort from his group, even though he wishes it wasn’t necessary.

“If you’re looking at a silver lining that it’ll make us edgy going into that Milwaukee game, maybe there’s something there,” he said. “But I think when you’re playing against one of the best teams in the league, you’re going to play edgy, anyway.”

MATTHEWS RETURNS TO HOME STATE, OLD TEAM

Wisconsin is the place where Wes Matthews grew up; it’s where he went to college at Marquette; last year, it was the spot where he played again, winning 56 regular-season games. And yet for most of his career, Matthews said, it has also been a stop on the road – which means a homecoming doesn’t feel as much like a homecoming as one might think.

“Truthfully, it’s a business trip. That’s how I’m attacking it,” he said. “Other than one year, Milwaukee was always a road game for me.”

The 34-year-old was a starter and a valuable wing piece for the Bucks last season, but he quietly downplayed the significance of the matchup. When asked if it was a test for the league-leading Lakers, he said every game on the schedule represents a test. When asked about two tilts with the Lakers last season, which were viewed as potential Finals previews, Matthews said he simply wanted to beat everyone.

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