Giannis is a top candidate for MVP, yet he had an off night and Milwaukee still figured out how to put away a playoff contending team. The Bucks defeated the Lakers Friday night, 131-120. Brandon Ingram had an incredible game for LA, but ultimately it was Eric Bledsoe’s game as he capped off a big day for himself with a season-best performance on the biggest stage in America.
Brook Lopez returned to his long time home at the Staples Center and got the scoring started for the Bucks. His next two possessions were both turnovers so other Bucks got their touches. Eric Bledsoe was the big energy guy to begin. He signed a 4-year $70 million contract earlier today which is quite the steal considering what he could’ve gotten in the free agency market. His and-1 in the first few minutes of the game was the biggest bright spot. The teams combined for 20 points before the first timeout with just over 6 minutes in the quarter.
The next 2 minutes went much better for Milwaukee. Pat Connaughton hit a long jumper as the shot clock expired and was followed by a Brook Lopez three on a kick out from Nikola Mirotic. Luke Walton was forced to call a timeout to regroup and probably have LeBron talk over him.
Los Angeles found their stroke and were winning a lot of one-on-one battles with the Bucks’ defenders. Khris Middleton was the biggest reason the Bucks kept the lead for much of the first quarter. He hit deep three after deep three whenever the Lakers were close to taking a lead. Milwaukee held a 27-26 lead after the first quarter. Khris led the team with 9 points but Brandon Ingram for LA was the real story with 12 points on 6-6 shooting and an emphatic dunk in the final minutes of the quarter.
The second quarter began with a catch and shoot three from Brogdon and a Giannis transition and-1 layup to give Milwaukee some breathing room. The lead didn’t last long after the Lakers hit their own back to back threes to trim the lead back to 1. Rajon Rondo attempted 10 threes before the 9 minute mark in the second quarter, a career high for him, and had hit 3 of them. Back and forth play ensued, capped by a LeBron backwards tip dunk to put LA up 58-57 with 3 minutes left in the half. They kept the lead into the half, up 65-59.
Every starter for Milwaukee had at least 8 points and no more than 11. Giannis already had 10 rebounds and the starting five shot 18-35 from the floor. But bad defense kept the Bucks down after Ingram finished the half with 16 points on 8-8 from the field. Milwaukee’s offense was doing enough, but their number one defense wasn’t playing the part.
Brandon Ingram finally missed a shot early in the second half but that didn’t mean his game was going to fall off. He forced a timeout from Coach Bud after a monstrous poster dunk on Brook Lopez to bring their lead back up to 7 with 8 minutes left in the third. LeBron kept the run going with an and-1 past Lopez to extend the lead to 12. Back-to-back layups from Bledsoe forced another timeout on the floor before a run could be established from Milwaukee.
Giannis was subbed out midway through the quarter after he picked up a quick two fouls and Ersan Ilyasova took his spot. This seemed like a pretty bad move considering how bad Ersan’s defense was in the first half. Well, that was very wrong and and quick run from Milwaukee, led by Eric Bledsoe, put the Bucks up 1 with three minutes left in the third. Just like that, the 12 point deficit was erased. The quarter ended with 4 straight threes and LA led 94-93. Ingram was up to 29 and Bledsoe shot 9-17 for 22 points, nearly perfect on twos. Giannis didn’t seem to be himself, yet he still had 10/14/5 after 23 minutes.
Ersan proved he deserved to start the fourth quarter by hitting a three on the first possession and getting to the line for a pair of free throws on the next to give Milwaukee a 4 points lead. Giannis silenced anyone who thought he may still be injured by putting Mike Muscala on his own poster. LA game back in the form of back-to-back threes from LeBron and Rondo to tie the game at 106 with 7 minutes remaining in the game.
Giannis took a breather and checked back in with 3 and a half minutes left, down 2. Bledsoe regained the lead for the Bucks on an and-1 layup. LeBron took the lead right back with a wide open 3. Bledsoe did his thing again with another and-1 layup, and the race to the finish was officially on. Brogdon got to the line after a turnover from LA to put Milwaukee up 3 with 2 minutes left and another timeout was called by Luke Walton.
Out of the timeout, the Bucks picked off the inbound from the Lakers and Brogdon hit a quick corner three to push the lead to 6. This marked the third straight turnover from LA on a night that they took care of the ball for the majority of the game. Bledsoe continued his contract game with a three from the top of the key with under 40 seconds left to make the lead 9 and LeBron headed to the bench with a defeated look. Luke Walton called one last timeout to try and stop the unstoppable. A few foul shots later and Milwaukee came out on top in Los Angeles, 131-120.
Eric Bledsoe was the star of the show, finishing with 31/9/5 and the plays that closed out this game.
Malcolm Brogdon was incredibly efficient on 8-13 from the field and 3-3 from deep for 21 points. Giannis finished with 16/15/6 in a team high 33 minutes.
Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Mirotic, and Pat Connaughton were the main pieces off the bench. They combined for 32 points on 12-21 from the field.
Believe it or not, this was a statement win for Milwaukee. There are still doubts about how this team will handle themselves in the playoffs considering their history. Well, this is about as close as you can get to a playoff environment in the regular season. Without Giannis making much of an impact down the stretch, the Bucks were able to bury the Lakers who have gone into must-win mode in the hunt for the playoffs. The fourth quarter was 38-26 in favor of Milwaukee with the last 18 being scored in the final 3:30.
Today was a big day for Milwaukee. It started with Eric Bledsoe signing an extension to his contract before hitting free agency this summer. Then Jon Horst verbally agreed to a deal that puts a playoff tested veteran in Pau Gasol on the bench. To top it all off, that same guy that committed the prime of his career to Milwaukee, led the Bucks to victory against a hungry and talented LeBron team.
The Bucks improve to 48-14 on the season and are the first team to clinch a playoff spot. They improve to a league best 23-7 on the road and have won 10 straight away from Fiserv. Milwaukee travels to Utah tomorrow night to face the Jazz at 8:00 p.m. With another back-to-back next weekend, I expect Giannis to get a lot of rest for tomorrow’s game. Donovan Mitchell is something special, so it should be a competitive contest.