Lakers’ Big Three want to make big win in Milwaukee not so extraordinary

MILWAUKEE — Of all the people in Fiserv Forum on Friday night, Darvin Ham would have been excused for celebrating the most.

And the Lakers’ head coach did take a moment to savor the 133-129 win over his former team, a victory his 9-12 Lakers couldn’t have imagined as recently as a few weeks ago, let alone achieve. Ham made sure his players saw what he viewed as the most important clip – Russell Westbrook chasing down a loose ball and deflecting it toward LeBron James for an eventual fast-break layup by Anthony Davis – and letting it sink in.

But by the time he reached the postgame podium, he took on a much more reserved air. While he said the win itself was proof in the Lakers’ superstar trio (that so far has had much less success than hoped), Ham stressed that he was waiting to see more from his team.

“This can’t be a one-game thing,” he said. “It’s easy to get up for the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s easy to get up for the Celtics. It’s easy to get up for Golden State. … It’s not about who we’re playing. It’s how do we want to represent ourselves as the Los Angeles Lakers?”

Lately the Lakers have represented themselves a lot better.

In their last nine games, the team is 7-2. That coincides with Davis on a throwback heater, averaging 32.9 points, 15.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game and finding some of his bubble midrange magic in the Friday night tilt. Even James conceded in postgame that Davis has graduated to “the No. 1 option every single night,” though James himself has raised his play by hitting 20 of his last 40 threes and playing competitive defense against Milwaukee. While Westbrook’s efficiency has waivered, his hustle and playmaking, as shown against the Bucks, can be an enormous X-factor.

But what each of the trio seemed to understand – perhaps hardened by cynicism of a 15-18 record when they play together – is that the Lakers’ Big Three is enjoying a moment of success. It’s up to them to see if there is more longevity to it. Friday’s win merely offered evidence that the concept could work, if the stars are willing to play a certain way.

James again cited a small sample size when talking about the body of the Big Three’s games, criticizing “narratives” that they haven’t been successful as premature.

“It’s just not enough to even be critical or say, ‘This can work’ or ‘This can’t work.’ So what we’ve done is just put our head down and try to get better every day for each other,” James said Friday night. “But I will say I feel like tonight is the most complementary and the best game with all three of us on the floor together that we’ve played on both sides of the floor.”

Saying there haven’t been enough games to judge is a bit of posturing by James, because he, Davis and Westbrook have had truly low moments this season, most pressingly at the end of games. Within the players and staff, there was massive disappointment at losing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Pacers on Monday by going off the scripted game plan. James called the Tuesday film session “a tough day for us.”

On Friday, the Lakers were poised for another letdown. In the second half, Giannis Antetokounmpo found ways to break down the defensive scheme that had stalled him early, and the Bucks got frighteningly hot from three (17 for 43). An Antetokounmpo block of James at the rim with 7:20 remaining set the crowd alight, as screams of “M-V-P” poured down onto the court with the Lakers’ lead seriously under threat.

But from that tenuous moment, the Lakers actually executed. What has been the worst statistical clutch team in the NBA went 8 for 15 in the final seven minutes, and held the Bucks to 6 for 14. They outrebounded the Bucks 10-8 from that moment on. There was a little luck sprinkled in, with the Bucks missing their final two 3-point looks, but the Basketball Gods smile upon teams that have been giving their all to win.

To Ham, that moment spoke to his group’s resiliency – something they need to hold onto.

“I’ve been on that side in that locker room with the Bucks and I’ve seen how plays like that totally demoralize the opposing team,” he said. “But us, we stayed with it. We had that stick-to-it-tiveness of, ‘OK, next-play mentality. Let’s go try to get another stop. They beat it up at the rim. Take a timeout. Let’s regroup. Let’s keep attacking.’”

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It’s one thing to attack for 48 minutes. It’s another to attack for 61 more games. The Lakers’ biggest battle is with the standings, still a game-and-a-half outside the play-in range and three games back from top 6 in the West. Their road-heavy December, with 11 of their next 15 games on the road, won’t make the challenge any easier. But after Friday, they see the value of doing something hard, what it can prove to the league, and what it can prove to themselves.

“We’re just figuring it out with us three,” Davis said. “Russ making some great reads, making some great play calls and we’re just trying to execute. But he did a good job tonight. Bron, myself, the rest of the guys, we’re just trying to figure it out and let the outside noise be outside noise and try to keep stacking wins.”

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