MILWAUKEE – Nick Young landed on his backside as the ball fell through the net. Delirious amid the sort of performance the Lakers have rarely enjoyed, he somersaulted backward, then rolled over onto his stomach, and splayed himself on the court with theatrical satisfaction.
The Lakers would be going home winners.
That shot late in the second quarter was part of a four-point play that gave the Lakers 76 first-half points – their most since Mike D’Antoni was coach – and propelled them to a 122-114 win on the last night of a five-game trip at BMO Harris Bradley Center.
A nail-biter in the end, the Lakers spent three quarters terrorizing the Bucks with crisp ball movement and a flurry of rhythm 3-pointers. Young led the way, scoring 26 points on 11 shots, going 5 for 8 from 3-point range.
“That was fun basketball,” Larry Nance Jr. said. “Even if every shot wasn’t going in, we were just getting great shots. It was layup, dunk, open 3, open mid-range, open 3. Even if you’re missing those, you’re happy with the shots you’re getting.”
The thing was, the Lakers (19-37) weren’t missing them. They shot a blistering 18 of 22 in the first quarter and scored 47 points – their most in an opening quarter since 1987 and tying the league high this season. At halftime they were still shooting 69 percent.
It was a performance that could perhaps be traced to the team’s morning shootaround, when Coach Luke Walton, either displeased with the Lakers’ effort or leaning on a well-worn motivational tactic, lit into his team.
“He thought we were crap,” Julius Randle said. “He thought … for whatever reason our focus wasn’t there. … So we really had to look ourselves in the mirror when we went back to the room, lock in and come up here prepared.”
Walton said he was really “happy and pleased” with their performance on a night they easily could have not shown up.
“It’s hard to be on the road this long,” Walton said, “and then obviously All-Star break right around the corner and you’re not a playoff team so everything you’re bringing is what you’re just mustering up from within because it matters and you care.”
It was the response Walton was hoping for. Before the game, he sounded leery, saying, “It’s moments like these you really see if the team has gotten mentally tougher.”
The game wasn’t without its drama. Walton said the Lakers “got a little flustered” in the fourth quarter, when the ball movement stagnated and All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo began to take over for the Bucks (22-30).
“Literally every single possession turned into a last-second heave at the shot clock,” Walton said.
The Bucks outscored L.A., 30-19, in the final period. That 82 percent shooting clip in the first quarter was a distant memory as the Lakers made just 5 of 20 shots, going nearly seven minutes between field goals at one point.
Antetokounmpo almost single-handedly slashed what was once a 27-point margin to five with a minute left.
He finished with a career-high 41 points and added 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocked shots and 2 steals, but with 33 seconds remaining Antetokounmpo whipped the ball out of bounds and a video review confirmed the Lakers had not deflected it, allowing them to escape with a harder-than-expected victory.
Until then it was beginning to resemble the Lakers’ Dec. 20 game in Charlotte, one they lost after scoring 73 points in the first half.
Young led eight Lakers in double figures, with Lou Williams scoring 21 off the bench. Julius Randle finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, and rookie Ivica Zubac was on his heels with 15 and six.
Brandon Ingram’s third game as the starting small forward was his roughest. He scored just two points on three shots in 22 minutes.
No one was nit-picking, however. After five games away from home, with significant highs and lows, they were ready to get on a plane, happy to once again be winners.
“All in all, I think we’re going home a better team than we were when we left,” Nance said.
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