A year ago, the Lakers traveled to Milwaukee for an early-season showdown, teams among the elite in their respective conferences measuring up against one another.
The Bucks won that game — handily, actually — a victory that ended up meaning … absolutely nothing.
By the time the NBA Finals finally arrived — and “finally” was doing a lot of heavy lifting — the Bucks had been eliminated for weeks, jettisoned by the Miami Heat after a rocky showing in the postseason. The Lakers were in the middle of their run, no team in their way standing much of a chance of keeping them from their destiny.
Wesley Matthews sat in the Bucks’ locker room that day in December of 2019 with no attention focused on the future beyond the 48 minutes he was about to play. And when he returns Thursday with the Lakers to once again face Milwaukee, it’ll be the same.
“Every day, every game, we attack with the same mind-set. We know what the end game is. We know where we want to get to,” Matthews said. “We know that we’ve got a ways to go. Is this a preview? I don’t know. Who knows? We haven’t even discussed that.”
The game against the Bucks is the start of the Lakers’ longest scheduled road trip of the season, a seven-game journey that will stretch into February. Five of those games are against teams in the top eight of the improving Eastern Conference, with the tests in Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia the toughest.
The Lakers are .500 (4-4) against teams with a winning record this season and 7-0 against teams below .500. This trip is a chance for the Lakers to prove their hot start is more than a product of good timing and light scheduling.
“I think every game is a test,” Matthews said. “Everything presents a different challenge. We only play who is on our schedule. That’s all we can focus on, all we can worry about.”
They head out on the trip, though, with the sting from a loss to the Warriors that was easily preventable, the Lakers squandering multiple big leads before Golden State stole the victory.
“I don’t think it’s ever good to lose a game you should win with a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. That’s never good,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “That should get us nice and edgy. If you’re looking at a silver lining that it’ll make us edgy going into that Milwaukee game, maybe there’s something there. But I think when you’re playing against one of the best teams in the league, you’re going to play edgy, anyway.”
The Lakers haven’t lost on the road this season, taking advantage of leaguewide trends that have turned home-court advantage on its head.
And no one expects the Lakers to come back to Los Angeles still unbeaten on the road, but as the basketball adage goes, “You can’t win ‘em all if you don’t win the first one.”
“I know it’s cliche,” Vogel said, “but I’m really only focused on Milwaukee Bucks.”
The Lakers’ practice Wednesday kept players from watching the presidential inauguration in full, though people such as Matthews and LeBron James had their hands in the result.
NBA players responded to the racial reckoning of last summer by vowing to make actionable changes. Matthews was among the Bucks players who refused to play in an effort to refocus attention on social betterment and James launched an initiative to get people out to vote.
But whether their candidate won or not, that’s not really the point, Matthews said.
“The work is not done by any means,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to push and continue to strive and continue to hold ourselves and each other accountable.”
When: Thursday, 4:30 p.m. PT
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, TNT; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: For the first time since opening night, the Lakers will get a look at one of the NBA’s top-tier teams. Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, the criminally underrated Khris Middleton and new guard Jrue Holiday, the Bucks are off to a strong start, even if they just suffered a two-point loss in Brooklyn. These two teams split last season, with Milwaukee one of the few teams in the league with the size to match up with the Lakers.