Lakers’ win over Bucks opens six-game trip with a flash of potential and hope

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Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton and Los Angeles Lakers' Russell Westbrook go after a loose ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook dives to the court to beat Bucks forward Khris Middleton to a loose ball Friday night in Milwaukee. (Morry Gash / Associated Press)

The Lakers had just won their second straight game in October the first time any talk of “turning a corner” occurred. The season began with five losses before wins against Denver and New Orleans in Los Angeles birthed faint signals of hope.

As the media entered the postgame locker room, players lounged while Patrick Beverley’s voice boomed over the music.

“Keep that same energy,” he said to reporters.

Beverley and the Lakers, that night, reveled in their role as the written off.

The mood, though, would change with the Lakers losing another five games in a row, their warts too obvious to ignore. Big-picture questions that lingered from the previous season about roster construction and players’ fit hadn’t faded. Consistency and injury problems threatened to define their season. And first-year coach Darvin Ham’s relentless positivity seemed more and more misplaced.

Now? Maybe that energy is worth reevaluation.

Beginning with a win against Brooklyn on Nov. 13 and illustrated with a 133-129 win in Milwaukee on Friday night, the Lakers might actually be in position to quiet their doubters if they can keep up this level of play.

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Starting with their win over the Nets, the Lakers have the fourth-best offense and the fourth-best defense in the league. Their net rating is third, trailing only New Orleans and Boston. Anthony Davis is playing some of the best basketball of his Lakers tenure. LeBron James is getting healthier. Russell Westbrook is settled in and role players like Austin Reaves have stepped up.

Since Nov. 13, only Boston’s lineups with Jayson Tatum and Derrick White have outscored what the Lakers have done with Reaves on the floor — his plus/minus rating a whopping plus-102 in the Lakers’ last nine games.

The team has been helped, undeniably, by a softer schedule — three games against San Antonio, opponents playing on the second nights of back-to-back games — but the stretch also includes meetings with the Phoenix Suns and Bucks, with the Lakers looking more than capable.

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James, who said the Lakers were flat-out not on the Bucks’ level a year ago, wouldn’t elevate his team to Milwaukee’s place in the league now even after withstanding a big night from the Bucks’ offense.

“Definitely not comparing us to them. That is a well-oiled machine,” James said Friday night. “That group has been playing together for quite a while — got so many minutes logged, so many games logged. We’re not there. But for us, we just worry about what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get better every single day. We want to play complementary basketball on both sides of the floor, and continuing to be great for one another on the floor. And I think tonight we did that.”

More than anything, the Lakers getting great games from Davis, James and Westbrook at the same time on a big stage has to be most encouraging.

“There was no doubt in my mind once they hired me that we could figure out a plan to make this work,” Ham said.

Despite another gem from Davis and James’ all-around offense, Westbrook might’ve made the game’s biggest play — diving for a loose ball to start a fast break in the final minute to put the Lakers ahead by two possessions.

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That he missed a pair of free throws that would’ve sealed the victory became incidental after the Bucks missed in their chances to make game-tying threes.

“The thing I’ve seen from him, he’s having fun playing basketball,” Ham said of Westbrook. “You can see the joy in his face. He’s having fun playing basketball and that’s the way it should be.”

Keeping momentum on this trip won’t be easy. The Washington Wizards, the Lakers’ opponent on Sunday, have been a capable team, and the Lakers don’t know whether James’ problematic left ankle will be too sore for him to play after he rolled it again Friday.

Any inevitable regression will force some of the usual questions about the Lakers’ shooting, consistency and fit with one another to resurface.

Yet if Friday’s performance against the Bucks represented the Lakers’ ceiling, that’s worth some level of excitement.

“It was a beautiful night,” Ham said. “Wonderful, wonderful night for our team, for our franchise. Great way to start a six-game road trip.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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