Early in the second quarter the basketball found a perch it didn’t want to leave. It was stuck above the backboard of the Milwaukee Bucks’ basket until one comic-book-loving big man came to the rescue.
Brook Lopez, the Bucks’ 7-foot center, grabbed a flat mop and used its handle to poke the ball loose. Then he bowed to the crowd, turned for an encore and retreated to the bench giggling.
Lopez, who spent last season with the Lakers, has had a lot to smile about lately. His team has the best record in the NBA and even without its best player Tuesday night, they handily beat the Lakers, who were also missing their best player. The Lakers lost 115-101, despite cutting Milwaukee’s lead to single digits in the fourth quarter.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led all scorers with 35 points, tying a career high with eight three-pointers. Khris Middleton led Milwaukee with 30 points and 10 rebounds while Lopez added 28 points, including seven of 10 three-pointers, and nine rebounds. Kyle Kuzma contributed 17 points and Rajon Rondo had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“I'm happy with the way our guys played tonight,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “You know it's been a long road trip. We've got a lot of bodies down, and sometimes it's easier, even when you're having a lot of success, to just give in at the end of a road trip.”
The Bucks improved to 53-18 while the Lakers fell to 31-40. They will have to win four of their next 11 games to match last year’s win total of 35 games.
Tuesday’s game ended a five-game trip on which the Lakers went 1-4, losing the last four.
Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo missed Tuesday’s game because of a right ankle sprain, while LeBron James sat out because of a sore left groin. James suffered a strained groin on Christmas and returned after 17 games. Since then, he has missed two games because of what the Lakers called “load management.” The distinction changed for Tuesday’s game. James never joined the team on the bench, opting instead to spend the game getting treatment, the Lakers said.
James missed two of the five games on the Lakers’ trip. He did not play Friday in Detroit, a game that fell on the second night of a back-to-back. As the season draws to a close, the Lakers have been watching his minutes and working to limit his playing time wherever possible.
Mike Muscala started in James’ place, having also started in Detroit. Muscala played only 11 minutes and scored two points, missing all five of the three-pointers he attempted.
As a team, the Lakers have struggled from three-point range this year, but for the past few games, Caldwell-Pope has seemed to find his shot.He made five of nine from distance in the loss to Detroit and seven of 11 in a victory over Chicago to start the trip.
“Just feels like everything I throw up’s going to go in,” Caldwell-Pope said. “That’s the mind-set I had coming into this game. I even thank Reggie Bullock. I wasn’t going to shoot pregame, but he made me go shoot. I appreciate that. That really got me going just going out there and seeing the ball go through the net.”
On Tuesday, the pending free agent’s hot streak began in the second quarter. After scoring only two points in the first quarter, Caldwell-Pope scored 21 in the second, making five of six three-pointers and eight of 10 shots overall.
He insisted after the game that free agency was something to think about during the summer, not now while the season is still going.
What, then, inspired the shooting night he had?