NBA Thursday Betting Picks & Angles (Dec. 19): Expect Defense, Math to Factor in For Lakers vs. Bucks

NBA Thursday Betting Picks & Angles (Dec. 19): Expect Defense, Math to Factor in For Lakers vs. Bucks article feature image
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Photo credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Sterling Brown

Angles and more on the monster showdown between the 24-4 Los Angeles Lakers and the 24-4 Milwaukee Bucks Thursday night.

THE ANGLE: Trust the Structures

This is a tough nut to crack. The Lakers are a great team, and are 3-0 against the spread as underdogs. They started the season as a great defense with a middling offense, and then figured out how to get their offense going.

This matchup features the No. 5 and No. 4 defense (Lakers) vs. the No. 2 offense (Bucks) and No. 1 defense. (Milwaukee will be No. 1 in offense by the end of the season when Dallas cools off from an unsustainable start)

These are two great teams with good ATS records. More than that, this is a super high-variance game. The Lakers are a low 3-point shooting team facing a Bucks team that allows the most 3-point attempts per 100 possessions in the league, and the Bucks are a high-3-point volume team facing a Lakers team that ranks 14th in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions allowed, but fifth in opponent percentage.

The swings, they are immense here.

However, if you’re looking for value, I think it’s on the Bucks (-4) and the under.

For starters, the Bucks under Mike Budenholzer are 10-7-1 (59%) against teams with a winning percentage of 60% or better. The Lakers are obviously better than that, but just as a starting point. The Lakers are 6-4 (60%) vs. such teams, which seems like a wash, but with the Bucks at home I lean a little in that direction.

More notable, however, is the profile of Milwaukee. The Lakers this season vs. teams that are top 10 in defensive rating are just 3-4 (43%) ATS. Against those teams, they average just 103 points per game.

Milwaukee is the No. 1 team in defending the paint this season. Brook Lopez absolutely envelops guys by contesting at 7 feet without fouling (or jumping or moving). The Bucks give up the third-worst expected opponent effective field goal percentage league-wide according to PBPStats.com.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22), center Robin Lopez (42).

So the Lakers, who don’t take a lot of 3’s (25th in 3-point rate), on the road vs. a top-notch defense that gives up 3’s (which the Lakers don’t take) and defends the rim at an elite level (which is what the Lakers are best at), while also a team that takes a ton of 3’s.

A quick note on the Lakers’ offense inside: the Lakers are a top-ranked team in points per game on both cuts and on the lob in pick and roll. The Bucks are excellent vs. cuts; the allow the fewest attempts and field goal percentage on cuts in the league per Synergy Sports.

In pick-and-rolls the Bucks give up the second-most possessions to the ball-handler shooting, but the second-lowest field goal percentage on such shots. On passes to the roll man, where the Lakers are so dangerous, the Bucks give up the most possessions per game league-wide and the lowest field goal percentage.

The Bucks play drop coverage with the big dropping underneath. If you have a springy guard who can shoot off the dribble or a big wing who can get his own shot, you can give them trouble. The Lakers do not, it’s one of their biggest areas of weakness.

Now, Anthony Davis (questionable), JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard will all get some. But it’s a lot of work trying to beat the Bucks at what they’re best at.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee shoots the third-most threes per 100 possessions in the league, while the Lakers give up a league average (14th) rate, but a top-five percentage.

The Lakers may force the Bucks into a low percentage, but the volume itself will matter here. This is the Math Problem. The Lakers are constantly looking to create 2-point shots, the Bucks are always looking for 3’s (or Giannis dunks).

Even if the Lakers manage to shut off the paint from Giannis and contest the 3’s at a good rate, the Bucks’ success rate has to be so much lower because of the 3-vs.-2 differential than the Lakers’ has to be.

I think there’s a good chance the Lakers manage to slow down the Bucks’ offense; they have that much length and discipline, and Milwaukee can go absolutely frozen from time to time from deep, often at the worst times, seemingly. But even if so, that will take a lot of energy out of the Lakers, whose offensive hill to climb is even steeper.

I’ll play the math, here, and trust the Bucks defense.

THE PLAYS: Under 225 | Bucks -4 | Lakers Under 110

Matt Moore is 651-654-17 (49.9%) overall betting on the NBA. You can follow him in our free app.

Some other notes:

  • Davis is 8-4 all-time vs. Antetokounmpo, and hasn’t put up fewer than 20 points vs. the Bucks since 2014. James is 4-14 vs. Giannis heads up, which feels unfair given the levels of teams and how often they played one another when LeBron was on a contender.
  • If Davis doesn’t play in this one, I still like the Bucks up to -5.5 but after that I back away from it. If he doesn’t play, I would also be on the lookout for an early ML live play on the Lakers based on both the letdown effect and how springy the Lakers can look when he’s out. Davis’ absence means more 3-point stretch-four play, even with Kyle Kuzma ruled out of this game. The over gains a lot of value if Davis doesn’t play.
  • LeBron is shooting 40% from 3 the last five games, something to watch closely. If he’s just nailing 3’s vs. drop coverage, that could tilt things.
  • Meanwhile, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Troy Daniels are all sub-30% in the last five games. Also notable.
  • The Lakers will likely put Davis on Giannis a fair amount of time (if he plays). Davis is an exceptional post defender because of his length, and Giannis isn’t skilled to beat him by going high off glass. However, on the perimeter, Giannis will beat AD in one-on-one ISO play more often than you’ll expect, and it’ll come down to whether or not Howard and McGee get called for fouls on Giannis. Giannis got those calls all last year, until the Raptors series. If he doesn’t get those calls, there’s really nothing he or the Bucks can do, another signal for the under.
  • Meanwhile, Davis has been great in the post at drawing free throws, but is shooting just 49%. Giannis can stifle him just as much. The big key for Davis is going to be hitting floaters off the roll from LeBron. Lopez in help coverage will stay home vs. the cut and challenge Davis to hit short-range stuff, and that’s a comfort zone for Davis. That’s where he needs to feast instead of in the post.
  • The Lakers have the fifth-best transition defense, and they’ll need it. They give up the third-most fast break points per 100 possessions, league-wide, and Milwaukee generates the second-most. The Lakers can live with it because they contest so well, but with Milwaukee’s length and shooters, it needs to be a concern.