Aging Lakers might be catching their stride

It was probably only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Lakers got healthy and figured it out.

Tuesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks just happened to be in their way.

A sluggish offensive night, missed free throws and turnovers gave the Bucks little chance to compete with a Lakers group that seems to be hitting their stride.

Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard combined for 62 points and were a combined 26 of 37 from the field as the Lakers turned a six-point lead after three quarters into a 104-88 victory.

“We just didn’t have our A-game today,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “Our guys fought hard and it was just one of those games that slipped away from us.”

If Milwaukee was going to keep up with Bryant and Howard, it was going to have to have Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis on their games. But the Bucks’ top duo was just a combined 10 of 30 from the field and Milwaukee shot just 35.8 percent as a team.

The Lakers made it a point to take Jennings out of the game by having Bryant guard him, trying to take the ball out of his hands.

It worked, and Milwaukee’s offense couldn’t recover.

“We like to have the ball in Brandon’s hands so he can initiate the offense and get things going for us,” Boylan said. “Kobe is a great individual defender and he showed it tonight.

“Our rhythm was taken away from us mainly by the defense that Kobe played.”

On the other side, Los Angeles assisted on 21 of its first 23 baskets and moved the basketball incredibly well all night long.

“They were on their game tonight,” Boylan said. “Anytime a team can have that many assists in a half, you are playing very good basketball. They played very well, so it was difficult.”

It was bad news for the Bucks when Howard returned from a shoulder injury Sunday against Cleveland. Big, physical big men have given Milwaukee fits all season long and Howard is arguably the biggest and strongest big in the league.

Howard scored 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, and his offensive game Tuesday was mostly dunks and finishes off passes from teammates. As a result, the Bucks gave up too many easy baskets and Howard finished 14 of 18 from the field. Boylan even tried seldom-used center Samuel Dalembert on Howard, looking for a more physical presence.

“We are a long team but we don’t have the physical guys inside,” Boylan said. “It was a big undertaking tonight for our guys and Dwight was doing what he does, just screening and rolling to the front of the rim. They got him going early, Kobe found him for a couple of easy baskets early. Anytime you can get yourself into a rhythm early, that’s a big advantage.”

With Bryant and Howard a combined 17 of 22 after the third quarter it was hard to believe that the Bucks were only down six points heading to the fourth.

But the Bucks started just 3 for 16 in the final period and the Lakers kept rolling. Before long the six-point lead was 17 and Milwaukee’s chances of a comeback were over.

“I thought we were moving in the right direction but suddenly they got it going and pulled away from us,” Boylan said. ” … I was a little surprised they pulled away from us in the end. I thought we had a nice rhythm going in the third quarter, but it slipped away from us.”

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