MILWAUKEE — If you’ve never been to the Calderone Club, surely you’ve been to an Italian restaurant like it.
It’s a low-lit room with white tablecloths and friendly, familiar waitstaff who carry over bottles of wine and heaping portions of pasta and pizza. And for Lakers coach Darvin Ham, it’s a sure stop in the city where he both played and coached for some of the most memorable Bucks teams. Midwestern charm helps get folks through the winter – as does the hearty penne con salsiccia, which Ham imagined with a hazy, distant look as he thought ahead to the team’s trip there this weekend.
“That’s a wonderful city,” he said. “They’ve always shown me love. Made me feel super-duper welcome. It reminds me a lot of home, of Michigan. I’m a Midwest kid. So I’m looking forward to it.”
Then he chuckled: “But the game is another story. They’re a hell of a team.”
Midwestern hospitality is unlikely to be on the menu when the Lakers (8-12) step into Fiserv Forum on Friday night. They’ll face a Bucks team (15-5) that directly inherited the NBA title from them in 2021 (with Ham on the bench as an assistant) and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in a game that always seems to have measuring stick implications – for better and for worse.
On paper, the Lakers will have a hard time keeping up: Milwaukee boasts the league’s best defense (106.5 drtg) and the Lakers have had a hard time shooting consistently this season (109.1 ortg, 26th in the NBA). Adding to that mix is the season debut of Khris Middleton, the three-time All-Star and versatile scorer who will make life tougher on the wings – where the Lakers still are unsure if Troy Brown Jr. (probable) or Lonnie Walker IV (questionable) will play.
But while this matchup comes just twice a year, there always seems to be something important at stake when the Lakers and Bucks meet in the LeBron James era, whether it’s hype, legitimacy or something more difficult to describe.
In March 2020, the Lakers seemed to herald themselves as a legitimate title contender when they topped Milwaukee in a closely-fought game (and eventually did win it all, though months later than anyone could have predicted). They beat the Bucks the next season on the road, which portended well in their 12-4 start and a possible MVP candidacy for James before injuries took their toll and the Bucks would later win it all that summer.
But those games were when the Lakers and Bucks seemed closely matched: There was a turn last season, two days before the February trade deadline, when the Lakers were throttled at home. The defeat led James to acknowledge publicly that he didn’t think the Lakers could reach Milwaukee’s level, and of course they never did.
This season, it might just be the two big men at the center of everything. While Antetokounmpo is putting together another MVP-caliber season while averaging a career-high in points (31.3 ppg), in recent weeks, the Lakers have propped up Davis as, in their own words, the best player in the league.
In the past six meetings with the Lakers, Antetokounmpo has averaged 34.5 points, including 44 or more in the last two, both Milwaukee wins. Davis acknowledged the challenge of defending the Greek Freak. Though he has been a rival for Defensive Player of the Year with him in past seasons, he knows he can’t handle himself.
“Haven’t seen one guy in the league stop him one-on-one,” Davis said. “It’s always a team effort.”
But the Lakers are seeing signs that Davis could be cycling back into All-NBA form himself. They felt that Wednesday’s win against Portland was something of a breakthrough: Even with James on the floor in the fourth quarter, Davis took the most shots of any Laker, going 5 for 7. Through a combination of aggression and play-calling, Ham said Davis has to remain central to the team’s offense, especially in the closing minutes.
“A.D., we have to keep him in rhythm constantly,” Ham said. “He covers up a lot for us defensively, getting boards, putbacks, post-ups, was great in the pick-and-rolls rolling to the rim, getting in the paint, getting to the free-throw line. So, that’s basically the biggest thing, just him just feeding our epicenter.”
For Ham, it will be a measuring stick against his old boss: Mike Budenholzer, whom he served as an assistant for nine years in Atlanta and Milwaukee. Ham is no stranger to trying to beat friends on the sideline now, but he’s spoken with nothing but warmth for his mentor who oversaw some of his biggest leaps as a coach.
Ham acknowledged he’d be facing a challenge with his emotions, but made a quip of it on Wednesday night: “Hopefully I don’t cry like a baby. But it’s 50-50 right now.”
LAKERS WAIVE MATT RYAN
Whatever next awaits Matt Ryan, the 25-year-old swingman will always have a memorable shot that led to a win on his NBA resume.
The Lakers officially waived Ryan on Thursday, in a move first reported by The Athletic and confirmed by Southern California News Group on Wednesday night mere minutes after the Lakers’ victory over Portland in which he played. Ryan played 12 games, averaging 3.9 points in just 10.8 minutes and helping the Lakers through the worst of their early-season shooting struggles. His best shot came at the end of the Lakers’ home win against New Orleans, when he forced overtime on a sideline out-of-bounds play at the buzzer.
In waiving Ryan, the Lakers save money on their luxury tax bill but most importantly create a roster spot that could be used to take on an extra player in an unbalanced trade. Notably, reports have linked the Lakers to myriad trade scenarios involving Russell Westbrook’s $47 million contract, which is likely to take two or more contracts coming back for salary-matching purposes.