[Above: Delfino planting and scheming for a corner three. It's good.]
MILWAUKEE - These were supposed to be two of the worst teams in the conference, in the NBA, maybe in the world judging by the preseason prognosticators. But only one team looked the part of miserable in the first half.
And it wasn't the 0-11 Nets.
It was the Bucks who looked like the team playing the second night of a back-to-back in the opening two quarters. It was the Bucks who handed the Nets the confidence of an 11-0 team. And it was the Bucks who made Terrence Williams look like Tracy McGrady circa 2003.
But like many games this season, it was also the Bucks who pushed to another level in the second half, offensively and defensively, both. Brandon Jennings heated up with a couple threes and a two-handed dunk out of halftime while Andrew Bogut and Carlos Delfino maintained their fine first half offensive form. The points poured quickly, but better yet was the defense: Milwaukee gave up just two points in over five minutes to start the second half and only allowed 12 in the third quarter.
What a relief. What a great relief that the Bucks really are so clearly better than the worst of the league, a backhanded compliment but something we couldn't be too sure of less than a month ago or at about 8:00 p.m. central time tonight.
Down early, good teams wouldn't worry much against an outfit like the present-day Nets. But these are the Bucks, and we just don't know. Or didn't know. So just as we all are contemplating just how good Jennings can be someday, it's also time to consider how good the Bucks are right now:
Not bad, at least.
Andrew Bogut. Going into the game you had to figure that if the Nets were to win, then Brook Lopez had to outplay Bogut, if not dominate him. As you saw, the Nets have a few other nice players, but not nearly enough to sustain a lead for a full 48 minutes.
Thankfully Bogut asserted himself right away, even while most of teammates didn't follow suit. He scored the first basket of the game and totaled 10 points in the first quarter. And Lopez played only a very minor role in New Jersey's early success, finishing the half with just three points, and finishing the game with just 11/4.
Bogut wasn't sensational tonight; nobody in this game for either side was. But he wins top with honors for 21 points, 11 boards, 3 assists, and 1 decisive win in the key individual matchup of the game.
Carlos Delfino. With Luc Mbah a Moute sidelined with a foot injury, Delfino started and made a quick case for more starts even when the team is at full strength. This was Delfino's finest game as a Buck, any way you slice it. Along with Bogut he kept the Bucks just barely afloat in the first half, finally showing off the soft touch from outside that heard about this offseason but rarely saw in the first few weeks.
Deflino made 4-8 on threes and 3-3 at the line, tying Bogut for the team-lead with 21 points. Not a bad output for someone who hadn't cracked double digits prior to the game. The Argentinian was confident with the ball and even a playmaker, handing out six assists.
Luke Ridnour. For the third game in a row, Ridnour was a key element off the bench. To say he's been overshadowed by Jennings early on is an understatement, but he is so far thriving out of the starting spotlight. His shooting accuracy is markedly improved this season, and tonight's 7-11 performance was one of his best yet.
The game against Dallas was all about the bench, but tonight Ridnour was the bench. Besides the slow start, the starters played well, but Ridnour was the only plus off the bench as Warrick, Meeks, and Gadzuric best kept out of the way.
+95. Combined differential of the five Bucks starters. Nice.
12. Chris Douglas-Roberts made more free throws (12) than the Bucks (11). Not nice.
37. The Nets comfortably glided to 48 first half points, and it seemed plausible that the Bucks would not only allow 100+ for the fifth straight game, but allow 100+ to the worst offensive unit in the NBA. But they clamped down a fair bit in the second half and gave up just 37, seven of which came in the last couple minutes at the line.
The third. "Guys sit around for 15 minutes and all of a sudden the ball is inbounded, and if you can be ready to play at that moment, sometimes you can catch a team on their heels a little bit and seize the momentum," Skiles said after the game.
Since the Knicks game, the Bucks have run off four straight third quarter beauties, including tonight's 28-12 ruination that began 15-0 in favor of Milwaukee. The Bucks battled their way back into the game in the third against Dallas, outscored Denver in the third to provide a much-needed cushion entering the fourth, and maybe you remember what happened against Golden State right after halftime.
Answering the Bell. Michael Redd, he's not. Charlie Bell, starting shooting guard, attempted one shot in 31 minutes tonight. Two points. But he contributed in other areas, maybe not enough to make Three Bucks, but 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and not a single turnover worked. And he's (rather quietly) filled in for Redd well.
Bell (+14 tonight) has boasted a positive differential in seven of eight games this season, tops on the team. And while his areas of strength are quite a contrast to those of Redd, he is jiving well with the first string right now.
At the point. This is already covered a bit above considering Jennings and Ridnour both made Three Bucks, but with all of the offseason drama at the position, the Bucks sure are getting some excellent point guard play so far. (And one more Good, while we are on the subject of point guards: Chris Duhon made a shot tonight. He really, truly did make a shot, and in just 35 minutes, in the process tripling his number of made field goals in the last 140 minutes to three.)
Slow start. This was at home, and against the Nets. So it worked out. A wretched first quarter didn't even harm the Bucks on the road in Minneapolis. But that was against the Timberwolves, who are sort of the Western Conference's version of the Nets.
Milwaukee trailed by 11 in the first half tonight following what was probably their worst 16 minutes in a row of the season.
"You fall behind decent teams, good teams, it's very difficult to come back," Skiles said.
True. New Jersey = not decent. San Antonio = good. The trend of uninspiring starts, if continued, will soon (next week to be exact, starting with a date in San Antonio) become a problem they can't recover from.
Milwaukee-connected Nets. Actually, ex-Buck Bobby Simmons (8 points, 4 rebounds in 25 minutes) was alright, but even he cooled off and had three turnovers. Meanwhile, 2007 lottery pick Yi Jialian (knee) and 'Tosa East star Devin Harris (groin) were helpless in the cause for New Jersey's first win, and former Buck point man Rafer Alston suffered a 1-10 shooting night and racked up a single assist in 32 minutes.
Not only that, but according to Jennings in the locker room post-game, Young Buck jammed his finger in Alston's jersey ("It wasn't that bad," said Jennings) and Simmons kneed him in the leg.
Crowd. Officially 13,479, unofficially not nearly enough for a team actually playing some serious ball right now.