An underrated part about watching your team play without two of its best players? Low expectations.
Despite the three game win streak the Grizzlies brought to the FedEx Forum Saturday night, there's no getting around the fact that they're a 4-8 team destined for nothing in particular this year. But a Bucks team without Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd? How much smoke and how many mirrors does Scott Skiles have anyway?
Enough apparently. After nearly getting their doors blown off in the first six minutes, the rag-tag Bucks regrouped, hung around for a couple quarters and then got enough shots and stops in the final quarter to dispatch the Grizzlies in front of a few hundred people in Memphis. Nothing particularly pretty, good ball movement not withstanding. Certainly not the kind of game you'll be rewatching on DVR. But any win without Redd, Bogut and Mbah a Moute feels damn good: 8-3, people.
Of the guys who were in uniform, Brandon Jennings delivered the requisite flash with 24 of his 26 in the second half, but even more important were the role players doing all the little things. Luke Ridnour was balling (13 pts, 12 dimes), Ersan Ilyasova was scrapping (18/12), Charlie Bell was scoring (19 on 5/11 threes), and Kurt Thomas (8/10) was doing everything else. Rudy Gay had the Sportscenter line (24/10) for the Grizz, but Memphis never seemed too interested in exploiting their strength advantage down low. Marc Gasol (14/14) and Zach Randolph (18/6) scored when they got the ball, but the Grizzlies were largely unable to take advantage of their size advantage down low.
Luke Ridnour. I didn't expect Bogut's absence to make the Bucks' backup PG significantly more important, but in a roundabout way that's what we've seen the past two nights. With no semblance of a post game, the Bucks are playing Ridnour and Jennings with increased frequency--not only does it improve the Bucks' perimeter shooting and ball movement, but it allows Jennings to save some energy by not having to handle the ball quite so much.
But tonight it wasn't just Ridnour's work as Jennings' sidekick that helped steer the Bucks to a third straight victory. He got the call early when Jennings & company looked a bit off in the opening minutes, and his six points and five dimes in the second quarter got the Bucks back to within five at the break. And on the "things we don't see from Luke Ridnour" front, I'll point out that he both grabbed a rebound in the lane (with, you know, other people around) and finished in the paint from a halfcourt set (again, with other people around). Crazy.
Ersan Ilyasova. It took Scott Skiles three tries, but he seems to have found his starting power forward. Ilyasova's impact was unfortunately a bit delayed tonight, as a second foul just 3:38 into the game sent him to the bench and helped trigger a 10-0 Memphis run. Kind of fitting for the guy with the highest +/- on the team, right? He was back in the second quarter, though, and eight points helped halve the Grizzly lead by halftime. And he kept going: rebounding, getting away with just enough physicality on defense, moving the ball on offense, and dropping in buckets whenever the Bucks seemed to need one. Probably my fave sequence of Ilyasova plays came with five minutes left in the game. First he buried a three to break an 85-all deadlock, then D'ed up Rudy Gay on consecutive possessions, the second causing a turnover that led to a Ridnour lay-up. Little things.
Brandon Jennings. If you're one of those people desperate to compare Jennings to Allen Iverson, then this is a good game to highlight. It's no secret the kid is being asked to be a scorer right now, so there's more dribbling and shooting right now than you might otherwise prefer. Only two assists, but just one turnover as well.
What's most impressive is how hard it is to shut him down for 48 minutes. An early pair of free throws not withstanding, Jennings didn't score a point in the first half, but then had the balls to take (and make) a contested wing 20 footer to start the third. And he kept it going, with 10 more in the third and another dozen in the final quarter. Even with all his success shooting the ball from distance, he's also mixing in enough drives to the hoop to keep defenses honest, which helps on nights like this when the threeball isn't falling (1/6). Lots of Grizzly fouls in the final minute helped pad his scoring numbers, but it says a lot about how far Jennings has come that 26 points on 18 shots only seems like a so-so night for him.
21-18. The Grizz get to the line a fair bit, which combined with a Bogut-less Bucks squad seemed like a recipe for uncontested 15-footers. Besides, all I could remember from a year ago was Gasol beasting the Bucks and getting to the free throw line 23 times in two games. Didn't happen tonight (Gasol was just 2/4), and the Grizz were only +3 in freebies overall--in part because Memphis didn't force the issue on the block, instead settling for jumpers much of the night.
76%. Speaking of which, Gasol (6/8) and Randolph (7/9) made 76% of their shots tonight--so remind me why they only got a combined 17 shots? I know Thomas worked hard to keep Gasol from getting good position, and Ilyasova and Warrick worked to front Randolph whenever possible. But they gotta do better.
19. Chaz Bell has been shooting pretty well from deep this year (40%), he just hasn't been, you know, shooting. Volume wasn't a problem tonight, though, as Bell made 5/11 triples--almost all of them coming off wide-open looks from the corner--and had his first double-figure scoring effort in five games.
Roadies. Four games, two wins on the road so far. And no, I don't particularly care those two came against Minny and Memphis. Wins are wins, people. And the Bucks are somehow still in first place in the Central.
Old Dudes. Kurt Thomas and Charlie Bell, I'm talking about you. Bell's scoring exploits have already been mentioned, but the even older Thomas' contribution shouldn't be understated.
What does KT do? Just little stuff. Deflecting a pass in the P&R, leading to a steal. Dumping it off to a cutting Ilyasova for a jumper in the lane. Setting huge picks and dropping in 15-footers. While Gadzuric has used his energy well at times this season, Thomas' steadying influence was infinitely more useful against a big Grizzly front line. Mostly, he kept Gasol from getting deep position and didn't foul him. Thankfully, the Grizzlies seemed to forget about their grizzly-looking man, too.
Keep it moving. How limited are the Bucks' offensive options in the halfcourt right now? They actually run plays for Carlos Delfino. Really.
Aside from the occasional post look to Hakim Warrick, the Bucks pretty much just run high P&R for Jennings and hope he can create enough havoc to get someone an open shot. Sometimes that's Jennings, but a lot of times it's someone two or three passes later--like Bell, who spent much of the night setting up shop in the corner. The good news is that everyone seems to understand the benefits of ball movement.
Gadz and Delfino. Twenty minutes and eight fouls between them. The good news is that Gadzuric's foul problems meant Skiles had an excuse to sub him out rather quickly, while Delfino just continues to be a non-factor. As nice as it is to have Mbah a Moute coming off the bench, I'm going to go ahead and recommend he join Ilyasova in the starting lineup once his foot is healed up.