Point differential is probably the best, most consistent long-term overall team indicator. And judging by that measure, the Bucks are now almost a top ten team in the NBA.
With the 17-point win tonight, the Bucks have outscored their collective opponents 842-822 through nine games. That bumps them up to +2.2 per game, good enough for 11th in the NBA (pending tonight's results). Granted, while point differential might be telling, it ultimately doesn't matter any more than free throw differential or any other stat. The good news is that things are also starting to even out in the win-loss column (4-5) after a second blowout in as many nights.
The Bucks moved along with unexpected verve on the second night of a back-to-back, and it was all prompted by the most inspiring run of basketball so far this season
And it all started without the starters. Without any starters.
Down by ten with 1:20 remaining in the first quarter, Scott Skiles went with the motley crew of Earl Boykins/Keyon Dooling/Corey Maggette/Ersan Ilyasova/Jon Brockman. Less than eight minutes later, and a 25-9 run later, that fivesome had turned a 25-15 deficit into a 40-34 lead with 5:46 before halftime.
Boykins spurred everything. He started the second quarter with six assists in five minutes, simultaneously involving Maggette, Dooling, and Ilyasova in the offense, finding everyone in rhythm, getting everyone in rhythm. We can't count on these shooting performances every night, and the Bucks quite honestly didn't look all that smooth in their halfcourt sets throughout a sizable portion of the game, but we do enough worrying after the losses to worry too much about the wins.
And really, the only way to follow a blowout loss in Game Seven in the postseason against the Hawks was a blowout win in Game One in the regular season against the Hawks.
Earl Boykins. He entered the game making two-thirds of his shots on the season (10-15), so the fact that he made 3-6 from the field wasn't really the point.
Those eight game-turning assists were the point.
Brandon Jennings. Swagger neared November 2009 levels after completing a four-point play in the fourth quarter, and Jennings spoke candidly after the game about wanting to come into Atlanta and beat the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last season.
He started aggressively, making a three and then forcing and missing a step-back three in the opening minute and a half of the game. Then he spent a good chunk of the first half watching Boykins expertly guide his team, which seemed to inspire Jennings and the rest of the starters in the second half. In all, 19/5/6, which is approximately what we should hope he is averaging by next season.
John Salmons. The Fish actually flopped a bit in the final three games of the playoffs against the Hawks last year, but he was easily and rightfully forgiven after carrying the team to the playoffs in the first place. Now he is getting back, and the Bucks are getting back to winning. Salmons scored 16 on 7-12 shooting and outplayed an obscenely quiet Joe Johnson (13 points on 5-13 shooting).
14-25. Atlanta entered the game hitting 47.3 % of 16-23 footers, the NBA's best shooting team from that range. Milwaukee entered third from the bottom, making just 34.0 % from 16-23 feet.
Tonight? The Bucks made these difficult, low percentage shots like they were layups, making a silly 14-25 (.560) of shots from 16-23 feet, roughly the same percentage as they made at the rim, 13-23 (.566). The Hawks made 11-25 (.444) from the 16-23 foot range.
8. Milwaukee favorite Josh Smith was pretty content to hoist jumpers, including a particularly ill-advised three pointer. He finished with eight points. And while you can't judge Smith's productivity in points, he hit at least double-digits in all four of the team's playoff wins, and was held to seven points in a pair of the losses. When he is into it, the Hawks are tough to top, but the Bucks took him out of it.
49.3 % The Hawks don't figure to lose many games at home when they shoot that percentage from the field, but the Bucks made more than half of their shots for the second successive night, hitting 45-87 (.517) from the field.
The return of Turk Nowitzki. Ersan built on his garbage-time success against the Knicks with some really meaningful minutes and by far his best, most active game of the season. He was all over the glass and was generally aggressive, even if it meant trying to dribble a bit much on the break at one point. Ersan played pretty well against the Hawks in the playoffs last year, and he brought 17/10 off the bench, matching up well as Skiles held the recently impressive Mbah a Moute out for long stretches.
Six Sixth Men of the Day. Jamal Crawford is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, but by halftime he had yet to get on the scoreboard and packed in a personal -26 differential while watching Milwaukee's bench pile up 35 points.
Corey Maggette grooved in 20-footers with ease and made his best Sixth Man of the Year audition with the type of straight-up scoring line that earned Crawford the award last season. Maggette made 7-8 from the field, 5-6 from the line, and swished his only three-point attempt for an ultra-efficient 20 points. And he only attempted one field goal from within 18 feet, making 6-7 jumpers on the night. Obviously that is unreasonably accurate shooting, but it was also a bit of happy mean reversion for a player who came in shooting under 40.0 % from the field after shooting better than 50.0 % last season.
But Maggette wasn't the only shooting star off the bench. All six of Milwaukee's active reserves, from Ersan Ilyasova (8-16 shooting) down to Larry Sanders (1-1) made at least half of their shots.
The bench accounted for plenty more than half (67 of 108) of the team's points.
Point guard play. They both played 18 minutes, but Earl Boykins brought the ball up the court more often than Keyon Dooling, and while he still seems more like an offensive specialty player, he also has been one of the most productive players on the team this year. And at this point he looks more like co-backup point guard than third string.
I made a point of noting how well opposing point guards had fared against the Bucks and compared to Jennings after Chris Paul worked the Bucks for the second time this past Saturday. In the two games since then, strong point guard play has coincided with victory.
ATL MIA. Apparently Atlantans have grown tired of Bucks/Hawks matchups (this was their 11th head-to-game game in the last 9 and a half months) judging by what appeared to be hundreds upon hundreds of fans that made the trip to Philips Arena this evening.
This probably wasn't the right performance to inspire television viewers in the Greater Atlanta Area to order tickets for the next time Milwaukee comes to town, on Jan. 11. The dispassioned drone of boos that followed the Hawks off the court don't bode well either.
Official attendance count: 11,211.
Not close, not closing. The Bucks have entered the last two fourth quarters with leads of 23 and 29 respectively -- and too often for comfort they have played like they know it. Offensive execution and defensive intensity suffered in stages throughout the fourth quarter as the Hawks even pulled to within 15 points with 4:09 to go. The Bucks pulled away enough, but lost the final period 32-20.
10 minutes too many. Jason Collins is as bad as it gets, as far as starting NBA players go. And this is a night after watching Timofey Mozgov play center.
As if playing with sincere incredulity that he is in fact starting on an NBA team, Collins did most everything he could to show coach Larry Drew that he is completely out of his league: He started the game with an offensive foul on the team's first offensive possession. A couple minutes later, he passed right to John Salmons for a layup. This earned him a starting spot to kick off the second half, when it took him less than a minute to shoot the flatest shot I have seen this year. With 10 on the shot clock, he threw a wide-open 19-foot set shot at the hoop which, to be fair, did graze the right side of the rim.