MILWAUKEE -- The Bucks looked like a new team on Saturday night. And to some extent, they were.
On a five-game losing streak, the Bucks trotted out a starting frontcourt of Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova, as Drew Gooden (plantar fasciitis) and Corey Maggette (left ankle soreness) were added to the ever-growing list of Important Bucks with Mysterious Injuries.
The two new starters, Sanders and Ilyasova, played their best games of the season. And Chris Douglas-Roberts made his Bucks debut in a fine sixth man role.
So indeed, a lot changed since the Bucks beat the Bobcats in their home opener on Oct. 30. But the circumstance entering the game and result after the game feels quite the same. If you recall, the Bucks were coming off a loss to the Timberwolves the first time Charlotte came to town. This time, Milwaukee was coming off a loss to the Pistons that sent them to the bottom of the division. Gloomy times, both.
But the Bobcats again proved an ideal opponent, turning what had become a pretty bad, predictable, unlucky, boring team into a pretty good, surprising, fortuitous, exciting game for the Bucks.
Milwaukee scored 60 first-half points and Brandon Jennings dropped 32 points on the Bobcats after a triple-double his last time out against Charlotte (good), the starting frontcourt pairing of Sanders/Ilyasova worked about as well as any other combination this year and Luc Mbah a Moute sprang back to life playing all but 38 seconds of the game (surprising), Stephen Jackson got ejected early in the first quarter after two quick technicals and the Bucks were able to select Kwame Brown to shoot a pair of potentially game-tying free throws with seven seconds remaining in regulation after Gerald Wallace was injured getting fouled (fortuitous), and the Bucks escaped with a one-possession win when the Bobcats could not get off a final shot in time (exciting).
So while this was not a blowout win and probably not a blueprint for future wins, it was a win, and actually a pretty convincing win.
It always felt like the Bucks should have been up by more -- by 20 when it was really 15, by 15 when it was really 8, and by 8 when it was really 3. But the point is that the Bucks were literally always winning: They went up 3-0 on a Brandon Jennings 27-footer, and although the two team's tied 101-101 after that shot, the Bucks led the entire time.
And winning for two straight hours is a good start after losing for two straight weeks.
Ersan Ilyasova. He put up good numbers -- 17 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and three steals -- and he played at least as well as those stats suggest. For most of the year, Ersan has played like a fringe rotation player, an eighth or ninth man. Making his first start of the season, he played very much like a starter.
Ilyasova's offensive rebounding and outside shot make him a unique offensive inside-outside talent, but he had yet to really show off either quality this season, regressing on threes (from 33.6 % to 26.7 % on threes), and not grabbing offensive rebounds at the same rate (offensive rebound rate from 9.0 to 8.0) from a year ago. Tonight, he made threes (3-6) and crashed the boards (nine rebounds, three offensive).
So he got back to what he does best, but he also added a new dynamic to his offensive game by dishing out six assists, a number of them the result of receiving the ball around the free throw line and finding a cutter to the hoop.
Probably just a coincidence that he played his best game of the year in his only start, but no matter, this had to work as a confidence-booster.
Brandon Jennings. Before the game, at the game, Frank and I chatted about how preferable it would be for Jennings to scrap those long, contested twos and stick to the aggressive drives and three-pointers.
Then Jennings went out and converted on all three of his shots in the paint, and made 6-13 threes. He only attempted two long twos and both were in the second half. It's not always so simple, and as we all know (all too well), his shots at the rim and beyond the arc are not always falling like tonight. But those shots are his best chance, his only, and he needs to continue to maximize them.
And on a night when four of the team's best offensive players were out, a completely-necessary 32 points on 21 shots, and he quarterbacked the game suitably too, finishing with seven assists and two turnovers.
I've been watching Derrick Rose a lot lately. Even though he is scoring a lot, he is also leading his team, and they are also winning. And he is also taking charge out their on the floor, and just being a leader. Once he goes, their team goes, and that's what I'm trying to put in my game right now.
Luc Mbah a Moute. After all of his struggles starting at small forward, Scott Skiles again started him at small forward -- and played him 47 minutes and 22 seconds out of 48 minutes. Not all of those minutes were at small forward, but most were.
And The Prince did a fine (not the "okay" kind of fine, the "quite good" kind of fine) job. Namely, he hit four clutch free throws in the final minute, including those two huge ones to extend the lead to 100-95 with 22 ticks. I've no idea why Luc, owner of a 60.0 % free throw average coming in, was the guy taking those two, but he made them, and he made 6-7 tonight.
In all, 12 points on seven shots and 10 boards is what we ask for.
5. Ersan Ilyasova had five assists in the first quarter. Ilyasova had five or more assists once in his career in a full game before tonight.
25:12. Good passing by Ilyasova, Jennings, Salmons, and Dooling, and movement off the ball by most everyone led to 25 assists to just 12 turnovers for the Bucks.
82. The Bucks scored 82 points through three quarters -- those 82 points were more than they had scored in four of the past six games.
Fill-in frontcourt. Ilyasova and Sanders played a combined 58 seconds when the Bucks beat the Bobcats in the home opener less than a month ago. Tonight they comprised the starting frontcourt, and both made immediate, positive impacts on the game.
As previously mentioned, Ersan racked up five first-quarter assists, he spread the floor, held his own on defense, and was the man in the middle of an offense that flowed freely. Meanwhile, Sanders won the opening tip, gathered the team's first rebound, drained a couple shots to help spur the team to an early lead, and manned the paint defensively all night. Or at least half of the night (24 minutes), as foul trouble limited him a bit.
The Bobcats came in as the most blocked team in the NBA (blocked on 8.80 % of shot attempts), but without Andrew Bogut, the Bucks had no blocks at halftime. And Sanders had a rough time in the second quarter, picking up fouls, turning the ball over, and watching Charlotte score 37 points. But he came through with a big block on Nazr Mohammed in the middle of a really good defensive third quarter for the Bucks, and showed some nice chemistry with Brandon Jennings on the offensive end in the third quarter when he received a no-look bounce pass and drew a foul.
You couldn't expect this from Ilyasova and Sanders starting every night, and they might not start together again all year anyway -- but they made it work when they needed to, and it gives Skiles a mix that matched well together on a team full of pretty decent individual players who haven't often meshed.
CD-R. At times (the bad fouls and missed free throws), he looked like someone who hadn't played an NBA game since April, but it's hard to envision the Bucks pulling this game out if Douglas-Roberts did not make this his first game as a Buck. The team was really thinned out obviously, and he lived up to his instant-offense reputation with 11 of the team's 16 points off the bench. Really difficult to speculate how many minutes he will play when (if?) the team is fully healthy, but they sure needed him this evening.
I don't really have my instincts quite right. This is the first day with the glasses with the prescription in them... It felt funny. It looked funny. But once I get my legs under me, and I get used to the goggles, I think I should be much better.
Must-win won. Milwaukee's schedule through Jan. 7:
@ San Antonio
@ Los Angeles (the Laker variety)
After losing very, very winnable games against Philly, OKC, Cleveland, and Detroit in the past week, the Bucks could not afford to lose this one, particular considering their above-referenced upcoming schedule.
No more Bobcats at BC. Charlotte seems to bring out the best in Brandon Jennings and the Bucks when they fly in to Milwaukee.
Hurting. Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette were both scratched from the lineup, joining Andrew Bogut and Carlos Delfino on the list of key players out with injuries. Better now than later, I guess.
Fouling early and often... and late. Everyone on Milwaukee was fouling everyone. Thirty-three personal Bucks fouls in all. Some were good fouls, and fouling is something of a Scott Skiles trademark, but the team probably should have played a bit more straight up against a mediocre offense whose top scorer was ejected in the fifth minute.
Ilyasova fouled out, Jon Brockman's evening was noteworthy only because he managed to rack up four fouls in 11 minutes, Sanders and Salmons were plagued by foul trouble (five each), and Douglas-Roberts picked up five himself in just 19 minutes off the bench. The Bobcats ended up shooting 35-41 from the line, as the Bucks just kept giving them free points. Milwaukee kept fouling Charlotte all the way to the wire, even as they were the team leading and seemingly should have been trying to get the game over with.