So I guess the problem all along was...Andrew Bogut?
OK, I won't go that far, but it's strange how things work out. With the Bucks' big man sidelined by a migraine for the second time in a month, the planets seemed to be aligning for the latest in a string of early season letdowns. Which would have been a shame, because while it may be early, a road game in Indiana is exactly the type of game that the Bucks need to start winning if they want to mount a credible challenge for home court in the East. And not coincidentally, these are exactly the types of games the 09/10 squad managed to win a season ago, including a couple of close affairs in Indiana.
And in so many ways this did look like the Bogut-less squad that nearly took down the Hawks in the playoffs--for mostly better and at times worse. Despite lacking size up front, the Bucks battled and harassed Roy Hibbert, who looked unstoppable early but was eventually marginalized by hard doubles and good defensive hands. Offensively it wasn't what you'd mistake for an explosive performance, but the Bucks managed to get buckets at the right times thanks to the smooth scoring of John Salmons (22 points, five rebs, five ast) and some renewed aggressiveness from Brandon Jennings (18 pts, five rebs). But while the backcourt will get the headlines because of their scoring output, the Bucks also got equally important contributions from the non-stop motor of Luc Mbah a Moute (10 pts/17 rebounds), Ersan Ilyasova, Corey Maggette, and Keyon Dooling.
It certainly helped that the Pacers were careless at times (19 to) and couldn't make jump shots (6/24 threes, 4/20 long twos), but both teams' scoring struggles could mostly be tied to high-energy defensive efforts from both teams. Which is a bit funny to say given the Pacers scored 40 in the second quarter, but both teams tightened things up in the second half as the Bucks outscored Indy 42-34 in the final two periods. This won't be a game for the highlight reels, but that can wait for another day...hopefully tonight against New Orleans?
Hibbert looked like he might cause the smaller Bucks fits early on, getting deep position and shots off at will over his smaller Buck defenders. The effort was there from the Bucks, but one-on-one it's tough to challenge the hook shots of a 7'2" guy. Offensively it wasn't any prettier. The Bucks started aggressively, using their quickness to attack the paint for an 11-7 lead, but then went cold with a 1/14 shooting stretch. It was a bit reminiscent of their problems last year, when all too often their dependence on jump shots saw them fall into prolonged slumps offensively. Part of it was also Indy. Especially with Bogut out, the Bucks run almost exclusively curls, handoffs, and P&Rs that force defenders to move and fight through traffic, and the Pacers didn't slack and make things easy on the Bucks.
After the 20-18 first, few would have expected the second quarter to turn into a scoring spree, but both teams began to push the tempo and start making shots...which it turns out makes for much better offense (who knew?). Keyon Dooling picked up where he left off in Boston, burying a three near the end of the first and two more early in the second. Can I tell you how relieved I am to see Dooling finally doing what he was expected to do? He may not replace Ridnour's output, but that's perfectly fine so long as he's making open jumpers and using his size on defense. Even so, the Bucks were also looking vulnerable in transition, and the Pacers began to force the issue around the hoop with 14 of their 26 free throws coming in the second. On the bright side, Jennings also slashed to the hoop for three more layups in the period, but Collison's buzzer beating three gave Indy the momentum and a 60-52 lead going into the intermission.
The Bucks started the third looking aggressive, as Delfino, Gooden, and Jennings scored the first three buckets ofthe half on drives to the hoop, with two more ventures into the lane foiled by Hibbert blocks. Given the jumper-dependence issued mentioned earlier, it was encouraging stuff. But the Bucks also couldn't get over the hump and looked like they might be letting the game slip away when brick-laying rookie Paul George strung together a layup and two triples in a span of under two minutes, extending Indy's lead to nine points.
Thankfully, the Pacers don't yet seem to have the kind of killer instinct that puts games away. In the fourth they began to go away from the aggressiveness that served them well in the middle two quarters, opting instead to rely more and more on the outside shot. The Pacers missed their first five shots of the period, four threes and one Hibbert 19-footer, a theme that summarized the final quarter for Indiana. And when the Pacers did try to go down low the Bucks were better prepared, crowding Hibbert with double teams rather than letting him cleanly go over the top. Just as importantly, the Bucks minimized second chance opportunities, forcing Indy into plenty of one-missed-jumper-and-done possessions.
Meanwhile, the Bucks' wings did just enough to get the Bucks a lead and let the defense do the rest. Maggette didn't have an easy time getting to the cup for most of the night, but two jumpers and a pair of free throws helped the Bucks grab the lead early in the fourth, and Salmons scored seven of his 22 down the stretch to help seal it. Still, the Bucks didn't run away in the final minutes either, as perimeter turnovers by Ilyasova and Salmons set up transition opportunities the other way for Collison.
But while he defended well down the stretch, Granger traveled and missed four jumpers in the final three minutes, including a potential tying shot with 27 seconds remaining. Down two and with only a couple seconds differential between the shot and game clock, Indy perhaps curiously allowed the Bucks to run down the clock, only to have Hibbert called for a blocking foul as he tried to slide in on Salmons' drive with five ticks left. The Indy announcing team was incensed it wasn't called a charge and it wouldn't have been shocking to see it go ether way, but the rule book says a defender can't keep moving after the offensive player goes into his shooting motion, and Hibbert seemed to be moving as Salmons went into his move. Besides, maybe a 7'2" guy with six blocks shouldn't be trying to draw a charge in the game's final seconds...just a thought. Either way, Salmons capped off his first good night of the season appropriately, draining both free throws and sending the Bucks home with a confidence-restoring road win.
John Salmons. Even at his best, Salmons looks like a guy playing at about three quarters speed, relying more on guile, subtle jab-steps and pull-up jumpers than raw athleticism. So it's been hard to tell whether his early season struggles have been more a matter of physical limitation or simply lacking the polish and timing that come from playing regularly. As usual, the answer is probably a bit of both.
As a result, Salmons' 22-point effort on Friday was encouraging not only because it helped the Bucks win one game, but because it hopefully signals that their leading scorer from a year ago is ready to start helping them win a whole bunch more. With no Bogut to feed in the post, the Bucks worked to get Salmons plenty of catches on his preferred left wing, giving him more room to drive right and either get to the hoop, dish it off, or step back for the mid-range jumper that he made with unstoppable regularity last spring. Salmons hit a pair of spot-up threes from the corner, but he was at his most dangerous pulling up from mid range (3/5 fg) or bullying his way into the paint and drawing contact.(8/10 ft). Danny Granger's defensive length gave him some trouble at times in the fourth, but all in all it was an undeniably encouraging night for one of the Bucks' most important players.
Luc Mbah a Moute. We've seen this before, haven't we? Starting at his familiar power forward position, Luc made absolutely nothing look easy, but his battling in the paint and occasional slashes to the cup represented everything that was right about the Bucks tonight. His six offensive boards were two more than the entire Pacers team could muster, and his late jumper (!) helped provide the breathing room that ultimately helped the Bucks hold off the plucky but toothless Pacers.
Brandon Jennings. Coming off back-to-back games in which he was dominated by Andre Miller and Rajon Rondo, Brandon probably sensed that this was a bit of a gut-check game, particularly given his matchup with fellow second-year speedster Darren Collison. And though it wasn't a vintage Jennings performance, he managed to put in a productive night's work by staying aggressive rather than relying purely on his still-shaky jumper (1/8 from outside 10 feet). He blew by Collison and Hibbert for a layup to start the game and drove for a foul on the next possession, setting the tone on a night when he finished with an encouraging 5/9 night at the rim. Making 56% of shots at the cup is good, but doing it with a high volume is what I found particularly encouraging, especially given his struggles to get anywhere near the rim against the more disciplined defenses of Boston and Portland.
6. No shortage of significance to Andrew Bogut's jersey number tonight. It capture the hard work Mbah a Moute put in (six offensive boards) as well as both the good (six blocks) and bad sides (six turnovers) of Roy Hibbert's night. Last but not least there was Squad Six, which made the trip down from Milwaukee and was a repeated topic of conversation throughout the Pacer's TV broadcast. Pretty great when you can hear your team's fans during a road broadcast, isn't it?
+10. The Bucks trailed 76-67 late in the third following successive threes from Paul George...and you were probably panicking, right? Given their decided lack of firepower at the moment, that feeling was only natural. But the Bucks stayed calm, kept their intensity on defense and started to make some shots for a change, going on a 10-0 run that featured a couple of Corey Maggette jumpers (apparently he can make them from time to time) and was punctuated by a Delfino triple to give Milwaukee a 77-76 lead. After a 40-point second quarter, the Bucks held Indiana to just 16 in the third and 14 in the fourth, outscoring the Pacers by 10 in the decisive period.
11. Indy managed just 11 assists against 19 turnovers, a product of both the Bucks' good defense and Indiana's inability to make jump shots (4/20 from 16-23 feet). Hibbert led the way with four assists while Collison managed just a pair of assists to go with his 19 points.
ROAD WIN. I've said it a million times, but any road win in the NBA is a beautiful thing, and doing it without Bogut makes it that much more encouraging.
Return of the Fish? What made Salmons so important to the 09/10 squad wasn't just that he scored, but how he did it. Initiating from his customary spot on the wing, Salmons took significant pressure off Jennings and Bogut because he was easy to locate and could almost always get either a decent look or dish it off to an open teammate. He hadn't been that guy through four games, and it's no coincidence the Bucks struggled to score points as a result. One game doesn't make a trend, but it's a good start.
Role players. The Bucks' bench didn't dominate statistically, but don't overlook the contributions of guys like Dooling, Maggette, and Ilyasova. After his horrendous start, Dooling has made 5/8 from deep over the past two games, defended well, and looked much more comfortable running the offense. Ilyasova has made similar improvements, and while his numbers tonight weren't spectacular, he made a pair of crucial late buckets (a baseline jumper and a nifty and drive and finish) and gamely defended Hibbert despite looking completely overmatched physically. Meanwhile, Maggette looked a bit too content to shoot spot up-jumpers (3/6 from 16-23 feet), but he made enough of them to be effective and also had the highlight of the night with a major throwdown on Solomon Jones.
Bogut's migraine. You always worry when your best player has a predisposition for crippling migraines, though historically they've been few and far between and generally don't last more than a day or so. But I'd be lying if said I wasn't slightly relieved to hear it was a migraine and not a re-injury of his right arm.
Scraping by. There was nothing dissatisfying with the win, but let's also not mistake it for a comprehensive performance or the "signature road win" we spent way too long searching for last season. It was in many ways a good win, but mostly it was just a necessary win.
Carlitos' way. There's been no denying Delfino's effectiveness through five games, but tonight it just wasn't there. Carlitos made a big three to give the Bucks a lead in the fourth, but he missed his six other three attempts and made just 4/15 overall. No, I'm not worried.
Comment of the Night
"Ugly wins are fun."