MILWAUKEE -- Andrew Bogut may not take the number one spot of SportsCenter's top plays tomorrow, but don't think for one second that his performance tonight was any less impressive than his game-winner Wednesday night.
Bogut pulled down a season-high 22 rebounds to go along with 24 points and 5 blocks against an undersized Houston lineup and the Milwaukee Bucks held on to win a close one. Milwaukee held a 4 point edge going into halftime, a 2-point edge entering the 4th quarter, and led by only 3 points after a tough three-pointer from Kyle Lowry with 23 seconds left.
This looked like a pretty clear offense vs. defense matchup coming in: the 6th-ranked Houston offense facing the 6th ranked Milwaukee defense, wrapped up in a pair of teams pretty much defining disappointment in their respective conferences. We're all familiar with the hype surrounding the Bucks in the offseason, but don't forget what the Rockets were promising this year: an explosive backcourt featuring hyperefficient Kevin Martin and reigning MIP Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola coming off an excellent run in the FIBA Worlds. and the return of Yao Ming.
So while calling this a must-win seems tired and dramatic, it was certainly an important statement for the victor. There was a tangible level of urgency from the Bucks, a seemingly conscious knowledge that, "If not now, when?"
While Bogut was unquestionably the star of the night, there was another big winner wearing white. John Salmons didn't exactly wow with 17/6/5, but he looked more confident and comfortable than he had in weeks. Gone were the awkward pump fakes in space, the haphazard dribbles off his own feet (mostly), the head-hanging and the head-shaking. It's taken a quarter of the season for Salmons to get to this point, and it will probably take at least a little longer before consistency takes hold, but tonight was a good, good sign. Hopefully it sticks this time.
Andrew Bogut. The numbers say it all: this was a straight-up dominant outing for Andrew. Sure, it helped that his counterpart in the starting lineup was 6-6 Chuck Hayes, but no 20/20 line gets written off for any reason. There's something truly special about watching Bogut decimate an opponent who clearly has no business stopping him. Tonight bore a striking resemblance to the Orlando game last week, with Bogut unveiling a diverse array of moves under the basket, handling everything the defense threw at him with the right counter each time. The fact that Milwaukee made the effort to get him 20 shots in the game speaks to how much more the offense clicks when he gets going.
John Salmons. Nothing special when you look at John's numbers out of context, but as everyone who has followed the Bucks from season's outset can attest, there was something different about him tonight. Something exciting, something alive. His game has been marred by hitches and hesitation, and tonight he was deliberate, focused, and efficient. There's a subtle, unseen boost that comes from seeing a shot or two fall through the net during a slump, a boost that gets the adrenaline flowing and makes good stuff happen. That was evident on the floor of the Bradley Center tonight.
Brandon Jennings. When was the last time we got to lead off a game recap with Milwaukee's own "Big 3?" It may cheapen the occurrence by sticking Brandon in here for completion's sake, but the opportunity is too great to pass up. Sure, it wasn't a bad game for Brandon, but maybe the biggest news was that a 19 point night wasn't big news. Almost 62% of Milwaukee's points came from tonight's Three Bucks, and every bit of production out of Jennings is important to take the load off of his teammates.
55. No, not a shameless self-promotion. Andrew Bogut shot 55% from the field, which will get the job done just about every time, especially when the Bucks make the effort to get the ball to him 20-plus times. Bogut gets the most credit for dragging Milwaukee's shooting up near .500, and that's just the way it should be.
0. The number of shots Larry Sanders made. Sanders was going to have his hands full checking Luis Scola, and did swat 3 shots, but he looked like a clear rookie on offense. Between lost dribbles or errant shots around the basket, it was a return to earth after a few games of good work. Nothing to be ashamed of, but definitely not unexpected.
1. As in flagrant 1, the foul called on Brad Miller for attempting to decapitate Ersan Ilyasova with something resembling a Goldeneye 007 slap-attack. Maybe he was just going for the ball, but it looked rough enough to warrant the call from the officials.
Paint Power. Bogut's the story of the game no matter who you ask, and he helped Milwaukee rack up 56 points in the paint. Milwaukee attempted only 8 shots from behind the arc, simply because the offense was working so well under the basket. Every scouting report on the internet made note of Milwaukee's advantage in the post with Yao Ming still recovering from injury, but that doesn't make it any less sweet when things work out like they should.
Drought Conditions. In the last 7 and a half minutes of the game, the Rockets made 2 field goals, and one of those was a contested three-pointer by Kyle Lowry at the end of the shot clock. The Bucks' offense has been a letdown in late-game situations more than once this year, but the defense has remained stout, as it did tonight. Outside of Lowry's pair of threes, Milwaukee clamped down on Houston and gave up a mere three points on a few free throws by Kevin Martin and Luis Scola. That lock-down defense gives even a marginal offense a chance.
On the Mend. From Andrew Bogut after the game:
I'm starting to really turn the corner with my elbow and wrist..still not where it needs to be but I'm feeling much better.
Music to my ears. H/t to Frank for tweeting it.
Catching a Break? There are no free victories in the NBA, but Milwaukee has definitely been getting lucky in terms of avoiding opponents' best players. The three-point sharpshooting and playmaking of Aaron Brooks spent the night on the bench next to all 90 inches of Yao Ming. It's tough to say what the outcome would have been if those guys had played, but the Bucks aren't gonna get lucky like this all season.
Kevin Martin is pretty efficient. Even when he shoots 5-13, Kevin Martin is still capable of hurting opponents, especially when he gets sent to the line 13 times. The charge calls that Milwaukee's front court usually banks on didn't seem to come tonight, and there didn't seem to be any way to stop him from drawing contact. Such is the danger with aggressive, skilled perimeter players, and it's something Milwaukee could easily get burned on when they're not getting the calls.
Looking Ahead. Milwaukee concludes this homestand with a 3-1 record and should be feeling pretty good. Their reward? A date with the streaking Mavs. No rest for the weary, apparently.