MILWAUKEE -- Andrew Bogut played like someone who has rested the past two weeks. He also shot like someone who hasn't shot a basketball in two weeks.
The former is true, the latter not quite so much.
Bogut played for the first time in five games, but he didn't just play -- he thoroughly dominated the basketball game on both sides of the court. Granted, said court was missing many of the players (Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Mickael Pietrus, Ryan Anderson) that made the Magic the top team in the East (tied with Boston) and victors in six straight.
Orlando started the game with eight actives, and so the Bucks entered the game as the expected winner -- 2.5 point favorites at opening and up to 5 before the tip. Beating the Magic went from nearly impossible to almost necessary given the circumstance.
But just because Howard was out, you (or at least I) didn't expect Bogut to be so, so on.
Maybe we should have. Here is how Bogut performed in his previous in-season comeback game, after missing six games, last November in a 99-97 win over the Bulls: 10-19 fg, 22 points, 15 rebounds, 3 steals, 4 blocks
Bogut was the story of the game before the game making his return, he was the story early in the game by scoring 12 points in the first quarter, he was the story late in the game when the Magic intentionally fouled him and he missed eight straight free throws, and he was the story after the game.
I wasn't taking him out. That's for sure.
I'm pretty pissed off about how I shot my free throws. I've been working on it all week. It's been up and down. First time without a brace or taping my elbow... but I'll just keep working on it and get better eventually.
The Bucks were up 84-75 with 5:00 to play when Stan Van Gundy elected to go Attack-an-Andrew. To clarify, the Bucks were up 84-75 with 5:00 to play because of Andrew Bogut.
And he made two of the first three. The crowd was happy about that. Then he missed eight straight, and each time the basketball looked more helpless on the way toward the hoop. The crowd boo'd the Magic for fouling, but they also grew exasperated with the misses. Eventually, they started cheering before Andrew shot, cheering the loudest cheers of the game to that point. Like nothing I have ever heard with a home team player on the line. Surrealiously. After Quentin Richardson hit a three, the Bucks were up only 87-83 with 2:14. Then Bogut hit both free throws, and each one felt like a game-winning shot in the Bradley Center. They sort of were.
The game was Bogut, Bogut, Bogut. But it was also Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, a return to defensive intensity, and enough points.
This win against Orlando feels sort of like a loss to the Clippers might feel -- if the Clips had just acquired Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and J.J. Redick before the game. But watching the Bucks also felt more like watching the 46-win team led by Bogut, Jennings, and Salmons last season than the one we had watched since then.
Andrew Bogut. Facing perhaps the game's best backup center made for a lot better first game back than facing certainly the game's best starting center.
And while Bogut has not fared well against Dwight Howard in previous head-to-head matchups, good offense beats good defense, and Bogut's great offense tonight very well may have beaten Howard's great defense.
Bogut made lefty hooks, righty hooks, tipped in misses, and generally showed off his entire offensive repertoire. A spin-move around Gortat and two-handed slam in the third quarter marked the prettiest play of all, but he moved in for great positioning all evening, generating 31 points within ten feet of the hoop all by himself. He also made 18 difficult rebounds look fantastically simple.
And: The offense early and throughout was so, so good, and the free throw shooting late was so, so bad that his defensive performance will be overlooked and undertyped. But Marcin Gortat played his first 34 minutes and 11 seconds without scoring before making a layup with 47 left in regulation and the game all but over.
Finding it hard to overstate just how great Bogut is defensively.
Brandon Jennings. As a rookie, Jennings scored 20+ points without making more than one three-pointer just twice in 82 regular season games: he scored 29 points shooting 0-2 from distance in a loss when the Cavaliers went on a little 29-0 run last December, and he scored 23 on 1-5 on threes last April in a win over the Suns (but loss of the Andrew Bogut). Almost four months in between such games. He scored 20+ points while making at least two from deep 19 times last year.
Tonight, Jennings scored 27 points on 1-5 from outside, eight days after scoring 25 points without making a three in Detroit.
Now, Jennings is actually shooting slightly more threes this year. But he is also showing that he can succeed offensively without relying on the three point shot.
He is shooting more than 1.5 more free throws per game this season, and attempted 10 tonight (he shot 10+ free throws twice last season). He made two floaters in the lane in the first quarter tonight, a difficult but imperative shot on which he is showing signs of progress. His success rate at the rim has jumped more than 10 % this season from last, a massive leap. Brandon's jumper was also very on tonight -- he made all six of his shots from 15-18 feet, and didn't attempt a single shot from 19-23 feet. And this season he isn't shooting as many of those low-percentage, low-reward shots from 16-23 feet, from 3.6 attempts to 2.8 per game.
All signs of an offensive evolution, not a sophomore slump.
Second best player on the team, second best player on the court, with 27/7/6.
John Salmons. The first quarter saw 12 anonymous John Salmons minutes, all amid a pretty flowing 24-16 lead, and it appeared that the Bucks were set to win in spite of him.
But he turned it around nicely, notching 6-6-7 points in the final three quarters. He scored, he made Vince Carter (1-8, two points in the fourth quarter) work, and finished with 17 points and four steals.
He still looks underwhelming and slow afoot at times, and I don't know about Salmons Version 2012 much less 2015, but this was a second straight solid 7-15 shooting game along with earning high marks all over the basketball court, and the team needs this.
Salmons topped everyone with a +22 differential.
28. The Bucks attempted 28 free throws -- in the fourth quarter! And I like italics in moderation, but generally loathe exclamation points.
Last season, the Bucks attempted more than 28 free throws seven times in a game.
Oh, and the Bucks made a shameful 12 of those 28 at the line (.429).
8. Andrew Bogut pulled in just as many offensive rebounds (8) as the Magic.
0. The Magic totaled exactly zero fastbreak points -- in fact they didn't even attempt a single shot on the break. The Bucks scored a modest six fastbreak points (3-5 shooting).
Three Bucks. Bogut-Jennings-Salmons as the Three Bucks is good news, because while others must-must-must contribute, these are the three that can turn the team from bad to okay, from okay to pretty good, and from pretty good to very good.
They worked well individually, they worked well together, they led the team, and a Bucks win followed.
Taking advantage. The Bucks lost to the Thunder without Kevin Durant, couldn't get past the Nuggets after Carmelo got kicked out, have dropped games to all sorts of bad teams, and have done little to earn sympathy as a supposed tough-luck team themselves.
So at least they beat all eight Orlandoans (Magics?).
Staying home. This was the first of a four-game homestand, no easy homestand, but a homestand nonetheless. A loss to the lacking Magic could have set in motion a disastrous week. Now the team plays the suddenly-rolling Heat on Monday with a bit more confidence before games against the Pacers and Rockets, and a 3-1 homestand doesn't seem out of the question.
Dooling and Duhon. Keyon Dooling leads the Bucks in differential this season and is barely behind Chris Paul in +/- per minute. Which, more than anything, draws the credibility of the very statistic into high question.
Because Dooling just doesn't seem right out there, he has played three good games all season, and I know he played six mostly innocuous minutes tonight, but I just don't feel particularly comfortable that the team's insurance options for their two best players at the anchor positions are Brian Skinner and Keyon Dooling. Milwaukee was supposed to be the deepest team in the NBA, but it all seems to fall in the two through four spots. How and why did this happen?
Also: Chris Duhon, whom Scott Skiles said in the pregame chat was "adept" at running an offense, is actually not adept at running an offense. He came into the game shooting 37.3 % (he shot 37.3 % last season), and made 4-7 from the field tonight, which is fine, but never seemed to have a positive impact, had a -24 differential (now the stat seems to make more sense), and had one assist in 31 starting point guard minutes. He is fine as a backup, I guess, but he's started too many games in his career, and this was just another.
Attack-an-Andrew. Stan Van Gundy successfully employed an Attack-an-Andrew strategy in the fourth quarter despite Bogut having, to that point, his finest game of the season.
And it worked. It worked the Magic all the way back into the game. Milwaukee led 84-74 at the 5:00 mark of the fourth quarter. Over the next 2:45, Orlando fouled Bogut on every offensive possession. During that timeframe, Bogut made just 3-12 at the stripe -- including an agonizing and depressing eight straight misses -- and the Bucks lead was trimmed to 87-83 on a Quentin Richardson three.
Worse, the free throw misses seemed to spread like a stomach virus in the Magic locker room, as the normal spot-on John Salmons (1-4) and Brandon Jennings (4-8) misfired in the fourth quarter too.
Bogut made 5-16 overall, and he is shooting by far the worst percentage of his career this season at 42.1 %.
I don't imagine other teams will frequently use the Attack-an-Andrew strategy -- it only has potential to work in specific situations and it doesn't work with less than two minutes since the fouled team retains possession -- but the fact the team's best player cannot shoot a basketball whatsoever is troubling nonetheless. If he is going to play offense/defense like Dwight Howard or Shaq in his day, like he did tonight, then shooting free throws like those two isn't such a big deal. But let's not count on that.
This is no big revelation but I was taught at a very young age there's a reason it's called a free throw. It's the only time you get a free shot. You may as well make them. Obviously, we struggled to do that.
6th man? You could see how Brandon Bass might attract some attention, but Corey Maggette's 6th Man of the Year campaign has had its ups and downs and downs and downs and another down tonight.
Skiles said Corey was "fine" before the game in reference to his health, but he just never got into the swing of things, and though he managed four boards and three free throws, he also shot 0-5 from the field, and his particular shooting percentage among all of the team's awful shooting percentages is probably the most surprising, given his efficient history as in that regard. Does the fact that he is down in the mid-to-high 30s shooting mean he is due to completely rock it the rest of the season, or is he just starting to lose his game at just 31?