MILWAUKEE - Last March, right around this time, the Celtics came to town, the fans made Ray Allen feel right at home, and the Bucks scored 86 points, enough for a win.
Those are the similarities. But this is about differences. The mighty big changes in pro basketball in this city.
Because while the name still reads the same on the front of the jersey, they are just about all different on the back. The starting lineup from the March 15, 2009 win over Boston? Try Ramon Sessions, Luc Mbah a Moute, Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villanueva, and Francisco Elson. The only remaining starter, The Principal, went from shooting guard to power forward. Yeah.
So maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that it's March and the Bucks are still good.
After all, they are still the Bucks, but with Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute, and this Andrew Bogut, they aren't quite like anything we remember. And try as we might to forget, we do remember.
We remember five straight last place finishes, and the players remember how it was supposed to be six straight. Even a teenager half a world away last year was apparently briefed about the past and the expectations, or lack thereof. After the game, Brandon Jennings:
I know a lot of people doubted us in the beginning of the season, had us almost last. But we are here too, we are fighting for a spot in the playoffs too. So don't forget about us.
So now we have something we actually want to remember. And the latest is a Bucks win over the Celtics, chiefly the result of magnificent play by Bogut, and magnificent plays by Bogut. The center started the game as strongly as ever, picking up right where he left off in Boston about three months ago. But as the Bucks moved away from him, the Celtics moved into the lead. Not coincidentally, Boston won its only period in the second quarter when Bogut was scoreless.
The Bucks trailed entering the fourth quarter and didn't score during the final 2:41 of regulation, but they did enough in between to make it work. Namely, Bogut carried the team on both ends while the sickly Delfino hit his fifth three of the game, Salmons popped in five quick ones, Ilyasova was eternally right-place/right-time, Jennings scooped in a floater for the final points, and the defense, oh, the defense.
Up two in the final moments, Milwaukee took a foul with 3.9 seconds to go. A good idea, but also just enough time for Ray Allen to sink his first shot of the game, a three pointer of course. But the ball went to Pierce, and, well, the Bucks defended just like they had all game, all month, all season. Still could have gone in, we know that and that. But not this time.
This was a chippy affair, a game that looked more like late-April than early-March by the time Glen Davis barreled into Jennings on a fast break, earning technicals for each.
And if this keeps up, we will soon get to watch games that are late-April instead of ones that just look the part.
Andrew Bogut. Looking every bit the best player on a court with at least six future Hall of Fame feet running around but certainly never through him, Bogut smashed the Celtics for 10 points, six rebounds and a couple blocks in a first quarter highlighted by a slam on
Big Baby Davis Big Baby Davis.
And then the second quarter happened, and so went Bogut, so went the Bucks: Nowhere. He neither demanded the ball nor did his teammates look for him, and when they did, the entry passes were telegraphed. I thought we were past that. And for the most part, we are.
Bogut stormed back to the forefront of the night in the second half with 15 more points and a couple more blocks, at once turning the game offensively, and turning the game defensively. Something like a phenomenon at both ends of the court, this Aussie.
All sorts of memorable plays: the ferocious rebound-dunk off a corner Charlie Bell three-point miss to tie the game 59-59, the epic stuff of Paul Pierce and perfect full-court outlet to Brandon Jennings who was subsequently clobbered by Glen Davis, and just when the Celtics had no answer for Bogut, the picture-perfect feed to Ersan Ilyasova for an and-one.
And in he end, he looked every bit the best player on the court -- one of the best on any court -- with 25 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 5-5 at the line.
Carlos Delfino. Pretty early on, Jeremy dubbed this his flu game. Well, this wasn't that, but it was a nice performance for someone feeling and looking a bit under the weather, as Skiles had revealed before the game that Delfino had been suffering from the flu.
A couple of his five threes were low-probability, but they were fortunately falling on a night the Bucks needed all of his 19 points.
Delfino threaded a pretty backdoor pass to Jennings, generally found open spaces against a sticky Boston defense, and in the end clearly outplayed Paul Pierce.
Brandon Jennings. So, at 20, Jennings might not be out of his prime after all?
The learning curve is steep for all rookie point guards. For Brandon, it has been mountainous -- only he started at just about the top in November. Since then, he's taken some hard tumbles down, but continues to climb back up. And now, against two of the conference's dominant clubs against Cleveland and now Boston, Jennings has strung together two very excellent games.
An eventful night toward the end, as he missed that potential game-sealing jumper at the end, got into it with Kevin Garnett in the tunnel after the game, and had plenty to say in the post-game locker room.
Jennings and Glen Davis were both hit with technicals after Davis pretty much tackled Brandon on his way to the hoop, where it looked a lot like he wanted to dunk.
It was a hard foul. They are known for punking people, but they weren't going to come in here and just punk me.
18-3. Boston outscored Milwaukee 18-3 on the fastbreak, as Rajon Rondo cooked up dreamy dishes in transition while the Bucks had to work, mostly through Bogut, to score in the halfcourt. Quite an accomplishment to get just about all of those points the hard way against such a stout defense.
8-17. Milwaukee shot 8-17 (.471) on threes against the team ranking third in three point defense entering the night. I was surprised to see the Bucks were given at least three wide-open looks from deep in the first quarter alone, but I'm just getting used to this ball movement stuff.
90 %. The Bucks are playing .900 (9-1) ball since the arrival of John Salmons. After netting a personal-Bucks-low 12 points against the Cavs, John Salmons pitched in with 16 tonight despite not making a free throw for just the second time since arriving from Chicago. Such a gift to this team.
Bogut v. Boston. After putting up 25/14 with a couple blocks in round one in Boston, the center played even better tonight with 25/17 and four blocks.
From beginning to end, he had a fairly easy time using either hand to loft hooks over the awfully quiet Kendrick Perkins.
So maybe it's not so bad that the Bucks play Celtics twice more in the regular season, and perhaps more than a couple more times in the playoffs.
BC. Even in a win on Saturday over the NBA's best team, the Bradley Center didn't burst like it did tonight. The horrifying reality of paying top dollar to watch LeBron James and seeing Jawad Williams may have muted some of the customers, but the atmosphere resembled a playoff match against Boston.
Not a sellout with 14,316 on hand tonight, but the crowd was loud and ready when the drama escalated late.
With all of the road success, don't lose sight of how Milwaukee has held home court all year, not just lately. Tenth best home mark in basketball at 21-9.
Jennings was diggin' the atmosphere:
This was the craziest I think it has ever been in here so far.
Defending the stars. The Cavaliers with LeBron are title favorites, without him they are merely okay. So that win over Cleveland on Saturday rightfully led with a disclaimer.
Not this time. The Bucks beat a Boston squad in full effect, a team fighting for playoff positioning, and eager to claw, argue, and fight its way to a win.
All the stars were out (or in, if you will), including the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen troika. Garnett (14/10) was a tough cover, but Luc Mbah a Moute and the Bucks mostly held him in check and KG only made one bucket in the final 16 minutes of regulation.
Even better was the defense on Pierce (3-13, four turnovers) and especially hometown hero Allen (0-3 in 34 minutes).
Scott Skiles doesn't offer compliments for fun:
We were really sharp on the defensive end. It was not an easy game for us, it was back and forth, a physical game... we needed our defense to keep us in the game, and it did.
Battle of the benches. Sans Jerry Stackhouse, the Bucks didn't bring much off the bench. Literally.
Skiles, after the game.
The absence of Jerry was big tonight, we could have used him tonight.
Indeed. Skiles rode the starters atypically extensive minutes -- four of them played 40+ minutes -- as only Ersan Ilyasova was effective whatsoever among the backups. Charlie Bell and Luke Ridnour were particularly ineffective, to the point I can't decide who was worse.
Meanwhile, Boston received lavish production from its reserves, and the team played best when Rasheed Wallace (+11), Marquis Daniels (+4), and Nate Robinson (+2) were on the floor.
'Sheed. Not sure how he avoided a technical, but on offense, defense, during timeouts, in between quarters, possibly via telephone before and after the game, Rasheed Wallace barked at the refs. 'Sheed's natural reaction to sinking a wide-open three? Like anything else: Rather impolitely berate the official all the way down the court, of course. In the league since 1995, and this act hasn't expired?
Rondo's free throws. Rajon Rondo entered the night shooting 60.6 % from the free throw line this year, 62.8 % for his career, and 83.3 % for his career against Milwaukee. Law of percentages, that has to go down, right. So of course, Rajon just kills the Bucks, making 8-9 at the line. Nifty player though.