MILWAUKEE -- Getting everything right generally takes a bit of time. But it doesn't take long for things to fall apart.
The Bucks started the season hot, but they weren't really ready to join the elite, or even the playoff contenders. It took adjusting to the season-ending injury of Michael Redd, the evolution of Andrew Bogut from good to very good, a couple mid-season trades, and four months (or four years) for the Bucks to climb their way into relevance.
But in just a few days the team had lost two bad home games, their star center to a back problem, their point guard to general malaise, their recent sixth man to illness, their starting small forward in most depressing fashion, and their grip on an all-important top six finish.
Yet this time, things have seemingly fallen back into place pretty quickly. Delfino didn't play today but was released from the hospital and said he's okay, Bogut returned quickly and spryly, Jennings was back at the top of his game, the Bucks reclaimed home court supremacy against a good team, and did so in overtime, where they have struggled to finish games this season.
The medium-sized three of Bogut, Jennings, and Salmons shot the Bucks to victory against a game Grizzlies team that is a pretty even matchup for Milwaukee. And the game indeed was quite even the entire way.
The Grizzlies' biggest lead was just seven points -- the problem was that lead came with just six minutes and change to go in regulation. After that, an invigorated Jennings made his way to the basket for three layups in the next two and a half minutes, just the type of plays I like to see, and the type of words you like to read. One of those layups followed a steal by Ersan Ilyasova, whose praises must be sung through the early-morning hours from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Eskisiher, Turkey.
Ilyasova stepped out of bounds a couple times, airballed a three pointer, and delivered one particularly bad pass. But he also allowed the Bucks to tie the game at the end of four quarters with the most decisive, crucial, and memorable plays. Even before the fourth quarter he was drawing charges, stuffing Zach Randolph in a major way on the break, and doing all of the things that the Bucks didn't do in his absence.
Ersanator gave Milwaukee its first lead of the fourth quarter, 91-89, on a delightful Turk Nowitzki three pointer with about a minute and a half remaining in regulation. After Andrew Bogut drew a charge, the Bucks got the ball back still up by two, but Jennings missed a three pointer. Ilyasova tracked the ball and flew to the corner, saving it from going out of bounds and securing another possession, in which Jennings hit a floater to push the lead to four. An and-one by Zach Randolph trimmed the lead to one and Memphis got the ball back down by just a point, but Ilyasova picked off O.J. Mayo's pass with 17 seconds in regulation. It looked like the game was won until Mike Conley drew a foul with two seconds and sunk both free throw to force overtime.
But the game was won in overtime, and Ilyasova was monumental in getting to those five extra minutes. And while it took them some time, the Bucks got it right in the end.
Brandon Jennings. After the Miami loss the other night, I noted that Brandon had totaled 27/9/6 in his last four games combined. Today? Try 29/7/8. In one game. Not coincidentally, the Bucks won this one after splitting the previous four games.
Jennings did a bit of everything against Memphis, a nice contrast to the whole lot of of nothing of late. Jennings finished in transition multiple times early on, and while he was stuffed twice by Marc Gasol late in the game, he nonetheless had a pretty successful day around the rim.
Brandon shot 10-24 from the field, but only shot from outside the paint and inside the three point line three times, all misses. Those are the shots he must improve on, but they are also the low-percentage (30 % from 10-15 feet, 34 % from 16-23 feet), low-reward (only two points, unlikely to draw foul, etc.) shots that are best kept to a minimum for now.
Instead, Jennings scored the bulk of his points at the rim, on threes (3-10), and at the line (6-7). He also sharply directed the offense (eight assists and a few more hockey assists), hit the boards for seven rebounds, and made plays defensively (four steals).
John Salmons. This is the kind of game (25/6/6) that we now almost expect from Salmons, and it's also why we now expect the Bucks to win. I don't know whether John will be back in Milwaukee next season, but if not, they are certainly getting the most out of him.
Not only is he playing better than ever before, he is also logging lots of minutes, and he stayed strong for all 48:58 today. Outplayed O.J. Mayo, who, by the way, is averaging very similar numbers this season to what Salmons is with Milwaukee so far.
Andrew Bogut. I arrived at the stadium roughly two hours before tip-off, and the Bucks were conducting a closed practice, perhaps in part to give Bogut some pregame reps to get ready. And while Skiles had said the back injury was completely unrelated, it was still a back injury, and 'Drew wasn't right for the last week.
Fortunately, he was just fine against a team with four 7'0" + guys . The two seven footers who played, Marc Gasol and Hasheem Thabeet combined for as many fouls (11) as points. Bogut finished a tick above his season averages with 18 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks, and one around the back pass.
6. The Memphis bench rang up six total points and Marcus Williams and Hasheem Thabeet were scoreless in 26 combined minutes.
8. After failing to block a shot against Miami, which was representative of the general listlessness in that game, the Bucks blocked eight shots today, led by four from Andrew Bogut, who has played 2+ shots in 18 of the last 19 games.
22-16. Memphis entered with an above-average free throw rate (10th in the NBA) and Milwaukee is of course bottom of that table. But the Bucks made 22-27 at the line compared to 16-22 for the Grizzlies. That six point discrepancy made the difference in a five-point win.
Backup. Once Carlos Delfino returns (Skiles did not reveal when that will be) it will be hard to justify giving Jerry Stackhouse 21 minutes when he plays like he did tonight. He shot what is becoming an almost standard 1-6 today, and he's 3-24 on threes since St. Patrick's Day.
But while three starters claimed the Three Bucks spots, three reserves were quite good as well. Ersan Ilyasova (eight points, six rebounds, two steals, two blocks) is the anti-Charlie Villanueva -- he doesn't put up big numbers yet is a hugely positive force for his team -- Luke Ridnour (14/7/2) is re-rounding back into form, and Kurt Thomas (four points, three rebounds) gave enough so that we didn't have to see much Gadz or any Primoz.
Skiles. Even considering a couple recent losses, Skiles has been so right so often this year that it's difficult not to give him a pass in regard to pulling players early and often, as well as all of the other frequent rotation shuffling.
After the game Skiles said that Charlie Bell got sick (not a major thing) and that is why he only played 12 minutes. Zach Randolph was an impossibly difficult cover for everyone, and Luc Mbah a Moute only played ten minutes. And would-be starter Carlos Delfino was of course out.
Still, the rightful Coach of the Year candidate mostly pulled the right strings in this one, running a particularly good-looking Jennings/Ridnour/Salmons/Ilyasova/Bogut line that pushed the ball around in the half court quickly.
Close calls. The Bucks still haven't lost a close game (within single digits) at the Bradley Center in more than two months, and that bodes well for the playoffs. Or it means they are bound to start losing these tight games at just the worst time. In any event, they also improved to 4-5 in overtime games.
THREE ONE BAD
E-Gadz. I can't even describe what exactly Dan Gadzuric was doing out there on a few instances, and I know it is my job to do just that (particularly with no local television), but the properly descriptive words just haven't been invented yet. Probably because the world has never seen such things before. Anyway, I can relay a couple gory details: Within a couple minutes, Gadz grazed the backboard on a put-back attempt and then was stuffed by the bottom of the rim on another put-back attempt. Later, he was booed after wishing fans a happy birthday on the Jumbotron.