Given the confluence of factors conspiring against the Milwaukee Bucks—a fourth game in five nights; a road game in New Jersey a night after playing a game in the comfy confines of Milwaukee; a performance against a downtrodden Nets team a day after a spirited, but heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat; injuries to much of their roster with Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut, Drew Gooden, and Carlos Delfino missing the contest with one ailment or another—that they were able to crush the Nets 115-92 was an impressive feat.
In fact, the Bucks displayed an abundance of defensive heart in thrashing the moribund Nets. Despite the tough result the night before, defenders stayed in front of their man along the perimeter as if a playoff game were at stake. Help defenders successfully flashed into driving lanes to prevent dribble penetration, interior rotations were generally on time and effective, every loose ball and every jump shot was contested, guards were pressured bringing the ball up the court, even Ersan Illyasova was able to use his long arms and frail body to flummox Brook Lopez and box him out off the glass.
Looking at a more specific detail of Milwaukee’s roster, Illyasova had a terrific game—10-14 FG, 2-3 FT, 13 REB, 4 AST, 3 STL, 1 TO, 1 BLK, 22 PTS. He posted up one time and banked in a right hook, but the rest of his game involves fanning on screen/fades or operating as an offensive safety valve for jumpers. He did pop behind a few baseline and down screens, and given the uninspired nature of New Jersey’s defense found himself open most of the time.
He plays post defense by reaching around the posting player towards the baseline side trusting his long arms to deflect entry passes or loose dribbles—hence his three steals plus several more deflections. When he was shot over, his long arms made a tough target for Brook Lopez, though Derrick Favors’ more athletic skill set caused Illyasova more problems. His team defense was not bad but not exemplary. He missed several box outs and interior rotations and was too cautious closing out to perimeter players. Still, he boxed out more often that not, and hunted rebounds after they came off the backboard.
John Salmons—3-8 FG, 4 REB, 3 AST, 2 TO, 12 PTS—doesn’t have terrific vision, isn’t particularly quick, tends to massage the ball a beat before he attacks, and all his made field goals came when the Nets gave him an open three-pointer—3-3 3FG. On drives to the basket he found his shot blocked three times, plus threw a pair of passes away.
Part of the reason for Milwaukee’s struggles is Salmons’ inability to take over a role as a creative wing scorer and playmaker. Since he hasn’t been able to consistently excel at the basket, the Bucks have to base their offense entirely around perimeter play.
The exception is Corey Maggette—5-9 FG, 0-1 3FG, 10-11 FT, 6 REB, 0 AST, 3 TO, 20 PTS—a selfish, physical scorer who can’t pass, shoot, defend or play within the confines of an offense, but whose fearlessness to attack the rim supplies all of Milwaukee’s offense near the hoop based on his ability to draw fouls.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is an offensive non-factor, but his defensive rotations are exquisite. Plus he’s quick enough to defend players of the dribble and long enough to apply major pressure on opposing jump shots. His help defense was a major reason why the Nets started the first and third quarters so poorly.
Keyon Dooling didn’t make too many complicated passes, but he also didn’t make any poor decisions—7 AST, 0 TO—and had success hitting short jumpers off of screen/rolls—4-7 FG, 9 PTS. Defensively, he applies full court ball pressure, came up with a number of deflections, and because he was applying ball pressure, was often too high to be picked off by any of New Jersey’s screens.
When Brandon Jennings returns to action, Dooling will sink back into his role as one of the better backup point guards in the game, though his limited passing and ability to break down a defense off the dribble limits him as a starter.
Earl Boykins operated similarly to Dooling—7-12 FG, 1-4 3FG, 2-2 FT, 6 AST, 0 TO, 17 PTS. His ball pressure disrupted New Jersey’s offense, he didn’t make many complicated passes but also didn’t make any poor decisions, and he had measurable success knocking down mid-range jumpers.
Chris Douglas-Roberts played with a chip on his shoulder, and simply played harder than his New Jersey counterparts. If his left-handed handle needs work and his defense is suspect, he’s a talented straight-line slasher who is fearless in attacking the basket. If he improves his court vision, his left hand, and his decision making, he can become a valuable part of Milwaukee’s rotation.
Larry Sanders plays defense like a rookie. He doesn’t know to defend screens, bites on pump fakes, and isn’t in the right place to provide effective help defense. Plus most of his offensive success came in garbage time. But he’s quick and spry, blocking several shots when the game was still relatively close.
Jon Brockman always boxes out and always provides hard-working, if undersized defense.
All in all, give Milwaukee’s skeleton crew credit for playing with vigor and intensity, both testaments to Scott Skiles’ coaching. Milwaukee’s defense is clearly playoff caliber, particularly when Drew Gooden and Andrew Bogut return to the rotation.
However, even with Bogut, Jennings, Delfino, and Gooden, Milwaukee still suffers from an inability to score around the hoop, missing eight layups and generating most of their offense at the rim in transition and fast breaks. Andrew Bogut would help some, but Gooden is primarily a jump shooter, while Jennings and Delfino are awful finishers at the hoop.
This lack of offensive firepower limits the Bucks and prevents them from being a team that can succeed in the postseason. Until their backcourt improves their strength, their athleticism, and their court awareness, the Bucks will only be playoff threats to gutless pretenders like the 2009-2010 Hawks. However, considering Milwaukee’s competition for the final playoff spot are the disjointed Philadelphia 76ers, and the similarly defensive-oriented, yet talent deficient Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Bobcats, the Bucks don’t have fierce opposition to enter the postseason. Given that the Bucks have more talented rosters than the Pacers and Bobcats, plus play better defense than the 76ers, it’s more than likely that the Bucks will overcome their early season malaise and make the postseason.