MILWAUKEE -- The Bucks are not so bad.
We know this for certain now that they have beaten all four of the so bad teams in the East in 2011. Milwaukee has dropped Washington, Cleveland, Toronto, and New Jersey (twice) already this month, further separating themselves from the worst of the conference.
So the good news is that they are beating the teams they should beat, which they decidedly did not do early in the season. The realistic news is that six of their past seven wins have come against five of the six worst teams in the NBA (Kings, Wizards, Cavaliers, Raptors, Nets).
Nevertheless, this was a cheery win on a cheery night. The Bucks used their 14th different starting lineup of the season (they used 11 all of last year) but all five starters fit.
A airball-floater by Devin Harris started the game, but it was Milwaukee who was mostly off in the first quarter. Carlos Delfino shot the ball on just about every touch with little success (1-5) and the Bucks lost the opening period 25-22. But they also didn't commit a turnover in those first 12 minutes, and they went on to take precious care of the ball throughout. Scott Skiles went to some defensive-focused lineups in the second quarter (Luc Mbah a Moute and Garrett Temple played the entire second), and the Nets obliged, scoring just 12 points, somehow allowing someone called "Ben Uzoh" to shoot 1-5 in 8 minutes. The Bucks were no great shakes either, but Delfino started to get hot, making 2-4 from deep, and the Bucks took a 45-37 lead into halftime that they did not relinquish.
Andrew Bogut and Brook Lopez had a little tiff in that second quarter. Lopez was complaining early and often -- he scowled to the ref after missing a shot and then vocally complained even after scoring on a hook shot. On the next possession he got the foul call but still didn't seem satisfied, bouncing the ball right near Bogut on a pass to the ref. The two centers exchanged words on the way to the bench. And then Lopez missed both free throws.
Both players started the second half with some fury, Lopez scoring eight points and Bogut blocking three shots in the third quarter alone -- but Milwaukee kept New Jersey at bay the rest of the way. When you have the Nets at home, you have to win, regardless of injuries. And that's just what the Bucks did.
The atmosphere at the BC was rather peppy for a January evening encounter with the Nets, and now that I have mentioned that I have to mention that it was in part because of the strong play by the Bucks but also because of the courtside seats occupied by Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Braun. Rodgers is particularly popular around these parts right now.
Rodgers and the Packers are going for a fourth straight playoff win to win it all next Sunday. And although it might not get as much press (do not leave this website), the Bucks are also going for a fourth straight win on Monday in Los Angeles against the Clippers. It's not the Super Bowl, but it could be the first time all season that the Bucks have won four in a row.
Andrew Bogut. It was all smiles and sarcasm and confidence from Bogut in the locker room after this one.
He first quipped that the Nets "didn't read the scouting report" in reference to his 7 (emphasis: 7) blocks. After being asked about his 17 rebounds, Bogut replied "18." But not to confuse those who are not familiar with Bogut's playful personality, he also warned that the next three teams are "dangerous."
Bogut was in dominant form defensively, so while Brook Lopez led everone with 26 points, he also needed 23 shots (his most since November) to get there. Bogut helped render just about everyone else on New Jersey moot, and he also contributed a refreshing 17 points after 24 against Toronto. He was chatty in the locker room, and not a word about the virus.
Keyon Dooling. On the night when Brandon Jennings returned to action for the first time in more than a month, Dooling kept the keys to the offense and drove the Bucks to another win with 14 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 turnovers in 36 minutes.
Dooling's unbearable start with the Bucks made it seem like the team was doomed when Jennings went down. But the Bucks went 8-12 while Jennings was on the shelf, and that reasonable record is a testament to Dooling's vastly improved play over the last month. Skiles is easing Jennings back in, and games like this one make transition smooth.
Carlos Delfino. As a rookie in Detroit in 2005-06, Carlitos made 9-35 (.257) three-pointers in 30 games. Even by 206-07, his last season with the Pistons, he made just 46-138 (.333) in a full 82-game season.
But now he is leading the NBA in three attempted per game, and he is starting to justify it with nights like tonight. Delfino made 4-9 from outside, and more than half of his field goals attempted (83 of 149, 55.7 %) this season are threes. The Bucks are back to making threes (8-21 as a team), and that's kind of like a big deal.
0. The Nets entered the game ranking last in the NBA with 5.2 steals per game, but they averaged 0.0 steals per game against Milwaukee tonight.
4. New Jersey totaled as many turnovers (4) as field goals (4) in their 12-point second quarter. The Bucks outscored Jersey 23-12 in those 12 minutes. Take away the second quarter, and the Nets beat the Bucks 69-68.
16-15. Wauwatosa native Devin Harris managed more assists (16) than the entire Bucks team (15). Harris only had three turnovers as well, but shot just 2-11 from the field.
Ersan's jumper, etc. This weekend will go down as the Return of Turk Nowitzki. Or just another brief hot streak. But a night after making 7-7 from the perimeter against Toronto, Ilyasova made 4-6 from outside the paint against New Jersey. Yet Ilyasova contains the makings of an ideal role player because he can do a lot more than make a jumper, and he showed that tonight with constant activity on both ends of the court, volleyballing his way to three offensive rebounds (8 total) and helping hold Derrick Favors (8 points, 4 fouls, 23 minutes) to a rookie-like night.
Low turnover. Point guards Keyon Dooling and Brandon Jennings combined for 1 turnover in 47 minutes, and Dooling has climbed all the way up to fifth in assist/turnover ratio in the NBA, sandwiched between Jason Kidd and Rajon Rondo.
Killer D's. Keyon Dooling and Carlos Delfino started in the same backcourt for the first time this season, and they both shot, passed, rebounded, and defended exceptionally. With Corey Maggette's recent blossoming, there is some debate whether Delfino might be better suited to come off the bench when John Salmons returns. With Delfino now getting into the swing of things, the Bucks might have the type of bench that received so many rave reviews in the offseason. Or they might have a new starting shooting guard.
Too many stars. Twice (and almost a third time) this season Michael Redd has made Three Bucks, which should give you an indication of the lack of star power on the Bucks in certain games. But tonight the only dilemma was which player to leave off. Ersan Ilyasova didn't make the cut, but played delightful basketball, as noted above.
Bench. Before the game Scott Skiles talked about how Garrett Temple had earned the chance for minutes, and he got plenty tonight. Temple was the team's sixth man of the game with 26 minutes, but he struggled on both sides of the ball, shooting 1-6 including missing both of his threes, committed four fouls, and while he played on some productive lineups and finished with a +8 differential, he looked more like a player on a 10-day contract than one who will be a valuable piece moving forward.
Luc Mbah a Moute was the most effective reseve, helping guard Kris Humphries into an 0-6 night and into a bit of frustration. Brandon Jennings received a loud ovation as he checked in, but had a quiet night missing all three of his shots in 11 minutes, as Coach Skiles prior to the game said he would limit Jennings to 12 minutes. He got the backup point guard minutes as Earl Boykins didn't get off the bench, and it was not a Larry Sanders (2 minutes) kind of night.
The bench scored 11 points, the starters scored the other 80.
Road. Three in a row now on the road: @Clippers, @Suns, @Warriors. Manageable competition, but the Bucks have lost twice as many (16) as they have won (8) away from home, so don't expect this to be a walk on the west coast park.