When game time rolled around for this rematch between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, my wife hit me with an abrupt reminder about the significance of the contest. When Andrew Bogut and Nikolai Pekovic jumped at center court, television in my household remained glued to the X Factor for the final live shows. When I attempted to move the on-screen guide to the Bucks game, my wonderful wife, who was rather conveniently informed on Bucks matters this night, calmly pointed out it was only a preseason game and had no real significance. Truth be told, she had me dead to rights, so I sat and watched three amateur contestants desperately compete for a $5 million dollar recording contract and let a not-so-desperate exhibition competition between established millionaires slowly matriculate onto our DVR.
Although I didn't see the game exactly as it happened live, I used the added benefit of DVR to glean what I think are some important observations you can take away from a simple preseason game. Remember, it's only preseason.
After the Bucks defense yielded 117 points in a loss to the Timberwolves several nights ago, this game had a much more Bucksy feel from the start. Nearly three minutes into the game both teams had yet to score a single point, but when the scoreboard finally did light up it signaled something good for Bucks fans. Brandon Jennings scored the first two baskets of the game by making heady off ball cuts and converting well-placed perimeter passes by Mike Dunleavy into strong finishes at the hoop. It's entirely possible Dunleavy has the best combination of size, basketball IQ and passing skill on the team, so I expect to see a lot more deliberate and successful cuts off the ball by teammates when he has possession at the top of the key or along the wings. He led the team with 5 assists on Saturday night, and added another two in the preseason home opener.
The book is out on Jennings.
The T'Wolves sent their defender under the screener on pick and roll with Jennings all night long, so the 1-5 action with Bogut didn't really yield much in the early going, and Brandon will have to find ways to make the defense pay for doing that to him when the real games start. The most successful pick-and-roll combo for Jennings actually happened to feature Drew Gooden on pick and pops, where Gooden's defender got caught up on the hedge and couldn't slide laterally to cover in time, creating wide open looks where Gooden could come to a full set and fire on target. If they insist on starting Jennings, it might make more sense to have Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (LRMAM) come off the bench and allow Gooden to run pick and pop to force teams out of the under approach on Jennings. It could get real ugly real fast for everyone involved if Bogut and LRMAM are the only options for pick and roll with Jennings. In fact, the game opened with some LRMAM wing pick and rolls, but it generated very little defensive movement.
Yeah Yeah, But What About Stephen Jackson?
He did not start the game, but guess who was first man off the bench for the Bucks? Stephen Jackson, baby. Sporting double shooting sleeves AND double leg sleeves, all in red, it was easy to find S-Jax when he came out on the floor. Aside from sticking out like a sore thumb in terms of uniform accessories, he actually blended well with the Bucks offense in his limited action. His first shot attempt in a Bucks uniform found the bottom of the net, and his second shot followed suit. His early success even created an opportunity for a shot-fake and drive that sent Jackson to the line in the early going.
I could tell you about the free throw sequence as well, but I actually found something more interesting when breaking down the sequence of possessions described above. Jackson caught the ball in nearly the exact same spot on the floor to initiate his opportunities all three times: the left wing behind the three point line. In fact, he spent most of his night working on the left side of the floor. After every pick and roll situation in the early going, Jackson was waiting on the left wing for a spot up three or some derivative look. I don't think this was a coincidence at all. Maybe the coaching staff has noticed something in their shot charting about Jackson's comfort or accuracy on the left wing, or maybe he has a better feel for dribble-drives on that side of the court, but I will certainly be looking for this when the regular season tips off. Maybe it's nothing, but it looked deliberate to me. Just my two cents.
It didn't take long for Jon McGlocklin and Jim Paschke to work out a nickname for S-Jax either, and here's the sequence the TV duo got into just minutes after he entered the game:
Paschke: All I can think about looking at the back of his jersey, which says Jackson 5, is it's as easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3...Jackson 5
McGlocklin: [Laughs] [Sings along for a bit with Jim] [Pauses] Yup.
Bucks Selectively Hasten The Pace
Don't let the early score fool you, the Bucks did place an emphasis on picking spots to push the ball in transition. Whether off missed free throw attempts, long rebounds or forced turnovers, the Bucks made a clear effort to set the outlet man further up the court and send at least one wing player streaking on the weak side of the break. All of this came with mixed results. When Jennings forced the action on the first two planned pushes, he missed a pull up jumper from the left elbow and got swatted hard by Wayne Ellington on a layup attempt. When Jennings left the plays to develop based on defensive movement, he found Dunleavy streaking on the weak side and calmly reset the offense if no easy opportunities presented themselves. Young Buck finished with 9 assists on the night, and when he attacked under control and looking to dish in transition, he looked dangerous. The Bucks finished the first half shooting 45% and with 15 assists, and finished with 44% shooting and 24 assists, so all in all it seemed to help protect against long scoring droughts that plagued the team last season. Yet another thing to keep your eye on when the real games begin.
Defense, Defense, Defense
The Bucks held the Timberwolves to 37% shooting in the first half and just 2/5 on threes, and just 41% and 6-15 on threes for the game, so what changed? Part of it was a simple regression in three-point shooting, but a lot had to do with how Skiles played Kevin Love in this game. On Saturday night he left Bogut to cover Love in some of the small ball lineups engineered by Rick Adelman, and it left Love open for pick and pop threes that Bogut isn't really equipped to cover well enough. In this game there were plenty of interior matchups for Bogut, but LRMAM also had clear orders to guard Love all night long. The elite perimeter skills flashed for LRMAM, as Love got his baskets primarily on broken plays and almost never in isolation outside of the post. Sure he still got 22 points on just 10 shots, but it was an odd 22. Love looked far less comfortable on the perimeter being guarded by LRMAM, and Bogut looked far more comfortable keeping his defensive assignments limited to the paint, so I expect Skiles to keep Bogut on the player with the least range from now on and use LRMAM on perimeter-oriented bigs if necessary.
LRMAM had the green light to take short corner jumpers on the right side in the second half, and actually looked fairly decent from 15-18 ft. The big moment of the night was when he took a perimeter swing pass from Darington Hobson and calmly knocked down a right corner three. I repeat: LRMAM went a perfect 1-1 from the arc in live NBA action. There have been murmurs about the Prince putting in work on extending his range to arc, and now we all have some tangible evidence. Another observation: nearly all of LRMAM's looks came from the right side short corner, and that felt just as deliberate in terms of placement as Jackson's opportunities did. Oh yeah, Drew Gooden hit a three as well so....that happened too.
Speaking of Darington Hobson, I'm still not sure what he does that helps anyone on the court. He seems programmed to pump fake and drive when he catches on the perimeter, but the defense isn't concerned enough about his scoring ability to make his drive-and-kick action worth the effort at this point. Maybe he will emerge as someone who can do a little bit of everything over the course of time, but I'm still waiting for a glimpse.
How Did They Actually Lose?
The game was fairly tight for most of the night, and the Bucks were up 78-71 with under four minutes to play (and 84-75 with under two minutes to play!), but the shots just stopped falling and all the action generally devolved into a preseason slopfest. It would be unfair to say it's business as usual for the Bucks, because the lineup Skiles used at the end of game was not something you will see to close out a real game (Jennings-Udrih-Hobson-Leuer-Gooden). One man who looked good for the Bucks in the late-game situation was Beno, who ran pick and roll well enough to score the last four points for the Bucks on the night. Kevin Love was still in the game for some odd reason and hit like 50 threes to end the game, and the T'Wolves won. Good for them.
Don't focus on the failure of a mish-mash lineup to pin up the continuing narrative of the team's offensive struggles, as that would add to everything that is wrong about watching the preseason too closely. Instead, take some of the general observations I left you earlier in the recap and come ready to see some real NBA action when the Bucks open up against Charlotte.
How Did They Actually Win?
All proceeds from ticket sales went to a great cause, The MACC Fund, and the team emerged from the preseason with no game-related injuries.