MILWAUKEE -- Which news first? The bad news is the Bucks won a close game. The good news is the Bucks won a close game.
Bad, because the Timberwolves are all sorts of bad. And so a narrow win, a win that was in doubt until there were seconds left instead of minutes left, qualifies as a disappointment overall. The Bucks cannot permit the very worst of the Western Conference to hang around in their home building. Milwaukee is not biding time until the playoffs -- they are on a frantic run just to make it. At least they should be.
Good, because the Bucks won a nice, close game at the Bradley Center. We were spoiled last season, and this season sure is acting like it. They have played a road-heavy schedule so far, so there is ample opportunity for Bradley Center theatrics yet. But the Bucks have really only played a couple truly exciting, down-to-the-wire-and-fingernail games at home this season -- the Bogut tip-in against the Pacers and the overtime loss to the Heat qualify. Other than that, not much drama to speak of or watch in Milwaukee. This game was not on that level, obviously, but the fact that it was close and late was a rare treat in itself. And they even saved the best news for last -- and won.The game started and continued on in worryingly competitive fashion. Early on, it was clear that the Bucks were up against Good Michael Beasley and Bad Michael Beasley, who hit all four of his shots in the first quarter and scored with ease unlike any 2010-11 Milwaukee Buck. But he also made a couple of preposterous first quarter passes, including one right to Carlos Delfino on an inbounds. In the end, Beasley finished with 21 points on 17 shots... and one free throw, one rebound, one assist, and five turnovers.
For most of the game, I was taking more bad notes than good ones, and that goes for both teams. Really, both squads lived down to the Timberwolves/Bucks matchup in wide assortments of silliness -- Andrew Bogut earned a technical for -- as far as I could see -- throwing the basketball underhanded, with two hands, about ten feet in the air. This was a rightful but lamely executed show of frustration. And Bogut did make a "jumper" in the first quarter which elicited equal parts genuine and comedic approval from me.
Also in the first half, John Salmons carried the ball, Ersan Ilyasova missed a layup, Brandon Jennings fouled Sebastian Telfair (0-7 tonight) on a jumpshot, and Corey Maggette hopped out of bounds after corralling a defensive rebound on a missed free throw.
And consider: The Bucks were winning at halftime.
The game opened up and turned a touch more aesthetically pleasing after the break. Scott Skiles subbed in a couple smallball lineups with interesting success, as Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute battled foul trouble and Andrew Bogut battled offensive impotency. What resulted was nine fastbreak points in the third quarter for Milwaukee, as Brandon Jennings keyed the transition both defensively (three steals) and offensively (nine points). Yet Michael Beasley kept scoring and Kevin Love owned the boards (honestly), and so the Wolves stayed just about even.
At long last, the Bucks showed their superiority in the fourth quarter, running crisp offense against Minnesota players who seemed to be trying but also out of their element when playing defense. Skiles went with a Jennings/Dooling/Salmons/Maggette/Brockman fivesome for a nice fourth quarter spell that turned the tide in Milwaukee's favor. Everyone on the Bucks passed so very well in the fourth, and Jennings hit Salmons for a three that made it 87-80 and that was enough: Jennings coolly iced it at the line.
Brandon Jennings. I am quite alright with trading a fifth place finish in the Slam Dunk Contest over the weekend for 27 basketball points and 6 or 7 swagger points in the first game back after All-Star Weekend. Forget the floater that went over the backboard or another shot-clock-buzzer-beating airball three-pointer -- Jennings was the best player on the floor this evening. And in a Timberwolves/Bucks game, why not?
Any one of 27 points, 7 assists, 1 turnover, 11 free throws, 3 steals, and 2 blocks from Jennings is a nice feat of its own. All in the same game? Star quality.
Jon Brockman. Contrary to popular rumors, Andrew Bogut was not in fact sent to Fort Wayne to join Larry Sanders with the Mad Ants. But Scott Skiles was impressed with Jon Brockman to the extent that he played more minutes (24) than Bogut (22). For the first time all year, and probably the last, but the minutes and (and honor among Three Bucks for the second time all season) is deserved.
Brockman has not won much praise in his debut season in Milwaukee, but ultimately you just hope to get a couple wins out of Earl Boykins, Jon Brockman, and the like. Boykins has won some games this season already (see: Lakers in L.A. and Dallas on New Year's), and Brockman factored largely tonight. He led everyone in rebounds with 14 (just kidding, Kevin Love had 17) and did not even commit a turnover in 20 minutes. Brockman kept the goofy plays (sparing that missed open layup after an offensive rebound) to a minimum and was a bit of everything that the team and fans hoped for entering this season.
Corey Maggette. Really closed the game for Milwaukee, scoring eight points along with two particularly excellent assists in the decisive fourth quarter. Also: It is strange to say and type and think and consider, but Maggette actually does some of the small things. He drew another charge tonight, and he is apt to do that. And while he will never, ever, ever in life pass in transition, he is prone to make a nice skip pass. And this team without his scoring kick? Even more historically inept offensively.
71.4 % Over the past three games, Carlos Delfino has shot 25 three-pointers. And in that span, the Argentine has attempted merely 10 two-pointers. So 25-35 (.714) of his field goals attempts have come from beyond the arc.
He made 7-10 on threes (2-5 on twos) in the win over Clippers, then 0-6 on threes (4-4 on twos) in the loss to Denver, and tonight he made 3-9 on threes (1-1 on twos). So he is 10-25 (.400) on threes and 7-10 (.700) on twos over the last three games.
Another way of looking at this: Three-point-obsessive Carlitos has not missed a two-pointer in the last two games, in two starts, in 66 minutes.
7. Both the Bucks and Wolves shot 31 free throws. But the Bucks made 27 and the Wolves made 20. That seven-point difference (on equal attempts) looms large considering the six-point final margin in Milwaukee's favor.
30. Milwaukee attempted a season-high 30 three-pointers. They previously attempted 26 on three separate occasions this year. The team shot 30+ three-pointers in four games last season, maxing out at 32.
They only converted on 7-30 (.233) though, and Corey Maggette (0-4) might be staring at an expiration date on his three-point run.
A 4th on 4th St. After tying both the second and third quarters in lackluster fashion, the Bucks ran smart, controlled halfcourt offense and pulled away in the final period, a quarter in which they had fallen apart a few times recently. The Bucks did not turn the ball over in the fourth quarter and forced six turnovers, they made 8-12 two-pointers and 8-9 free throws, and everyone read the defense well, from Brandon Jennings to John Salmons to Corey Maggette.
Give me a (fast)break. The decision to go with some extra-small lineups was in part out of necessity -- with Drew Gooden still hurt, Larry Sanders having been shipped to Fort Wayne, and Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova each picking up four fouls in just 12 minutes (while shooting a combined 2-10), the Bucks were not working with their overabundant stable of power forwards.
Nevertheless, with a spritely Jon Brockman early on, Scott Skiles was free to play him alongside Andrew Bogut in the frontcourt. Instead, he gave Brockman a bulk of the center minutes, and shifted Maggette to the four as the Bucks also used the two-point-guard backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Keyon Dooling to make a pretty sleek Milwaukee outfit -- not something typed around these parts too often this season.
Smallball might -- nay -- will not work against most teams. But Milwaukee had its finest fastbreak night of the season tonight if you look at both sides of the break. The Bucks racked up 17 fastbreak points (an average that would rank third in the league -- the Bucks are presently last), and they only allowed the Timberwolves to collect two fastbreak points themselves, for a season-best +15 fastbreak point margin.
Jennings bests Ridnour. Luke Ridnour backed up Brandon Jennings all 82 games last season. That consistency was a tremendous part of what made last season a season that, even after a win like tonight, I miss so.
By most statistical measures though, Ridnour narrowly outperformed Jennings last year despite not making a single start. And this season, he is arguably playing a bit better again (as both have dropped off some).
Tonight though? Jennings (27/7/3) got the better, by far, of Ridnour (12/4/3). So that was nice. Of course, I wish Ridnour's soft floaters and hard fouls would have worn off on Jennings more.
Split with Minnesota. A win is a win, but that loss in the second game of the season in Minnesota set the disappointment of the season in motion early and still stands out among the losses.
Salm-ons, Salm-offs? John Salmons hit a momentous three to give the Bucks an 87-80 lead late in the game, but his 12/5/2 line in 38 minutes isn't quite the stuff that last year's stretch run was made of. And as unlikely as an encore performance of his swingin' spring is, his hot couple of games before the break at least birthed a sliver of hope.
NWT. As Jeremy, Jake, and I noted after the game, the "Larry Sanders NWT - Development League" line was a curious one in the box scores handed to us before the Skiles postgame press conference. I guess the Chris Douglas-Roberts DNP - Coach's Decision" is always a little odd, but we've had time to get used to that one. The Sanders one is strange because he was actually technically active for this game despite his present status as a Mad Ant. Speaking of which, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants game this evening was canceled.