So apparently the Milwaukee Bucks want to be taken seriously again.
Given their modest 26-38 record, it may be a while before these deer once again inspire legitimate fear among the elite of the NBA, but three wins a row at least represent a good start. Case in point: needing a win over a Sixer team currently ahead of them in the East playoff race, the Bucks got their win and then some, winning all four quarters and thumping Philly by a season-high 28 points on a fun Saturday night at the BC.
Sure, there were some extenuating circumstances. The Bucks were rested, the Sixers were not. And while sixth seeded Philly was ripe for a letdown after their big win over the Celtics on Friday, the tenth seeded Bucks desperately needed to build on the modest momentum that comes from beating the lowly Cavs and Wizards.
And build they did.
Yes, this one meant more to the Bucks, but that's also the point. The Bucks needed to come out with energy, and they did. They needed to apply pressure on both ends, and they did. They needed to execute, and--as much as it's been contrary to their season-long identity--they did. Not just to win this game, but to give a broader indication that their postseason ambitions involve more than just Indiana and Charlotte spontaneously combusting.
In short, the Bucks needed to beat someone other than an Eastern doormat, and they responded with their biggest blowout of the season against an opponent whom they have struggled to match up with in recent seasons. And once again it had everything to do with a balanced attack that began on the defensive end. Brandon Jennings buried his first four threes and got the better of Jrue Holiday, Andrew Bogut looked downright confident (!) for much of the night (17 pts, 9 rebs, 7/12 fg, 3/5 ft), and Luc Mbah a Moute had one of his most productive nights of the season (14 pts, 12 rebs, 5 stl, 3 ast, 0 to). And even the less obvious lines in the box score made clear impacts. Boykins and Salmons didn't score but were at their playmaking best (seven assists and no turnovers each), while Larry Sanders was dunking, swatting (five blocks), and competently jump-shooting. Yep, it was that kind of night.
Philly couldn't miss early, hitting 73% of their shots in the first quarter, but turnovers prevented them from establishing a lead and saw the Bucks edge them by a point after one. And for the third straight game it was the second which turned the tide in the Bucks' favor. Milwaukee started the second quarter with a 10-0 run, half of them courtesy of two Delfino jumpers, and in short order they had the double-digit lead that they wouldn't relinquish. The ball movement was effortless, the defense was obnoxious, and the results were exemplary.
Defensively, Bogut and Sanders combined to give the Sixers extra length to contend with inside, while the little backcourt of Boykins and Dooling was all action: pressuring defensively, pushing the ball in transition, and dribbling with purpose. How often have we been able to say that last little part this season? Boykins was particularly efficient with seven assists and no turnovers in less than 20 minutes, and Milwaukee didn't miss a beat when Jennings returned, either. Shortly after re-entering he splashed his fourth three to key a 13-0 run that also featured a pair of Sanders jumpers.
Overall, Milwaukee shot 56% in the half, Philly turned it over 12 times to help the Bucks to a 59-41 halftime edge, and the Bucks didn't let up by outscoring the Sixers by five points in each of the final two quarters as well. Bogut scored 11 in the third to allow yet another drama-free fourth that let Skiles rest his starters for Sunday night's game in Boston.
Luc Mbah a Moute. Pretty much everyone in a Bucks uniform could make a case for Three Bucks honors tonight, but let's start with the Prince. Mbah a Moute was the only player from either team to notch a double-double (14 points on eight shots, 12 rebounds), did all the little things (five steals! three assists! no turnovers!) and surprisingly dominated the bigger Elton Brand in every respect (1/3 fg, three pts, four turnovers). So much of basketball is about possessions, and Mbah a Moute was huge on both ends in that respect.
Andrew Bogut. Bogut had his careless moments in the post (six turnovers), but he also showed a renewed comfort on the offensive end with 17 points on 12 shots--the kind of reliability that could be a huge difference-maker in the Bucks' stretch run. Highlighting the night were consecutive buckets in the third that stretched the Bucks' lead to 23: first a double-clutch and-one (and he made the free throw!) over Spencer Hawes, then a fast break oop from Salmons. We all know the big man's had a number of false starts over the season on the offensive end, so I'm not sure we can bank on Bogut suddenly being good for 15 ppg every night, but it's a start.
Earl Boykins. Boykins was not one of the five Bucks who cracked double figures, nor was he one of the seven Milwaukee players to play at least 20 minutes. And yet he was a big part of the hammer blow the Bucks delivered in the second quarter, leading the 10-0 burst that provided the first indications of the blowout that was to come. Yes, he made some shots (4/7 fg, eight pts), but his bigger contributions were as a playmaker, dishing out seven dimes without a turnover in his 19 minutes. The prettiest of them all set up Larry Sanders for a one-handed thumper in the decisive second period.
16. The Bucks racked up a season-high 16 steals to drive a 28-14 edge in points off turnovers, the fourth time in five games they've cracked double-digits in steals. And while the Bucks' 11-5 edge in fast break points seemed fairly modest in the box score, there was a clear emphasis on testing the Sixers' transition defense--indeed, a greater sense of purpose in everything the Bucks did on offense. After the game, Alex asked Scott Skiles about the Bucks' recent success in transition:
No, that's been a point of emphasis for me since I have been about six. Every practice, every day, we talk about getting stops, getting rebounds, running the floor, pushing it up. But it has to be a habit, it's got to be internalized. You've got to see some benefits from it. Our guys have been frustrated by a ton of 3-on-1s and 2-on-1s and things like that this year where we haven't been able to score. And that can take the edge off of you. You can stop running. If you don't have success with something, you can stop doing it. But we need all of those easy baskets we can get.
38. The Bucks' bench matched the scoring output of the Sixers' starters, which in and of itself is saying something. Just as importantly, the Sixer starters also turned it over a combined 15 times to just once by the Bucks' bench.
6/8. The Sixers aren't among the league's best at drawing fouls, but there's nothing typical about an NBA team making just 6/8 from the stripe. In fact, for all their offensive impotence, the Bucks have cracked double-digits in attempts every game this season, and entering tonight's contest they had only once held opponents to single digits (Portland made just 7/9 on November 2).
Two-way. While the Bucks weren't afraid to attack in transition, the game actually ended up as a fairly slow-paced affair (83 possessions). The pace also obscures what was one of the Bucks' most explosive offensive performances of the season (123 pts/100 possessions) and by far their most dominant effort in efficiency terms (+34 pts/100).
Second to none. The Bucks have owned the second quarter of late, outscoring the Wiz, Cavs, and Sixers by 14, 17, and 17 points, respectively. Major credit goes to the bench, which has made a habit of starting the second off on the right foot.
Streaking. We shouldn't get too excited about a winning streak that prominently involves the Wizards and Cavaliers, but it's not like the Bucks are just squeaking by either. They've now dominated three consecutive opponents, flashing some of the mojo that fueled their surprising run of last spring. Things get a lot tougher over the next week(see below), but at the very least it looks like the Bucks are going to go down fighting.
Going gets tough. Nothing to complain about in this game, but with 18 games left the Bucks still have work to do. The Bucks travel to Boston for an early evening affair at the Garden tomorrow before heading to Atlanta on Tuesday (the make-up game from their previously-canceled game) and then flying home to play the Magic on Wednesday. One win would be quite acceptable, two would be divine.