Seventeen months after his 55-point game sent rookie expectations impossibly high, did Brandon Jennings finally deliver the encore everyone expected?
There's no denying that Jennings has had his share of terrific games since that fateful November 2009 night in Milwaukee, and in truth he's probably had better all-around performances than either his explosion against the Warriors or his 37-point outburst tonight against the suddenly-struggling New York Knicks. Heck, you could argue he wasn't even the best player in a Bucks' jersey at the Garden tonight--I'm looking at you, Andrew Bogut (21 points, 17 rebs, four blocks, three assists).
But not since the 55-pointer has Jennings shown the ability to so single-handedly leave his mark on a game, bookending another must-win with a blistering 16-point first quarter before slamming the door with 13 straight points in the fourth quarter. Even though the game went untelevised in Milwaukee, New York always feel like center stage, and Jennings once again showed a knack for rising to the occasion.
The same can't be said of the Knicks, who for all the hype and excitement of a month ago now find themselves just 7-11 since the Carmelo Anthony deal. With his squad already having lost four straight, Mike D'Antoni saw his bunch come out even flatter than usual on the defensive end, standing back and applying little perimeter pressure as the Bucks did whatever they wanted on the offensive end. Sure, Amare Stoudemire (28 points on 20 shots, nine rebounds) and Carmelo (25 points on 22 shots, eight rebounds) got their numbers, but no one ever questioned their ability to do that.
For the second time in six days the Bucks jumped all over the Knicks early on, racing to a 19-6 lead behind nine quick points from an energized, aggressive Jennings. The mercurial one buried an open wing three to start the game and was finding little resistance from a sedated-looking Chauncey Billups and the Knicks' perimeter defense, which allowed him to slash to the hoop time and again. A rainbow three with seconds remaining in the period gave him 16 on 6/9 shooting, but he had plenty of company as the Bucks raced to a 35-24 lead after one.
Following his dreadful start against the Kings, Salmons made his first four shots while Bogut was doing all the dirty work against an understaffed Knicks' frontline. While his 1/4 shooting wasn't anything to marvel at, Bogut impressively swatted both Stoudemire and Anthony at the rim in the first two minutes and had 10 boards by halftime. He also worked nicely down low with Mbah a Moute, making a pair of terrific passes in close quarters to get the Cameroonian two easy layups. Think the Knicks could use a guy like Bogut to hold down the frontline?
The Knicks looked sharper in the third, but this time Bogut did the work of holding them off, finishing three beautiful pick-and-rolls on his way to 10 points in the period. But while New York's interior defense was often shambolic, their perimeter defense was markedly improved with Toney Douglas replacing Landry Fields to start the period. That allowed Billups to slide over on Salmons while Douglas was excellent in pressuring Jennings, who saw his angles to the hoop evaporate and took just two shots in the period. In contrast, Douglas was finding soft spots in the Bucks' defense and made four straight shots to energize the MSG crowd and help the Knicks narrow the lead to five after three quarters. It would have been natural to fear another fourth quarter collapse, but as it turns out the Knicks have had their shares of those lately as well.
The Knicks continued to chip away with Bogut and Jennings resting to start the fourth, with a Douglas three bringing the Knicks to within two and the Garden-goers to their feet. The building would have exploded had Douglas connected on a second triple the next time down the court, but the Knicks' inability to break through with the Bucks on the ropes would be their undoing. Stoudemire's tip brought them within a point a minute later, but Larry Sanders caught Stoudemire flat-footed and drove for a monstrous one-handed finish to keep the Knicks--and the crowd--at bay.
Douglas would miss again from three with the Knicks trailing 87-86 and eight minutes remaining, setting the stage for Jennings to take matters into his own hands. Douglas appeared to run out of gas a bit as Jennings scored 13 consecutive Buck points over the next six minutes, outscoring the Knicks by nine before Bogut hit a pair of free throws (5/6 on the night!) for the Bucks' final points.
It was a bit of everything from Jennings in the late going: a drive that led to a pair of free throws, a pull-up jumper from the right wing, a nifty floater, a contested three, two more free throws after another drive, and then a quick drive and layup past Douglas and Stoudemire to make it 100-90 with two minutes remaining. The Bucks' defense also did its job, with the shot-swatting tandem of Sanders and Bogut teaming to repel a series of drives from Amare and Melo.
Brandon Jennings. A terrific night for Jennings, who bounced back from a six point effort against the Kings with a dominating performance against Chauncey Billups and Toney Douglas (9/28 fg, 6 assist in 68 minutes). Billups looked surprisingly terrible for most of the game and couldn't keep up with Jennings early on, forcing D'Antoni to ride the quicker Douglas for much of the second half. It worked in the third, but Douglas had no chance in the fourth and saw his shot abandon him as well. Meanwhile, Jennings made 4/9 from deep (13/25 overall) after missing all eight of his attempts over the past three games.
Andrew Bogut. I counted only two real post buckets from Bogut, who instead did most of his damage diving to the hoop off P&R and picking up garbage buckets here and there. Hey, whatever works. Jennings and Salmons both did their part getting Bogut some easy hoops, but it was Bogut who led the way defensively with four big blocks and 17 of the Bucks' 42 rebounds. Beastly--and now they need him to do it again 24 hours later against the Bulls.
Larry Sanders. Sanders' modest numbers don't jump out of the box score, but all three of his hoops--two of them jumpers--were critical in helping the Bucks hold off the Knicks' second half comeback and he held his own reasonably well against the nearly-unstoppable Stoudemire.
50/50. The Bucks shot 63% in the first quarter and made 6/7 threes to start the game, and even a slower second half didn't prevent them from recording a rare night with 50% shooting from both the field and three point line.
29. Jennings' biggest quarter as a Buck remains his ridiculous 29-point third quarter outburst against Golden State, but no one's complaining about him matching that in the first and fourth combined tonight.
100. The Bucks' defense hasn't been great of late--this marked the sixth straight game where they allowed their opponents to score more points/100 possessions than their season average. But they also hit the 100 point mark for the third time in four games, a feat they've accomplished only one other time this season. Milwaukee has now cracked the 100 point barrier 17 times on the season (14-3), including all four matchups with the Knicks.
Building blocks. Whether the Bucks sneak into the playoffs or not, I think most of us would agree that they're beyond the point of reconciling the expectations we had back in October. OK, fine. But even that would be tolerable if the Bucks' two best players were showing us they were a pair worth pinning our hopes on--an assumption which seemed to underpin many of the Bucks' moves last summer.
In that sense it's been a decidedly mixed bag, and because of that you could argue that the huge games from Jennings and Bogut mean even more than the win by itself. While Bogut has evolved into a dominant defender, we'll probably be waiting until next fall before we know if he can get back to the offensive heights of a year ago. Still, he's now scored at least 13 points in five straight games, only the third time all season we've been able to say that.
But while Bogut has already shown he can be an all-star caliber center, the jury is still out as to whether Jennings will become a very good point guard or just a maddeningly inconsistent one. We saw evidence of improvement early on this season, but a broken foot and a prolonged on-court recovery was discouraging to say the least. Jennings has bounced back this month, and games like this show the kind of game-breaking ability he has. More please.
Sanders stepping up. Sanders dunked in Amare's grill last weekend, then followed it up by dropping a thunderous slam on the Knicks just as they had appeared to seize the momentum. Even before that he ripped a pair of big jumpers with the shot-clock running down and then teamed with Bogut to wall off the Knicks' drives to the rim down the stretch. Sanders was one of the Bucks' few bright spots on Wednesday and he didn't let the bright lights of NYC faze him. Kudos, Larry.
Play on for playoffs. It's going to take luck and a whole lot of good basketball for the Bucks to surge past Indy for the final playoff stat, but goddamnit it's still possible. The Bucks' win and a surprising home loss by Indy to the Kings (at least they're equal opportunity spoilers) means the Bucks' deficit is once against just two games.
Delfino returns to earth. Wait, he didn't score 30 again? After dropping 86 points over his last three games, Delfino was bound to come back to earth at some point, so there's nothing particularly tragic about a reasonably quiet eight points on nine shots.
If a tree falls... With no local TV, the disappointing loss to Sacramento as a backdrop, and competing against Marquette's Sweet Sixteen matchup with UNC, odds are that few Bucks fans back in Wisconsin actually got a chance to watch this one. And that's a shame.