The Milwaukee Bucks kick off their five-game, seven-night Western road trip in Denver against the Nuggets--but don't expect the Nuggets to feel much sympathy for the Bucks. While Scott Skiles' bunch is coming off two days of rest following their 102-81 home win over the Wizards, the Nuggets will be playing for the third time in as many nights and for the fifth time in six days.
Latest injury news: Via Jim Paschke, Mike Dunleavy is not expected to play due to illness.
No resting for Nuggets. The compressed schedule means that every NBA team will deal with a back-to-back-to-back at some point, and it's just the Bucks' luck that they get to catch the Nuggets coming off a back-to-back split with the Lakers on Saturday and Sunday. Both games went down to the wire, with L.A. squeaking out a 92-89 win in Los Angeles on Saturday and the Nuggets running away late for a 99-90 win in Denver yesterday. George Karl's bunch had been having some struggles late in games, but rectified things last night by scoring the final 11 points of the game. Karl used the same nine guys each of the past two nights, so you'd think he might look for some fresh legs tonight. Corey Brewer, DeMarre Carroll, Kosta Koufos, Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton are all fully rested.
Ty Game. Danilo Gallinari made up for blowing a potential game-tying layup in Los Angeles on Saturday by scoring 20 on Sunday, but the real MVP for the Nuggets was once again third-year point guard Ty Lawson (17 pts on 11 shots, 10 ast, 2 to). Lawson had been terrific coming (mostly) off the bench in his first two seasons, and he's not disappointing as the clear-cut starter ahead of Andre Miller so far this season. While his assist rate had been down before last night, Lawson has been an exceptionally efficient scorer (18.6 ppg on 67% true shooting) and his ability to control tempo has been essential to the Nuggets' fast-paced attack.
Incredibly, Lawson was just the seventh point guard selected in the 2009 draft, with Tyreke Evans (if you count him as a PG), Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, and Jrue Holiday all hearing their name called ahead of him. And yet none of them can match Lawson's productivity so far this season, though Jennings comes closest thanks to the surprising efficiency he's shown as a scorer (22.7 ppg on 57.8% true shooting) through three games.
A new and improved Brandon? With 22 or more points in each of his first three games, Jennings has a chance to score 20+ points in four straight games for the first time his career--he's now done it in three straight on four separate occasions. While most Bucks fans began the season hoping for more "pure" point guard play from Jennings, the reality so far has been the exact opposite: Jennings is shooting more than ever so far (16.7 fga/game vs. 14.8 and 14.7 the last two seasons), but the difference is that he's actually making shots (46%) and getting to the line at a much better rate (6.7 fta/game compared to 3.9 last season), which has offset a below-average start from three point range (5/17).
The sample size is admittedly too small to draw any real conclusions, but it's promising stuff so long as you're OK with a scoring point guard. You won't hear me complaining--not when Jennings' TS% is close to 58% on a team lacking go-to scorers. That said, for some perspective it's also worth noting the very different start Jennings had last year: 15.0 ppg, 9.0 apg, and 5.0 rpg. Sample sizes are funny like that.
Pass first. Even with Jennings shooting and scoring more, the Bucks aren't suffering from a lack of ball movement or Iversonian ball-watching. Milwaukee is fifth in the league in assist percentage (63% of field goals) and second in assists per game (23.7), major factors in the Bucks' much-improved (though still very average) offense so far. Average never felt so good, eh?
While they've suffered third quarter lulls in each of their three games, the Bucks have also been more active off the ball and more unselfish with it in their hands, which makes sense when you consider that Scott Skiles has regularly paired point guards in the back court and at times even played Jennings, Beno Udrih and Shaun Livingston at the same time. More point guards = more passing, right? In fact, all of Livingston's 76 minutes have come with either or both Jennings and Udrih on the floor with him. Add to that willing passers such as Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino and Andrew Bogut, and it's no surprise that the Bucks have been more effective than they were a year ago with guys like John Salmons and Corey Maggette pounding the ball into oblivion. Now they just need to keep it up for more than a week.
DNP. Speaking after the Wizards victory, Skiles maintained that Drew Gooden's DNP-CD was simply a product of Jon Leuer deserving an extended look after his excellent performance against Minnesota. Perhaps, but that doesn't make it any less interesting to see Gooden glued to the pine in a game when a) Luc Mbah a Moute again missed out due to a sore knee and b) the Bucks still don't have a real backup center for Bogut. I'd be surprised if we didn't see more of Gooden against the Nuggets and Kings on Monday/Tuesday--if nothing else just to throw him a bone--but it's nice to see Skiles not feeling beholden to his most expensive PF. Or anyone else for that matter:
"Look, if we remain healthy, it's going to be challenging to maintain our chemistry," Skiles said. "I want guys who want to play. I don't want guys who are content to sit on the bench.
"It's going to be challenging to keep everybody in good spirits."
The same could also be said about Stephen Jackson, who scored just seven points on eight shots against the Wizards and watched the final 17 minutes from the bench. Last year Jackson played fewer than 24 minutes just three times, twice because he was ejected and once because of injury. This season it's already happened twice: against Charlotte due to foul trouble and against Washington because Skiles preferred Delfino, Dunleavy, Udrih and Livingston. The obvious follow-up questions are a) whether Jackson can get his game on track b) how Skiles deals with his minutes if he doesn't and c) how Jackson reacts if Skiles doesn't give him the minutes he's come to expect.
Jackson has been playing his way into shape following back and hamstring injuries, so the hope is that the combustible wingman works through his early struggles sooner rather than later. Realistically, we know Jackson isn't going to shoot 30% with a 4.34 PER all season; mean reversion will set in. But even "good" Stephen Jackson probably isn't deserving of 36 mpg when guys like Dunleavy, Delfino, Udrih and Livingston are on the bench. Much of it will probably come down to winning: if the Bucks are struggling, Skiles will have a much tougher time managing egos than if they're winning. Jackson has always maintained that he values winning above all else, and it wouldn't be a bad thing to put that to the test.
Luc returns? Mbah a Moute is likely to make his season debut against the team that signed him to a four year, $18.7 million offer sheet three weeks ago. Ilyasova will presumably start at PF for the fourth time in as many games following an excellent performance against Washington, though there's a good chance he starts off defending Nuggets' center Timofey Mozgov so that Andrew Bogut can take his chances defending Nene. The Brazilian regularly annihilates opponents in the post--just ask Larry Sanders, who swatted eight shots in Denver last year but was also torched down low by Nene to the tune of 24 points on nine shots.
Hobson stars. Darington Hobson was quiet in his D-League debut on Friday, scoring just two points in 16 minutes after arriving late the prior night. But apparently he just needed to get his feet wet, as he bounced back in a major way on Sunday with 22 points (6/10 fg, 1/4 threes, 9/10 ft), 5 rebs, 5 ast, 3 stl, and just 1 turnover in 37 minutes of a 104-103 win over the Canton Charge. Hobson's jumper with 21 seconds remaining provided the final margin of victory for Fort Wayne, which plays next on Tuesday night in Reno.