Coming into Friday night's matchup with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, that's how long it had been since the Milwaukee Bucks' season-ending win in Oklahoma City last April. Eight road games and eight road losses later, any victory would do for Scott Skiles' beleaguered bunch: pretty or ugly, good opponent or bad, deserved or otherwise. But a double-digit win at the mecca of basketball against a team they're chasing for an Eastern Conference playoff spot? Yeah, that works.
There was no shortage of story lines either, though you wouldn't expect anything less when the Knicks are involved. Brandon Jennings (36 pts, 15/26 fg, 5 ast, 2 stl, 3 to) put on yet another dynamite performance at MSG in outdueling an increasingly frustrated Carmelo Anthony (35 pts, 11/26 fg) before the latter's ejection in the final minute.
Shaun Livingston (18 pts, 7/10 fg, 5 rebs, 3 ast) was pitch-perfect starting in place of the suspended/inactive/whatever-you-want-to-call-it Stephen Jackson, raising the inevitable question of whether the Bucks are any better with Jackson in the lineup, much less playing 40 minutes. More on that later.
And lastly there are the Knicks, now losers of five straight and subject to the ever-intensifying pressure that comes with it. Amare Stoudemire (6/13 fg, 15 pts, 5 to) and company struggled inside, Anthony spent much of the night going one-on-five, and the rest of the Knicks roster seemed content to stand around and take it all in. It was all good news for the Bucks on Friday, and considering that these teams may be battling one another for a playoff spot in late April, hopefully also a sign of things to come.
Nothing about the Bucks' road efforts coming into this game suggested a win, much less an easy one, should be expected. But the same could have been said from the Knicks' perspective, and early on there did seem to be a positivity and purpose to the Bucks' game. Bogut stroked another jumper and dropped in three more early shots, including what appeared to be an unintentional banked hook from the mid-post. Bogut has been dreadful from that range all season, so might tonight finally be the night he gets his post game working?
The Bucks led by as many as nine early, but Anthony showed his own purpose in scoring 14 in the first quarter to bring the Knicks back to within four after the first period. The Bucks had particularly little answer for the Chandler/Anthony high P&R, as Bogut stayed in the paint and left Delfino mostly on his own to chase Anthony off screens. That typically left Melo able to cruise in for uncontested 10-15 footers, and overall he made 6/11 on two-pointers outside the paint. But the Bucks continued to make him work (four turnovers) and crowded him inside (3/7 at the rim), as Delfino and Livingston put up credible if not effective resistance against Anthony.
The same couldn't be said of the Knicks' defense. With Jackson in street clothes and a second point guard starting in his place, the Bucks were content to ping the ball around the court until they found good shots, many of them in the paint. Livingston was particularly brilliant from mid-range, but the Bucks also found little resistant inside, sinking 18/22 shots at the rim (82%). Returning from an 11-game absence with a groin injury, Dunleavy did nothing in the box score (0/4 fg), yet it seemed like he was typically in the middle of good things--be it a laser pass to Udrih for a layup or pushing the ball in transition. Not coincidentally, the Bucks are 3-1 when Dunleavy plays and 2-8 when he doesn't.
Jennings began to take control in the second, scoring the Bucks' final 12 points of the half in just 164 seconds. The Knicks' aggressiveness paid off with a series of trips to the foul line that earned them a 43-41 lead in the late going, but Jennings ripped a pair of threes and put back his own missed floater on the half's last possession to give Milwaukee a 55-51 edge. Jennings' swagger continued in full motion in the third, scoring another 11 points as the Bucks extended their lead to 78-62. His last two baskets came on long twos in quick succession, the kind of shots which normally might draw winces from Bucks fans. But by that time it all felt very correct: Jennings was performing, the crowd was left gasping for answers, and he was not going to miss.
The Bucks slowed a bit in the fourth, but the Knicks missed their first eight shots and never started a comeback in earnest. Down by 13, Anthony scored 10 straight Knick points but could never bring them closer than 89-80, and his frustration began to boil over in the final minutes. He lowered his shoulder to level Jennings on a screen and went face-to-face with Delfino on a handful of occasions as the Argentine began to get under his skin. That pair had been assessed a double-technical earlier in the game, and Anthony would get his marching papers with 90 seconds left following a testy exchange with Jennings.
After Anthony got a piece of Jennings' follow-through on a straightaway three, the diminutive point guard flashed three fingers at Anthony while running back down the court. You knew Carmelo was going to shoot after that, but following a foul on Bogut he went back to jawing at Jennings, who seemed to content to sit back and smile with his team up 15. The refs T'd both players up anyway, which meant Anthony's night--and along with it the Bucks' road streak--was over.
Brandon Jennings. For the first time since November 2009, Brandon Jennings can credibly claim to be the Milwaukee Bucks' best basketball player. Granted, much of that has to do with Andrew Bogut's indifferent start to the season, but Jennings has also put together by far his best month of basketball since exploding onto the scene in his first month of his first NBA season.
Jennings contributed four early assists but also missed four of his first six shots, letting his teammates take the early initiative before taking over the game in the final three quarters with 12, 11 and 8 points. Jennings buried 6/12 from deep and has now made 24/49 threes in his last nine games, though he also slammed home a career-high three dunks (two off his own steals, one the result of some fortuitous cherry-picking) and made 9/14 from two-point range as well. Video evidence below.
Shaun Livingston. Always in control, always calm; there's just something about Livingston's game that puts me at ease. Well, it's a number of things really: steady defense, a perpetual willingness to move the ball, and a lethal mid-range game. All three were on display tonight in his first game starting at shooting guard, as Livingston was a key cog in the Bucks' ball movement and killed the Knicks with short jumpers in the first half. We've seen Livingston use his length and high release to good effect in the post and isolation all season, and he was perfect in the game's first 18 minutes, making all six of his shots between six and ten feet.
Ersan Ilyasova. There was plenty of separation between the starting guards and the rest of the Bucks' roster, but Ilyasova (9 rebs, 3 ast, 2 stl, +15) and Drew Gooden (10 pts, 11 rebs) both deserve some credit for cleaning the boards and battling the Knicks' big men capably down low. Neither could shoot a lick (Gooden 2/9, Ilyasova 1/5) and Ilyasova botched another alley-oop (at some point Jennings will stop throwing them, right?), but for once it didn't really matter.
.370. The struggling Knick offense offered a convenient summary of its recent struggles on Friday: too much Anthony, not enough Stoudemire, and a sloppy, unimaginative supporting cast. The Bucks had few answers for Anthony running high pick and roll with Chandler--Bogut mostly hung back and conceded short jumpers rather than expose himself to drives--but it seemed as though the rest of the Knicks also grew bored watching Melo take nearly a third of New York's shots.
24. Though the Bucks had only a modest 21-18 edge in points off turnovers, New York denied itself any chance at winning by coughing up the ball 24 times.
+22. The Bucks dominated in the paint with a 50-28 edge around the basket.
Home away from home. Turns out the Bucks just needed a pilgrimage to basketball's mecca to find a cure for their road woes. The Bucks won for the sixth time in seven trips to MSG and it couldn't have come at a better time, as the Bucks are now tied for ninth in the East with Boston (also 5-9, but having played four more home games), are just a half game back of the slumping Knicks (6-9, 8th) and a game behind the likely-to-fade Cavs (6-8, 7th).
Oak Hill's finest. It was a night of contrasts for the three Oak Hill alumni at MSG Friday night. Jackson could only watch as the Bucks played some of their best ball of the season without him (more on that below). Anthony contributed a joyless, team-high 35 points before being tossed for his second technical, as his frustrations boiled over in the closing minutes. And then there was Jennings, who once again stole the show on his home-away-from-home court.
Jennings made 50% or better of his shots for the eighth time this season in 14 games, the same number of times he did it in 66 games a year ago. More to the point: his 15/26 shooting night now puts his season shooting splits at .464/.377/.780 and a 55.1% true shooting figure. Now if only he can maintain that...
Getting defensive. The Knicks' offensive predictability helped, but the Bucks also held their own on the boards, seemed to find their way to most loose balls and forced 24 turnovers vs. just 13 Knick assists. Have we mentioned yet that Luc Mbah a Moute was back in the lineup? Luc was the third Buck to have a shot at Anthony in both the first and third quarters (after Delfino and Livingston), and he helped make life increasingly difficult for Melo after his 14 first quarter points. Mbah a Moute was easily the most effective Buck at fighting through screens to stay with Melo in high P&R, and the former Syracuse star was just 3/12 from the field while Mbah a Moute was in the game.
What about Jack? It was all smiles for the bench late in the fourth quarter, and Jackson was no exception. But now comes the uncomfortable part. First, we all know Jackson has been way too inefficient for a sometimes-first option. But we also know that Skiles is likely to continue playing him major minutes because...well, just because. Politics, old habits, the cult of personality. Things like that. Don't ask.
So there should be nothing too surprising about the Bucks putting together their most convincing 48 minutes of the season in a game where Livingston starts, glue guys Dunleavy and Mbah a Moute return, and Jackson sits on the bench in street clothes. I'm not naive enough to think Skiles will turn Jackson into a bit player the rest of the season, and if he can cut down on his turnovers and start making a vaguely respectable percentage of his shots maybe that's OK. But in the meantime let's hope that some form of meritocracy prevails.
Talking playoffs. Anything short of the playoffs will be a major disappointment for this team, but complicating matters is that the East isn't the joke it once was. The way things currently stand, the Bucks would have to beat out either the Knicks or Celtics just for the right to face the Bulls or Heat in the first round. Sigh.
Subdued Bogut. Andrew Bogut wasn't bad, but a strong start (4/5 in the first quarter) made his final three quarters (1/4 fg, five total rebounds) a bit of a disappointment.