Flashing the versatility, effort and organization that helped them rank among the NBA's best defenses over the past two seasons, the Bucks finally looked like their old defensive selves in Miami on Sunday. Which is good, because they unfortunately shot the ball like their old selves, too.
Despite hitting a wretched 35% from the field and missing 25 of 30 threes, Milwaukee finally put it all together defensively against the Heat's normally potent offense, holding Miami to just 37% shooting and containing LeBron James (28 pts, 8/18 fg, 13 rebs, 5 ast, 3 to) and his teammates down the stretch to scrape out a 91-82 road win over the Heat. Though James was his usual dominating self for much of the night, the Bucks also stunted and rotated perfectly for most of the game, limiting Miami to just nine assists and 21 turnovers.
After his 36-point masterpiece on Friday, Brandon Jennings couldn't buy a jumper but did a bit of everything else, hitting a career-high 12/13 from the line en route to 23 points (5/20 fg), six assists, six rebounds, two steals and just a single turnover. And while Scott Skiles smartly started Shaun Livingston (10 pts on 7 shots, 5 reb, 5 ast) at shooting guard for the second straight game, it was the Bucks' bench that was largely the difference maker in the end. Ersan Ilyasova was energetic and effective (16 points on 8 shots, 6 rebs), Luc Mbah a Moute was brilliant defensively, and Stephen Jackson saved his best for the game's final 13 minutes as the Bucks stiff-armed the Heat late despite Andrew Bogut fouling out with just over two minutes remaining.
ESPN will of course be trumpeting this as the Heat's loss, but for the Bucks it's nothing short of a huge (and deserved) win.
Overall, the game was less about ebbs and flows so much as sloshes and spills. Both teams defended aggressively but also fouled plenty, denying the game any real flow for most of the night. Fittingly, neither team led by more than five until the fourth quarter, with the Bucks surprisingly taking the initiative early in the period and playing from the front for the remainder of the game. Stephen Jackson delivered a long three to close the third quarter and provide the Bucks a 65-63 lead going into the fourth, and he splashed another triple to open the fourth.
Miami would close to 73-72 with eight minutes remaining, but Livingston responded by firing a 40-foot pass in stride to a streaking Mbah a Moute for a dunk. Jennings would then bury his lone three of the game a minute later to push the lead to 79-72, and a runner from Jackson helped keep the Heat at bay as James and Bosh began to apply pressure on the other end. Bucks fans justifiably would have been nervous after Bogut fouled out with 2:32 remaining on a questionable (and incredibly late) over-the-back call on James, but there would be no collapse this time around. The Bucks patiently moved the ball around on the ensuing possession before Livingston made a brilliant pass to a cutting Ilyasova to lay it in with just a second on the shot clock.
That extended the lead to 85-80, and the Bucks defense would do the rest, forcing a James transition miss before Jennings of all people grabbed Jackson's long miss and reversed home a layup to clinch it. As Miami called timeout, Bogut ran to midcourt to congratulate his diminutive running mate, and Skiles proudly put his arm around Jennings as they walked to the huddle.
Fear the deer? Hopefully so.
Ersan Ilyasova. Given the emergence of Jon Leuer and his own indifferent start to the season, Ilyasova has been understandably lost in the shuffle of late, but he followed up a workman-like effort on Friday with perhaps his best game of the season in Miami: 16 pts, 5/8 fg, 1/3 threes, 5/5 ft, 6 rebs, 1 stl, 0 to.
Confidence is often everything with Ersan, so it was naturally a promising sign when he calmly stroked a baseline jumper to start the second. Ilyasova then slashed for a three-point play minutes later and mercifully canned a straight-away three early in the third, the Bucks' first make after 16 straight misses from deep. He also had the Bucks' biggest bucket of the game with two minutes remaining, cutting in baseline to finish a brilliant passing sequence to give the Bucks an 85-80 lead just as the shot-clock expired.
Shaun Livingston. Two starts, two wins, and two very solid games from Livingston. Though his lack of range isn't ideal, Shaun has more than made up for it thus far with his ball movement, slashing ability, mid-range jumper and defensive abilities, and he was deservedly on the court for the entire fourth quarter tonight, scoring five points and adding three assists in the decisive period.
You have to feel good for Livingston given his long journey back from injury, but there's nothing charitable about the opportunities he's getting with the Bucks right now. He's been the Bucks' best guard alongside Jennings so far this season and should be starting again tomorrow night against the Hawks. For that matter, maybe it's time we stop calling it the Stephen Jackson trade and start calling it the Shaun Livingston trade, OK?
Brandon Jennings. Typically, a 5/20 shooting night from Jennings would be accompanied by a Bucks' loss and plenty of hand-wringing about his lack of discretion, dubious point guard purity, poor parallel parking skills, etc. But Jennings' effort tonight was different. His probing and pressuring kept the Heat defense off-balance and he generally moved the ball quite well, with the vast majority of his jump shots coming in rhythm or with the shot clocking demanding someone put the ball up. Example: I counted eight shots that Jennings missed with five seconds or less on the shot clock (see PbP).
It doesn't mean there are excuses for missing this many open shots, but the point is that Jennings actually made an impact in spite of it. His six assists included a number of rather nifty passes and excluded a couple other nice feeds that teammates couldn't finish. Defensively, he played the point of attack well and, like his teammates, closed out diligently. And thanks in part to Heat technicals (three of 'em in the first half) and four free throws while running out the clock, he totaled a new career best with 12 points from the stripe.
9. The Heat entered the game with the league's top-ranked offense, but came away with a season-low 82 points and a mere nine assists compared to 21 turnovers. Only once previously had they come away with fewer than 18 assists in a game this season. And perhaps not coincidentally: the last time the Heat tallied just nine assists was on February 27, 2010--in a loss to the Bucks.
30/34. The Bucks blew past their previous season highs in both free throws made and attempted (20/27 vs LAC), virtually matching Miami (29/35) in a game that had little rhythm due to the referees' busy whistles.
+28. The Bucks' depth paid off big time as their reserves outscored Miami's 39-11.
That old-fashioned Bucks defense. The Heat certainly weren't at their best tonight, but the Bucks' defense was a major reason why. Mbah a Moute, Jackson, Delfino and Livingston all took turns giving credible efforts against LeBron, and the Bucks' other four defenders stunted and rotated with precision to minimize the impact of the King's supporting cast.
Bogut was at his paint-patrolling best with three blocks in addition to his 13 points (5/8 fg) and eight boards, and special credit goes to the Bucks' fourth quarter lineup, which primarily featured Luc, Jackson, Livingston, Jennings and Bogut. Jax and Luc took turns against James and Bosh, with neither able to find any consistent room as the Bucks brought help at times but never enough to create major openings for others. Notably: closing out on Miami's shooters often put them in uncomfortable positions--guys like Shane Battier, James Jones and Mike Miller aren't making coin because of their ability to take it to the rack, and the Bucks did well to force them rather than James to make plays late in the game.
Deeper and deeper. The Bucks' bench made big plays all night; Ilyasova and Jackson hit clutch shots down the stretch, Mbah a Moute took turns defending both Bosh and LeBron, and fittingly no reserve had a negative +/- rating all night. Skiles may face some difficult decisions parsing out minutes over the team's final 51 games, but after last season's injury debacle that would be a welcome change, wouldn't it? My hope for now is that Livingston and Mbah a Moute continue to earn major minutes--and hopefully players like Jackson can deal with it. Or better yet: earn their own.
Road warriors. After eight straight road losses to start the season, winning at Madison Square Garden against a struggling Knicks squad on Friday was more necessary than impressive per se. But the same can't be said of beating a Heat team that had won three straight and was 5-0 without Wade thus far this season. Though it may have lacked aesthetic appeal, this was an impressive, confidence-boosting win of the "signature" variety. And yes, I hate that term too, but that just makes it all the better to get it out of the way.
No rest for the weary. The Bucks' goal for January: survival. Winning back-to-back road games this weekend gives the Bucks a chance to make it out of January with their playoff hopes in tact, though their upcoming schedule is still rather brutal. In the next week, they face the Hawks (12-5) tomorrow at home, followed by a short trip to Houston (9-7) and Chicago (15-3) before returning to Milwaukee to host the Lakers (10-7) next Saturday. Winning just one of those games would be tolerable, though we'll hope that good health and rising confidence can deliver one or two more. The better news: Milwaukee is now tied for 7th in the East with the Cavs and Celtics.
Putting the ball through the hoop. Had the Bucks not squeezed out a win, we'd no doubt be bemoaning yet another win that should have been. In truth the Bucks played unselfishly, moved the ball well and were justifiably rewarded for their efforts with a busy night at the foul line. But let's just make some shots next time, OK?
Dunleavy. I've been among Mike Dunleavy's biggest fans thus far, but he seemed to be pressing his outside shot tonight despite having struggled with it for most of the season's first month. He's now just 1/9 from the field since returning from injury--though the Bucks are also 2-0. Patient, Michael.