Some would argue that good can be the enemy of great. Others say don't let perfection get in the way of good.
For the sake of the Milwaukee Bucks, let's hope the latter is more informative than the former and worry about greatness some other time.
The Bucks couldn't contain rookie phenom Anthony Davis on Saturday night at the BC, nor could they prevent the New Orleans Hornets from shooting a singing 63% in the first half or 53% for the game. And the one guy who wasn't making shots--point guard Greivis Vasquez--was outfoxing Brandon Jennings and the Bucks' help defenders in P&R and off the bounce far too easily. Rotations were slow and the Hornets--a team that scored 62 points in a whole game a couple weeks ago--were making the Bucks pay for conceding open looks. Those numbers alone will make Scott Skiles cringe, especially considering that it was his defense which had been the driving force behind his team's 5-2 start.
Thankfully, the Bucks are not one-trick ponies, and on any given night they have the firepower to simply outscore their opponents when their defense is letting them down. Tonight the firepower came courtesy of an unsurprising trio: the high-usage backcourt of Jennings and Ellis was exceptional on the offensive end, while Mike Dunleavy's first half laser show highlighted another great all-around night from the Bucks' captain.
And while the Bucks' overall defensive efficiency was poor, they were arguably saved by the two things that have fueled their defense and transition game early on. While Davis hurt them on the offensive glass a number of times in the second half, their defensive rebound rate (76%) wasn't too far from the league-leading 78% they brought into the game, especially in the first half when the Bucks held a 12-1 edge on the offensive boards. The Bucks' ball pressure and active hands also helped create 20 New Orleans turnovers that led to 25 Buck points, compared to the 16 points New Orleans scored off the Bucks' 12 turnovers.
Monta Ellis. I complain plenty about Ellis' shot selection--more driving, Monta!--but some nights you just have to shut up and say "wow." Ellis struggled with his shot early as he looked to be pressing, but his playmaking was nothing short of brilliant. The Hornets couldn't keep up with Ellis moving to his preferred right, and he responded by setting up five layups or dunks in the first half alone and finished the game without a single turnover. Sidenote: if this is the game that gets Ersan Ilyasova back on track, we all owe Ellis a serious debt of gratitude.
Ellis came out in the second half looking determined to get to the rim and responded with 20 second half points on 7/11 shooting, and when he did settle for jump shots down the stretch he came up big (even if I was shaking my head). Defensively, Ellis was among the Bucks who had a hard time tracking Roger Mason off screens, but Austin Rivers was a non-factor yet again.
Brandon Jennings. Just a steady, highly effective offensive night from Brandon, who matched Ellis' excellent stat line on all fronts while also adding another four steals. OK, he did have one turnover, but I think we can live with that, right?
Jennings was visibly frustrated at times on the defensive end, and on a handful of occasions he made obvious mistakes: letting Vasquez easily drive right past him in isolation on a pair of occasions in the second half, and fouling Vasquez for a four-point play that tied the game at 80 late in the third. But Jennings' active hands were again a major factor, with three of his four steals directly leading to fast break buckets, and he showed good patience in halfcourt as well.
Mike Dunleavy. The Bucks' sixth man was their best man in the first half, bombing 4/5 threes and scoring 16 of his 17 points in the first two quarters. Dunleavy only took two shots in the second half but added five of his game-high nine rebounds and two of his five assists in the decisive third quarter. In a related note: I still love Mike Dunleavy.
53.2%. Watching his team allow 53% shooting is not Skiles' idea of a good time.
18/1. I feel pretty comfortable saying that if Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings combine for 18 assists and one turnover every night the Bucks are going to win 50 or 55 games. But they won't, and they won't. Still, don't let the closeness of this game distract from how well Ellis, Jennings and the rest of the offense performed.
13/25. The Bucks hadn't hit more than nine threes in any prior game this season, so their 13/25 night from deep on Saturday was hardly expected. But the Hornets conceded plenty of open looks off the penetration of Jennings (five assists on threes) and Ellis (four) and everyone did their part. Dunleavy and Jennings led the way with four triples each, but don't forget about Tobias Harris, who connected on 2/4 threes (both in the corner) and is still shooting 50% from deep on the season (5/10).
Backcourt. 44 points, 18 assists, a measly one turnover, 50% raw shooting, 61% true shooting. Great.
Bigs playing big. This was not a breakout game for Ersan Ilyasova, but we can at least call it a step in the right direction. Ilyasova was active around the basket and hit 4/7 at the rim on his way to 10 points (5/10 shooting), the first time all season he's made at least half of his shots. That should be an average to below-average night by Ersan's standards, but remember that he had hit just 3/14 shots at the rim all season coming into this game. Sam Dalembert also played well (15 points, 8 rebs, 20 min), but honestly that's becoming more the norm. He had a couple miscommunications defending P&R, but he's becoming more and more dangerous as a roll man on the other end as well.
Meanwhile, Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh continue to play well enough defensively to keep Dalembert and Ilyasova on the bench late in games, but that's more a testament to what the reserves are doing right than what the other guys are doing wrong (well...at least with Dalembert). Udoh's mobility was tested in trying to keep up with Ryan Anderson in the fourth quarter, but I thought Udoh played him tougher than Anderson's solid numbers (20 pts, 8/15 fg, 4 reb) might indicate.
This wasn't Sanders' best night--the butterfingers and finishing issues we saw the last two seasons reared their ugly heads for the first time this season, and Davis got the better of him a number of times in the fourth quarter. But his last minute block was arguably the game's biggest play, setting off the now customary chants of "Lar-ry!" throughout the BC.
Making plays late. The best way to rationalize a too-close-for-comfort win? Just say something about good teams being able to make plays down the stretch. Or something.
There's no doubt that the Bucks made things more interesting than they needed to be, both in general and when they nearly squandered an eight point lead in the final two minutes. But there were positives here as well: Sanders' monster block on Ryan Anderson with 18 seconds left stands out, as do Ellis' pair of big jumpers, however speculative they may have been.
Pick and rolled. Good things happened when the Bucks forced the P&R ball handler into shooting: the Hornets made just 3/13 in that scenario with Vaquez finishing just 5/16. But the Hornets made 8/10 fg and scored 1.79 points per play (hint: that's great) when the roll man finished a play, which had as much to do with slow rotations from the rest of the Bucks as it did with the two primary defenders.
Beno and the bench. Beno Udrih redeemed himself with a pair of big threes and eight points in the fourth quarter, but he struggled up until that point and the bench other than Dunleavy never delivered the shot in the arm you expected--especially given the fairly anonymous cast of characters the Hornets bring off their bench.
The Brow. This dude is going to be damn good, which is bad news for the rest of the league. Davis scored 28 points on just 14 shots, relying on his activity and touch around the hoop to nearly lead the Hornets to an improbable win. Davis scored 10 and grabbed five boards in the final five minutes alone, including a pair of three point plays after his team went down eight.
Everyone knows about Davis' otherworldly athleticism, and there's no doubt that will be the basis of what will eventually make him great. But I was also struck by Davis' touch from the foul line and in warm-ups. Though he hit just 56% of his free throws and didn't make a single three at Kentucky, Davis has a very nice, high-arcing shot which made his 8/9 foul shooting on Saturday less surprising. He won't need to be a lights-out shooter to reach stardom in the NBA, but you can see he's got the tools to eventually keep teams honest from the outside as well.