Material for this post was a lot more clear-cut last Thursday. The Bucks were riding a three-game win streak buoyed by victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. The offense was clicking, the defense was...managing, things were swell.
Now it feels like everything I want to mention on the positive side requires a "well, until recently" disclaimer, as the Bucks followed up a clunker in Detroit with one of the more uninspired performances in recent memory. Momentum has made an about-face, as though it was preserved only by the streak of 100-point outings. Such is the nature of this season--no time to dwell on defeat or enjoy victory. Just have to move on. So that's what I'll do.
Three-Point Shooting...Well, Until Recently
Between January 25 and February 1, the Bucks played 5 games, won four of them, and made 46 of the 112 three-point shots they attempted. That run of 40-plus percent shooting was a huge boost for a team that has been well below average shooting from deep this season (31.7%, 22nd in the NBA). Without Andrew Bogut drawing attention in the middle, the Bucks' court spacing sometimes suffers; Drew Gooden likes to spend a lot more time on the perimeter, and none of Bogut's stand-ins are as capable of passers. Of course, it hasn't gone unnoticed how much the team has picked up the ball-movement in his absence, and the drive-and-kick game has been consistently setting up good looks from behind the arc. We're a long way from saying the team is better without Bogut, but his injury kicked off a stretch of five-straight games with offensive-ratings above 103. The coaching staff needs to find a way to replicate that play with Andrew on the court.
If there is one place the Milwaukee Bucks have excelled all season, it's turnovers. The Bucks rank eighth in turnover rate themselves and fourth in opponent turnover rate. Four times this season the Bucks have forced more than 20 turnovers, including consecutive games against New York and Miami back in January. Here's the ugly truth: the Bucks' half-court defense hasn't been great this season. The best element of their defense has been the ability to prevent a shot from ever going up; in turn, those turnovers can kick-start the transition offense they've been trying to emphasize. On their end, Stephen Jackson, Larry Sanders, and Beno Udrih are the only Milwaukee players with above-average TORs. The Bucks have won the turnover battle 14 times this season, going 9-5 in those games. They're 1-8 when they turn it over more than their opponent.
Milwaukee's precipitous drop in defensive rebounding rate from last season to this one is one of the more mind-boggling (and frustrating) stories surrounding the team. A drop from 74.8% to 71.1% has taken the Bucks from 8th to 26th. League-average DRB% is 73.6% this year, identical to the last. It's difficult to believe that a little added emphasis on transition offense could so severely damage the Bucks' rebounding. Instead, it seems wrapped up in personnel: the Bucks have played without Andrew Bogut in half of their games, and Drew Gooden is rebounding a little below his career levels. Ersan Ilyasova is doing his best to stabilize Milwaukee on the boards (his total rebounding rate has jumped five points from last season), but he is but one Turk.
Just, You Know, Competing?
At halftime of the Bucks' game against Chicago on Saturday, assistant coach Jim Boylan called out the most obvious deficiency in the first half: spirit. Or heart. Or effort, or whatever you want to call it. The Bucks got knocked off their feet in the first quarter and seemed to completely check out. It wasn't just the Bulls game, though. The Bucks were outplayed for the final 36 minutes against Detroit--arguably the worst team in the NBA--one game earlier. They seemed to completely forget what kind of play had earned them three-straight wins and victories over some of the NBA's elite. Perhaps most disconcerting is that Brandon Jennings, who had been playing extremely well since Bogut went down, looked totally helpless to kick-start either himself or the rest of the team. The Bucks' next three opponents are hardly imposing, but Milwaukee has to get its head back in the game if they're serious about competing for the playoffs this season.