Based purely on the number of trade rumors floating around, you'd think the Bucks were on the verge of chaos. Instead, they're now back on the verge of the postseason.
On the same day that he was rumored to have joined Andrew Bogut on the trading block, Brandon Jennings bounced back from a poor shooting night in Toronto with a sparkling 34 points (12/23 fg, 6/11 threes), 7 rebounds and 7 assists in New Jersey, helping propel the Bucks to a third straight win overall and their tenth straight over the Nets. Paired with the Knicks' loss in Chicago, the Bucks are now tied with New York for the final playoff spot at a ho-hum 18-24, just a couple weeks after Linsanity made the Bucks' playoff odds look bleak at best.
Like in Toronto last night, things didn't come together easily for the Bucks early on, as Kris Humphries led an energetic effort in the first quarter with 13 of his career-best 31 points, helping New Jersey lead by as many as a dozen. Meanwhile, just hours after being named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Ersan Ilyasova was unable to find any kind of rhythm and finished just 2/6 from the field along with three rebounds. Thankfully, Jennings was hardly a one-man operation, and the Bucks' scoring depth increasingly flexed its muscle as the game wore on.
The Bucks' playmaking by committee approach worked flawlessly in the second half in particular, as reserves Beno Udrih (15 points, 7 ast) and Mike Dunleavy (15 points, 6 ast) complemented Jennings and Drew Gooden (23 pts, 8 rebs, 7 ast) in a free-flowing attack that took advantage of the Nets' porous defense. Trailing 73-64 late in the third, the Bucks ripped off a 9-0 run to finish the period, including Udrih's buzzer-beating three. The fourth then belonged to Jennings, who scored 14 in the quarter and kickstarted a 14-7 surge to begin the period with a pair of threes and two assists. Both teams played small down the stretch, with Jennings/Udrih in the backcourt and Dunleavy/Delfino joining Gooden up front.
Brandon Jennings. With Deron Williams missing a second straight game with a strained calf, Jennings had center stage all to himself and took full advantage with a big all-around night. Aside from tying his season-high with two blocks and notching 5+ assists for the tenth straight game, Jennings was up to his usual tricks offensively: casual threes off the dribble, darting drives to the hoop, etc.
Drew Gooden. Another big and well-balanced night for the underappreciated one, as he made 11/19 shots and registered five or more assists for the third straight game.
Beno Udrih. As self-anointed President of The Mike Dunleavy Fan Club, it's rare for me to pass up a good opportunity to highlight Dunleavy's consistently strong play. But as much as Dunleavy's 15 points and six assists were important cogs in the Bucks' attack, so were Udrh's 15 points (on two fewer shots) and seven assists. Skiles has increasingly gone to an Udrih/Jennings backcourt both early and late, and it again got the job done tonight.
6. Jennings, Gooden, Dunleavy and Udrih all dished out at least six assists as the Bucks totaled an impressive 32 assists to the Nets' 14.
23:44. A night after playing 44 minutes in Toronto, Ilyasova got in a mere 24 minutes against the Nets, failing to hit double digit scoring for just the second time in his lat 14 games.
31. After watching Ilyasova dominate in the teams' previous meeting three weeks ago, Kris Humphries got some manner of revenge with a career-high 31 points and 12 rebounds. Also worth noting: he lost.
Playoffs? Is squeaking into the playoffs in 2012 going to help the Bucks build a legitimate winner over the next decade? Meh, probably not. Would the team perhaps benefit more in the long term from losing games now and snagging a higher lottery pick this June? Quite possibly. But can you fault Skiles and his roster for piecing together some solid basketball in spite of injuries and distractions to make another run at the 8th seed? Of course not. We don't know if it will last or if the Bucks' roster will be very different come Thursday night, but watching the Bucks win games is still why we watch games in the first place, right?
Passing. Can we agree that the Bucks have become a fairly enjoyable offensive team to watch? Kind of crazy to say that after last year's historically inefficient team, but the current Bucks have clawed their way into the league's top half in offensive efficiency (14th) thanks to nights like this: pushing the tempo, more transition buckets, and more cutting and passing in the halfcourt. Things can still break down when shots aren't falling, but it's tough to complain when you see 32 assists and just 12 turnovers.
Brandon bounces back. Whether you want Jennings to be a long-term building block or not, let's all agree that there's no downside to Jennings finishing the season strong. We know he won't always be this hot from deep, but Jennings was scoring inside and out tonight while also moving the ball well and doing some surprising work on the glass.
Flat starts. Winning games unfortunately hasn't done anything to stop the Bucks' penchant for flat, defenseless starts, but they've been bailed out the past three games thanks in large part to the quality of their opponents.
Ersanity. No one would have batted an eye at Ilyasova putting up a 4/3 line two months ago, but strong play breeds high standards, eh? Even so, I don't think anyone will be worried about Ilyasova having a quiet night every once in a while, especially when it comes 24 hours after a monster 44 minutes in Toronto.
What we should worry about is what happens next. Despite his impending free agent status, Ilyasova hasn't been mentioned too much in the trade rumormill, which might suggest that the Bucks are still hopeful of keeping Ilyasova long-term. It's not to say Ilyasova is untouchable by any stretch of the imagination, but it's going to be rather difficult to continue making a playoff push if Ilyasova is dealt for anything less than another quality starter. I don't see that as very likely--dealing him for a mid-first round pick or an underachieving youngster on a rookie deal seems more doable, but neither of those helps the Bucks win now.
Starting swingmen. It was nice to see Tobias Harris win a spot in the starting rotation last week, but he's generally struggled since then and has often seemed lost in the shuffle with the starting five. It makes sense: whereas he typically gets post touches and more opportunities to score with the second unit, he's something of an afterthought playing with the starters and has made just 29.4% of his shots since joining the starting five, which has typically meant little playing time after the first quarter. Skiles is usually loathe to change up his starting unit when things are going well, so my assumption is that the Bucks will have to hit another rough patch before Harris returns to a reserve role.
Carlos Delfino has similarly struggled of late and is shooting just 28.6% since the all-star break, yet his minutes have actuallly gone up (31.8 mpg). Stephen Jackson's injury is part of that story (in which case I'm fine with everyone else soaking up more minutes, even if some guys haven't been effective), though you can also ask if the little things Carlos does well (team defense, passing) are enough to offset his inability to make shots (he's a shooter, right?).
Thankfully, Delfino's minutes haven't taken away from Mike Dunleavy's opportunities. While Skiles prefers bringing him off the bench--the only reason both Harris and Delfino are currently starting--Dunleavy has averaged 34 mpg since the all-star break and has been pretty fantastic in that span: 15.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.8 apg on .459/.395/1.000 shooting.
Did I mention I love Mike Dunleavy?