A four-point lead with six minutes to play never feels comfortable, but the Milwaukee Bucks' 110-102 win on Tuesday night was an exception.
Bucks fans are no strangers to sloppy, lethargic basketball. NBA malaise has infected a fair share of Milwaukee games over the past few years (or decade, if you really want to be cynical). Even by those standards, Tuesday's triumph over the free-falling Philadelphia 76ers felt different.
The lead changed four times in the first three minutes, and never again over the remaining 45. It was one of those games where a single digit-scoring margin felt like a triple digit deficit to the trailing team. Both teams were careless at times, with the Bucks turning 16 turnovers into 22 points and the Sixers flipping 14 turnovers into 24 points.
Anytime Philadelphia got within two possessions, Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis were there to facilitate or draw contact and a free trip to the line. Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy hit a few timely threes without dribbling more than once, and the Sixers became reliable for their own incompetent shooting, despite multiple second chances (19 offensive boards).
"We got some key stops, we are able to convert on the offensive end," Jennings said. "Guys were just able to connect down the stretch."
Philadelphia made one more bucket than Milwaukee, but shot significantly worse from the field (44.2% fg vs. 51.9% fg) thanks to a listless collection of mid-range jumpers forced by the Bucks' focus on disrupting the Sixers' (and Jrue Holiday's) inside attack (51.2% inside the restricted area).
Ersan Ilyasova. Turkish Thunder followed up his best game of the 2012-13 season with his best game of the 2012-13 season (27 pts, 10-17 fg, 2-4 3fg, 5-6 ft, 16 rbs, 7 orbs, 3 stls). All the best of Ersan was on display, aggressively tipping in time-pertinent put-backs, hitting open spot-ups, and looking as comfortable and confident as we've seen him in the past two years. Here's what coach Jim Boylan had to say about Ilyasova after the game:
"One of the reasons that Ers gets open is when Larry (Sanders) rolls hard to the front of the rim, the defense has to do something, They're very concerned about Brandon trying to get the ball out of his hands, or Monta, trying to get the ball out of his hands. So they end up double-teaming, so when Larry rolls to the front of the rim, the other big picks him up and there's Ers wide open. Everything works together."
Monta Ellis. By far, this was the best game of Ellis' tenure with the Bucks (18 pts, 7-10 fg, 4-6 ft, 10 asts, 5 rbs, 2 stls). It wasn't flashy in the vein of a scorer, but Ellis' fourth double-double of the season was incredibly efficient and just felt natural within the flow of the offense. He was distributing in transition, whipping passes inside to bigs, and getting the much taller Evan Turner into foul trouble. Save this one on your DVR, if only to see what Ellis can do as a passer first, scorer second.
Brandon Jennings. It's easy to concentrate on Jennings' scoring line (25 pts, 8-17 fg, 3-6 3fg, 6-6 ft, 7 asts, 3 stls), and his playmaking in crunch time (Jennings scored or assisted on seven possession between the third and fourth quarter). But his gorgonizing pressure on Holiday deserves recognition. In Game 1, Holiday was forced into 7 turnovers; this time, he committed 8, three of which were tallied as Jennings steals.
19. Rebounding has not been a Milwaukee forte this season (28th in defensive rebounding rate), but the Sixers also aren't world-beaters on the offensive glass (23rd in offensive rebounding rate). Both metrics make Philadelphia's 19 second chance opportunities even more worrisome. More and more it seems like this is problem that is here to stay (unless the Bucks keep making over 50% of their shots, and we all know the likelihood of that).
5-6. One of the main reasons the Bucks were able to stave off a late rally from the Sixers was their long range shooting. After finishing the first half 2-10 from beyond the arc, Milwaukee came out with a much more selective approach in the second, launching only when unselfishly available.
+3.9. Over the past five games, the Bucks are 4-1. In that span, they have compiled an offensive rating of 103.4 and a defensive rating of 99.5. Both numbers are steps forward compared to the season averages (99.7, 100.3), and the 3.9 net positive rating is good enough for 11th best in the NBA. These are the Milwaukee Bucks we expected to see when the season began. Good, and promising, but not elite.
The Big Three. One of the Bucks' biggest marketing campaigns over the summer touted the 2011-12 PER rankings for Ilyasova, Jennings, and Ellis. All three came to play as a cohesive unit Tuesday night, and the end result was a hyper-efficient win over a team that (theoretically) had no business coming within two possessions of a win. Milwaukee experienced adversity, and their leaders stepped up to quell the concerns.
Playoffs. We're talking about playoffs. Like it or not, the Bucks may have just stamped their ticket to the 2013 Eastern Conference playoffs. The Sixers are now sitting 4.5 games back in the ninth spot, and clearly look incapable of beating anyone but themselves. Milwaukee is 6-2 under Boylan, playing decent ball right now against mediocre-to-bad teams, and is fortunate enough to play in the much lesser of two NBA conferences.
Run and gun. Over the past five games, the Bucks rank as the fastest offense in the NBA, pulling together a pace rating of 99.86. It's well-known Milwaukee's offense runs best when Jennings and Ellis can get things moving in the open floor, but its nice to see this validated when the team wins.
Arena energy. The BMO Harris Bradley Center made The Situation's standup routine look like Chris Rock's Bigger and Blacker. Seriously, it was a mausoleum for most of the game.
And the winner of Jennings vs. Holiday is...Kyrie Irving. This Jennings vs. Holiday All-Star debate is like arguing over which of the Matrix sequels were better: it's irrelevant because, at the end of the day, the first one is light years ahead of both in quality, substance, and originality.
Too close for comfort. The Sixers have lost 15 of their last 20 games, and have no one offensively reliable outside of Holiday. The Bucks may be punching an early ticket to the postseason, but I'll feel more comfortable about their upset chances with a few more wins against quality opponents.