That's how you a clinch playoff spot.
Saturday night, the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Toronto Raptors 100-83 in one of their most complete two-way performances of the past month, if not the entire year. Recent sloppiness gave way to aggression on both ends, allowing the Bucks to put this game away by halftime.
Relying heavily on fastbreaks, the Raptors' limited range and smart passing, Milwaukee played with a sense of urgency and purpose that will be essential if they're to have any chance of stealing a game or two away from the Miami Heat.
The Raptors kept the score within a possession throughout the game's opening eight minutes, but long jumpers won't fall forever. After retaking the lead 8-6 off a Brandon Jennings' three (his eighth straight point), the Bucks set the floor ablaze, finishing the quarter on an 18-10 run and holding Toronto to a season-low 16 points.
From there, Milwaukee spent the next three quarters carpet bombing the Raptors defense with Larry Sanders dunks, Brandon Jennings fake passes-to-layups, and Monta Ellis penetration that, in the worst case scenario, sent Ellis to the line for two free shots. It was all the good and none of the "UGH!" we've seen over the past 14 games.
The Bucks' lead peaked at 32 midway through the third quarter, and never dipped below 15 in the second half. Overall, Milwaukee dominated in every facet of the game, taking advantage of Toronto's hacking tendencies and very limited shooting range, and meeting nearly every Raptors attempt with a raised hand.
The Bucks held Toronto to 36.7% shooting and 30% on threes, while connecting on 47.9% of their own shots (6-18, 33% 3fg). Monta Ellis led all scorers with 22 points (5-14 fg, 2-5 3fg, 10-10 ft), adding nine assists, six steals, and five unwanted turnovers.
Brandon Jennings finished with 16 points on 7-14 shots, eight of which came in the game's opening five minutes. Jennings also dished seven dimes, had three steals, and committed zero turnovers. Larry Sanders registered six blocks, nine rebounds, and 12 points (5-7 fg).
"What we needed to do was come and take the game. We couldn't expect that Toronto was just going to give it to us," coach Jim Boylan said. "So we had to come out with a focus and attention to detail. Like I said, I thought our defense was pretty good last night in New York ... I felt like we got a contribution from everybody."
Far too often, the Bucks oscillate between as many high highs and low lows as can be felt within a 48-minute game. Saturday was all of the highs with none of the lows. Plus a fan-implored Drew Gooden sighting.
Larry Sanders. The dunks. Oh, the dunks. And the blocks. Oh, the blocks. No one was more exciting to watch Saturday night than Sanders, who (intentionally or unintentionally) did the Michael Jordan pose on about five dunks, and continues to add a couple dollar signs to his name. Sanders was also so imposing inside that Milwaukee regularly opened up the baseline on defense, opting to hedge towards the middle of the floor when the ball found its way into Rudy Gay or DeMar DeRozan's hands.
Brandon Jennings. Jennings hit two threes and a side step quick lay-in to start the game, but leveled off as the game continued (8 pts, 4-10 fg over final 42 minutes). Jennings was very solid as a passer, especially in transition, and more importantly, extremely careful with the ball. You can get away with 16 points on 14 shots when it comes with seven assists and no turnovers on the side.
Monta Ellis. Hit a jumper. Steal. Penetrate. Draw a foul. More or less, that's the sequential order of Ellis' play Saturday night. Toronto is one of the league's most foul-prone teams, and it played right into Ellis' aggressive hand. He was also active on defense, disrupting the Raptors' passing lanes and captaining some of the Bucks' most electric transition plays.
2. Milwaukee sits two games back of the Boston Celtics for the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It could happen, right?
48. It has been 48 games since the Bucks last held a team below 90 points (coincidentally, a 104-85 win over the Miami Heat). In related news, this game snaps Milwaukee's eight game streak of allowing 100 or more points.
45.9%. The power of Larry Sanders and Gustavo Ayon kept Toronto's shooting percentage at the rim to a paltry 45.9%. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay were pretty much non-factors beyond the first quarter.
Three One Bad
Fear the Deer chants. They started once the game ended. Personally, I'm not a fan of re-hashing that slogan with this team.
Fast breaks. The Bucks scored 17 points in transition, and nearly every one of them was highlight-worthy. A Ellis back-pass to Sanders for a spread-leg, high flying dunk. A Jennings fake pass to quick floater. A 50 foot pass from Ellis to Luc Mbah a Moute for a dunk, catching the Raptors defense completely flat footed. Fluid, in sync, efficient; It was everything the Bucks' transition game was not in their Wednesday loss to the Timberwolves.
My seats. The Bucks' public relations team was kind enough to grant me, Jeremy from Bucksketball, and Brew Hoop alum Alex Boeder courtside media seats to witness the demolition. It was one of those experiences that reminds you just how big and fast NBA players are, and how small the court looks when everyone is the size of a redwood tree.
Playoff spot secured. Expect less court time for Ellis, Jennings, and Sanders in select games, as well as a generally more cautious approach from Boylan and company. If anything, these next six games are watchable just to see how the team adjusts to its newfound security.