With less than a minute to go in the first half of the Bucks' home opener, you would have been forgiven for getting that same old feeling about the Bucks. Down 49-33, with Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd offering little help for the second straight night, it would have been perfectly acceptable to start extrapolating a long, long season. If the Bucks sort-of-stars were MIA, how were they ever going to win games? Anyone see John Wall or Derrick Favors lately?
Fortunately, the Bucks apparently have a bit more up their sleeve than just Redd and Bogut. Namely, they have Brandon Jennings (24 points, 9/15 fg), who for the second straight night was the fulcrum of seemingly everything good that happened for the Bucks. The rook had a perfect third quarter, making all seven of his shots en route to 16 points that catapulted the Bucks from down 11 to up 11. And when Jennings wasn't getting it done, Hakim Warrick and the Bucks' role players were. Warrick scored 21 of the Bucks' 52 bench points, and his 15 free throws were representative of a more active, aggressive approach that provided a stark contrast to Friday night.
Brandon Jennings. Remember when we were wondering if he would be able to win the starting job? Like, you know, a week ago? Apparently time flies when you're a hyper-talented 20-year old.
Like Friday night, Jennings drilled a three in the first couple minutes of the game, but unlike the Philly game it didn't foreshadow a big first half. Rather, Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey used screens and hot shooting (well, what you'd expect from Gordon) to eat Jennings up in the first half (he guarded both guys at times). It wasn't particularly bad defense, but this is the NBA. Working hard simply isn't enough to shut the other guys down.
Then in the third quarter something happened. The Bucks started spreading the floor, running more high pick/roll to give Jennings room to use his speed. And Young Buck found a bit of a zone, which shouldn't be too shocking for a guy that once made 13 threes in a high school game. It started with a floater in transition, the Pistons' disorganization in transition allowing the rook to dart into the paint. Down five. Two minutes later, Redd found Jennings for a no-hesitation, catch and shoot triple from the left wing. Still down five.
And then with just over five minutes remaining in the third came a one-man 9-0 run that turned a two point deficit into a seven point lead. Two mid-range jumpers, then the play that may well be the lynchpin of Jennings' early season YouTube mixes (see above). Jennings just took the ball from Kwame Brown near the foul line, and immediately launched himself down court, navigating around Rodney Stuckey with an around-the-back to his right before corkscrewing himself for a reverse lefty lay-in on the right side of the hoop. Pandemonium, or at least as close to it as you can get from the just-over 15,000 people in attendance. And he wasn't quite done. On the next possession he skipped around a high screen on the right side and buried another triple from the right wing.
Overall, 24 points and three assists would suggest Jennings was just bombing away for himself, but in truth he was pretty consistently creating looks for teammates, much like a night earlier. The big difference was the Bucks didn't seem able to convert consistently, especially in the first half when Jennings took just four shots.
Hakim Warrick. With the Bucks' big money guys misfiring, Warrick provided the crucial scoring to keep the Bucks in it early (11 points at the half) and added another 10 in the second half. And while he's a bit too eager to fire up his backward-leaning 18-footer, he made up for it and then some with his willingness to attack the rim regardless of how many Pistons were standing in his way. He even made 1/2 from deep, though it was out of necessity--the miss coming at the first quarter buzzer and the make coming on a shot clock-beater from the right corner.
Warrick also did well when he wasn't the one finishing. He's not really known as a guy who makes teammates better, but he and the rest of the Bucks' bench did well moving the ball even if their mediocre shooting kept their assist totals down. Charlie V hit some shots in the fourth to finish with an OK line (12 pts on eight shots and six boards) but Warrick was better by a mile.
And he doesn't have a $35 million contract. Nice.
Luc Mbah a Moute. A night after an invisible debut in Philly, Mbah a Moute looked more like the old Luc. Nothing huge, and his line barely registers in a quick scan of the box score. Still, he tied Bogut for the team lead with eight boards and just played. Less worrying about shooting jumpers like a small forward should; more playing defense, crashing the glass and using his work rate to get easy buckets.
+8. The Bucks out-fouled the Pistons (29-28). No surprise there. But their aggressiveness paid off at the free throw line for a change, as they were +8 in attempts and +5 in free throws made. Most of the credit goes to Warrick, who accounted for 15 of the 33 attempts. The best part about Warrick is how fearless he is around the rack; he simply expects to put it down every time he gets it near the cup, and all the energy seemed to be contagious, as the Bucks hauled in 16 offensive rebounds, 12 by the bench.
36. The Bucks don't have the look of a team capable of explosive offense, and looked the part with 38 first half points. So the Pistons were probably a bit shell-shocked when Jennings and company came out in the third and started making everything. The end result was a 36-14 edge, the only quarter the Bucks won on the scoreboard.
4. How can the Bucks win when they get a grand total of 4/15 shooting from Redd and Bogut? In general, they won't (see below). Which is why the lack of production from the big guns is cause for concern.
The kid. We probably shouldn't hand him the key to the city quite yet, but it's impossible not to be excited by what we've seen so far. His style is unmistakably that of a point guard, but tonight we saw he could also carry the team as scorer for stretches.
Scott Skiles won't be surprised; he alluded in the preseason that Jennings would have to play that role at times. That doesn't make him Allen Iverson, though the Bucks won't mind if Jennings score like him at times. And as much as Iverson has become a four-letter word in any discussion of point guards, the truth is that great points have to score at times. Paul, Nash, and Deron Williams do it.
Role players. Jennings and Warrick were the only double-figure scorers, but they didn't pick up the slack for Redd/Bogut alone. Ersan Ilyasova didn't really have his shot going but was active (nine pts, six boards, four offensive and +13) and combined nicely with Warrick, each setting the other up a couple times. Mbah a Moute picked up the slack for Carlos Delfino, who started the game with a great move to the cup but seemed too eager to launch 27 foot threes after that. And as much as I give Dan Gadzuric a hard time, he stepped up tonight (4/5 fg, five rebounds) and allowed Skiles to sit Kurt Thomas the final 43 minutes of the game.
Something to talk about. You can't fault the city of Milwaukee for being skeptical of the Bucks right now. They've been mediocre-to-bad for too long, and a summer of exodus won't win over fans, even if CV and RJ aren't nearly as valuable as many assumed. So it's crucial the Bucks win some games and do it in a way that people can appreciate. Jennings provides the flash, and he's clearly going to be a guy who gets people talking. But the hard work has to be a team effort.
Three Two Bad.
Bogut. Bogut got into early foul trouble and never got on track for the second straight night, finishing just 2/7 from the field for six points and eight boards before fouling out in 27 minutes. I thought he looked slightly better than in Philly, but that's not saying too much. Bogut's had a penchant for slow starts over his career, and his long layoff following his back injury can't help.
But the Bucks can't afford to have Bogut this uninvolved for the next month. Part of that is on Bogut--he needs to get deeper position on the block, get more freebies off the offensive boards, and catch the ball when his teammates find him in the paint (more of an issue in Philly). But the Bucks also need to do more than throw him the ball in the post five times a game. More pick and rolls, more high post where he can face up. You're paying him to be a cornerstone player, and now play him like one, too.
Redd...and his knee. Redd scored nine on just 2/9 from the field, and left the game in the fourth due to reported soreness in his surgically-repaired knee. He appeared to come down a bit awkwardly after a right-handed breakaway dunk in the third (see video above), which probably shouldn't be surprising given he seems to get hurt every time he dunks. The good news is that Redd's departure is being termed precautionary and he's expected to be ready on Tuesday when the Bucks play in Chicago.