The last time ESPN showed the Bucks, the team saw by the nation (and myself) was a young team both struggling without Andrew Bogut as a centerpiece and unable to keep up with Oklahoma City's rampant athleticism. It was a disappointing showing, even bordering on embarassing. But the Bucks aren't that team, and ESPN is giving them another chance to show what they really are.
Unfortunately, they drew LeBron James and the Cavs, meaning the road to redemption on national television is that much harder. But who's to say they won't do it? After all, the Bucks have some advantages in this game (weird, right?), and it always helps to have a defensive stopper with the ability to cover James one-on-one. Perhaps they can do the inconceivable and topple the Cavaliers? I sure hope so, and I certainly think they can.
(Note: For those of you wondering why I'm talking in the future tense, or why I haven't mentioned the result of the game, it's because I didn't watch it live. I DVR'd the game and watched it after getting home from work at 9 AM. Third shift sucks that way.)
This recap will be a little different than those before it. We'll still have Three Bucks, Three Numbers, and the Good and Bad, but we'll have some bonus triplets after the jump, plus some actual game analysis peppered in. Think of it as a retroactive live-blog.
On to the game (most of you have already seen)!
Three Things I Noticed Before Tip-Off
Hubie Brown and Dave Pasch were just a tad friendlier to the Cavs. Sure, they're a perennial powerhouse and led by the premier player of his generation, but do we have to make it sound like that much of a mismatch?
These teams aren't really all that different. Think about it; they both are defensive teams that keep the game's score low and can light it up from deep, they both have two big foreign guys that play defense, take charges, and rebound, and they're both led by players that arrived somewhat unexpectedly (Cleveland with the surprising #1 draft pick despite the odds, Milwaukee with 9 other teams passing on Jennings (and his impromptu entrance after being picked at #10)). It's almost like the Bucks are a poor man's Cavaliers, but then you remember that the Cavs are from Cleveland, which is a poor man's everything.
Brandon Jennings' hair makes him look even more like Allen Iverson. The corn rows aren't quite as long as A.I's yet, but give it time. I'd be frightened if his assist (6.0 apg) and three-point numbers (44%(!)) were as Iverson-like as he looks. Have I gushed about how much of a man-crush I have on BJ yet? I'll wait 'til the game starts to go full steam ahead, but let's just say he's already become my favorite NBA player.
Three First Half Observations
A Great Start. A 17-7 start before Cleveland takes its first timeout is absolutely led by Young Money (3 points, 6 assists). He would have had 7 dimes had Ersan not had his fast-break layup blocked by Shaq. I saw some good shooting, great passing, and above-average defense during this run; this is the team that the Bucks are trying to be. But they have to do it for all 48 minutes, not just the first 6:23. Which is exactly when Cleveland closed the gap and forced Milwaukee out of its game.
Jennings had a pretty good first half altogether with 8 points and 6 assists, plus he was the only Buck really willing to attack the paint. When he gets older/stronger, he'll actually finish those trips to the rack (2/9 in the first half).
The Daniel Gibson "Foul". I didn't want to waste one of my three points on one play, but this infuriated me. Gibson drove hard, froze Kurt Thomas with a ball fake, and went up for the layup. Thomas' foot was very close to the one Boobie took off on, so much so that Gibson's reaction resulting in his right foot taking out his left, thus sending him to the floor. He made the shot nonetheless, and it was a great play with an outstanding effort to make the basket. Then came the whistle, and Boobie took the line for the and-one.
BUT THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO CONTACT. NONE WHATSOEVER. Just because a player trips over his own feet while shooting and a defender just happens to be near him (BUT NOT TOUCHING HIM AT ALL) doesn't mean he should get a freebie. Now, I reffed college intramurals, so I know how calls can be almost impossible to truly see at certain speeds, angles, and whatnot, and that's magnified 1000x in the NBA, but c'mon. Then, of course, Hubie Brown went on a long diatribe about how you don't foul a player when you get out of position and give him the and-one, unless you foul his arms to prevent the layup attempt, blah blah blah, completely discounting the fact that it was a phantom call. Gah, basketball can be infuriating sometimes.
To prove my point, Boobie missed the free throw. Ball don't lie.
Bogut + foul trouble = complete inability to protect the paint. Andy's three quick fouls (one of which was legit, one was iffy, and one was downright ticky-tack) limited him to less than 6 minutes in the half and opened up the lane faster than you can say "massive free throw discrepancy". Oh, and there was a massive free throw discrepancy (CLE - 21 attempts, MIL - 5 attempts). Part of this was too much jump shooting by Milwaukee, part of it was bad calls here and there, but most of it was missing Bogut.
Three Second Half Observations
When Cleveland asserts itself, they're impressive. The Bucks have enough good shooters to out-gun teams that get caught up in a scorefest. Good teams avoid playing to their opponents strength. Cleveland is a good team, which is why they forced the issue inside while Milwaukee was content to stay along the perimeter. Of course, they're often better than good, considering they've got a bunch of shooters to go with their strong post presence.
LeBron's post defense. There was one sequence at the 3:30 mark in the 3rd quarter where Hakim Warrick tried posting James up...and Bron-Bron didn't go anywhere. Warrick actually lost the ball because he simply couldn't move James off the spot. The look (I thought I saw) on his face was half surprise, half amazement.
The last 4:35. Milwaukee was getting handled, but managed to stick around long enough to gain possession with 9.7 seconds left and a chance to force overtime with a three pointer. More on this later.
Brandon Jennings. Jennings reversed his historical trends by starting off hot and cooling off near the end. However, his 18 point, 8 assist night was punctuated by his 7-7 performance from the free throw line. Attacking the basket is something Jennings will have to learn how to do, which will hopefully cut down on the 5-21 shooting nights.
Ersan Ilyasova. Ersan only got 31 minutes, but he generally made good things happen during those minutes. He tied Jennings' 18 points and was +6 in point differential, but his defense, rebounding, and relentless motor was the defining characteristic of the Bucks relatively competent outing and ultimately kept them in the game.
Charlie Bell. Charlie didn't do that much (16 points, 1 rebound), but he was serviceable on offense and as-good-as-the-situation-allowed on defense. If only Skiles would stop putting him on taller players. The dude's only 6'3", asking him to cover the likes of Kobe (6'6") and LeBron (6'8") is downright silly.
.269. If you're a jump shooting team, make sure that you make more than just barely over a quarter of your three point shots. I know Cleveland has a superb defense, but anytime you take that many threes (22 attempts), try to make more than 27% (7 makes). I wouldn't harp on this so much if I didn't see at least three airballs (Bell, Ilyasova, and Jennings) over the course of the game.
17:09. Bogut played significantly more in the second half, but he was so timid after racking up three first half fouls that it was largely ineffective. He still managed 8 rebounds and 2 blocks, but when you're the only low-post threat on a team that needs a credible low-post threat, you need to bring it against an old Shaquille O'Neal and an older Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
-17. Free throw differential. And that's just attempts: the Bucks were -13 in terms of makes. 'Nuff said.
The last 4:35. I said I'd come back to this. The fourth quarter was a statistical win for the Bucks (21-14), but from the start until the 4:36 mark, they let the Cavs do whatever they wanted. That's how Cleveland opened up a big lead and ultimately gave Milwaukee the W. But let's look at the results of Cleveland's possession during this timeframe:
- Missed jumper
- Missed jumper
- Missed 3-pointer
- Shot clock violation (off of a Cleveland offensive rebound)
- Missed 3-pointer
If you're going to go for the ugly win, stretches like this are exactly what you need on defense. A Bucks win would have certainly been ugly, and it's a shame they couldn't make it happen, but with the game on the line, they managed to pick themselves back up and turn it back into a competition with an elite Eastern Conference team.
Jennings' shot defense. Maybe it's because I'm a fellow skinny PG, but when I see Brandon bust his hump getting a hand in the shooter's face, it makes me happy. He won't be able to outmuscle anybody, but he can make shooters miss through sheer annoyance. I chalk it up to good coaching (thanks, Kelvin Sampson!).
This point is less about Jennings' use of the lost art of "hand-in-face" and more about his exceptional effort. He plays like a guy who flat-out loves the sport, and if he works in practice as hard as he does in games (which I hear he does), he's going to be huge.
Determination, swagger, and stick-to-it-iveness. Results aside, the most important thing about this game is that the Bucks showed a national audience that they can hang with the Eastern Conference elite. They play feisty defense, unselfish offense, and once they become more seasoned, they will be able to hang with any team on any night, if they aren't already. Shoot, they took the Blazers and Lakers to overtime and played a tight game against the Cavs. That's one very good team and two elite teams.
Most importantly, they didn't fold. Down 10 going into the fourth and 13 with six minutes left, they could have just let Cleveland keep hammering them, but they didn't go away. They held the Cavs scoreless in the final 4:35 and pulled to within three. That says something to me. Maybe the casual fan won't see it, but I can see it. This team is actually going to become something.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's foot. While it may be healed, it clearly isn't 100% yet. Whenever Luc was matched up on LeBron James, good things happened. Whenever Bell, Delfino, or someone else was matched up on James, bad things happened very quickly. I cannot keep track of how many times I saw someone other than the Prince defending King James and immediately thought "This cannot end well."
Quite simply, if Milwaukee wants to be a serious team, they need Luc to lock down the other team's best non-center. I don't care if his range is minimal, his shot mechanics are off, and his post game is weak: when he's locking someone down, they become a non-factor.
Addiction to jump shots. The Bucks are a jump shooting team. We know that. But unless they're willing to at least entertain the notion of driving to the basket, they won't become anything special. I know that the makeup of the team lends itself to a jump shot oriented offense (Jennings, Ridnour, Redd, Ilyasova, Delfino, even Thomas and Gadzuric), and some of those guys can drive to the hoop, but they have to want to. Right now, Jennings and Warrick are the only players who want to earn free throws. Two of twelve isn't nearly enough to create balance on offense, and no offensive balance leads to sub-par seasons and early playoff exits.
Fouling. Too much by Milwaukee (22), not enough by Cleveland (16). There's no easier way to break it down. Physical defense is great as long as it isn't sloppy, and it was terribly sloppy this time.
Three Wishes (a.k.a. What I Want To See Happen No Later Than All-Star Weekend)
An increase in plays ran for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute resulting in a corner-3 attempt. I know I just decried the Era of the Jumper in Milwaukee, but Luc needs more minutes, and the only way he can do that is if he makes himself useful on offense. What better way to do that than harness the power of the corner-3, following the footsteps of longtime defensive ace Bruce Bowen? And what better time to do that than during a season where the team is overachieving and searching for offensive identity?
Redd inserted as a permanent 6th man. No, he's not effective yet. He's still recovering from that ACL tear, and he's going to be playing his way back into shape. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we can accept his new role as a bench scorer. A second string Big Three of Ridnour, Redd, and Warrick can be potent if all three figure out their best roles. Speaking of Ridnour...
Ridnour signed to a reasonable extension. Frank explored the anomaly that is Frodo's scorching start to 2009, and I tend to agree with the consensus that it's likely just a prolonged hot streak. But regarding the question of what to actually do with him? I'm all for keeping him.
Look, Brandon's the man, but I doubt if Iverson's doppleganger will emulate the 47 minute outings put forth by his predecessor. Jennings should play at a high level for as long as he's able, and I see that level being sustainable for no more than 35 minutes a night. If you have a chance to lock in a backup who can take the majority of the remaining minutes and still play effectively and meshes well with the starter in certain situations, take it! Unless Ridnour's agent is looking for ridiculous Danny G money, I say sign Frodo for as much Shire-money as he wants (but as little as it takes).
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Thanks for having me, guys. See you next time I manage to catch the Bucks on national TV and both Frank and Alex are unable to do the recap. If that doesn't happen (which it probably won't), I'll see you in the comments.