MILWAUKEE -- A lot has changed in the last few months.
A lot changed in the last week even.
Three months ago to the night, the Bucks beat the Bobcats 95-88 at the Bradley Center.
Tonight, the Bucks beat the Bobcats 93-88 at the Bradley Center.
The win pushes Milwaukee to within a game of Charlotte for the final playoff spot, and while I still don't think they are the easiest to catch, they might just be bad enough on the road to make this work.
With Charlotte up 4-3, Andrew Bogut blocked Stephen Jackson's drive to the hoop, sending Luc Mbah a Moute via Carlos Delfino the other direction for a layup. The Bucks had their first lead and the Bobcats had their last lead, as Milwaukee mostly coasted to a 93-88 win that wasn't quite as nervous as the final score suggests, although Charlotte made a late push.
Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut, and John Salmons led the Bucks through a marvelous first half, contrasting the team's terrible starts in their last two home games against the Pistons and Rockets. And all was well that started well, as the Bucks saw their lead shrink but never completely evaporate as Stephen Jackson (35/5/5) was the lone thorn in Milwaukee's side, and even he, down four with 34 seconds, crucially mishandled and handed the ball to late-game-hero-again John Salmons.
And so the post-Francisco Elson era forges on spotlessly.
John Salmons. The new Buck is crushing as a sixth man, and it's only a matter of time before he is thrust into the starting lineup, where Charlie Bell never really belonged anyway. That's not a knock on Bell, it's just that he is not a starter on a playoff team, and that's the aim. Regardless, the minute distribution is more important anyway, and Salmons (37 minutes) was out there a lot more than Bell (10 minutes).
After an assistless 33-minute debut in Detroit, Salmons started off driving and kicking his way to five first-half assists, one fewer than Charlotte as a team. As a legitimate threat to drive and finish, Salmons, unlike Bell, draws defenders in the lane. That keeps the offense flowing and keeps the defense reacting, even a good defense like Charlotte's.
He led everyone with seven assists, scored a lucky 19 points again, converted at the line (7-8), and though it was more of Jackson fumbling him the ball, he nonetheless made the game-sealing steal against Stephen Jackson.
Andrew Bogut. The Bobcats entered the night as the most blocked team in the NBA, so it was no surprise to see Bogut waste little time in extending his NBA-leading streak of games with a blocked shot to 19 games. He stuffed a Stephen Jackson layup attempt on Charlotte's third offensive possession, and with that set a defensive tone that seemed to keep the Bobcats off balance and looking for calls all night.
And when momentum was swinging in Charlotte's favor in the fourth quarter, Bogut came through with a pair of heavy blocks, first on Stephen Jackson and then Boris Diaw. Five blocks in all, and Bogut is absolutely among the top handful of candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
Brandon Jennings. Across the board, Jennings and Salmons put up very similar numbers.
Just like his last home game, against Houston, Jennings started hot. Ten points in the first nine minutes of the game for Brandon, and while he again ultimately didn't shoot straight from the field (5-16), he made up for it a bit from outside (2-4) and particularly at the line (7-8).
The 15 combined free throws made over the past two games are the most in consecutive games all season for Brandon, and they have coincided with a couple poor shooting nights. Without all of those free throws, these would have been two of his worst games in the NBA, and quite possibly two losses for the Bucks considering the six-point and five-point margins of victory.
Jennings outplayed opposing point guards Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin all night (they combined to shoot an even-worse 3-16), he contributed on the glass with seven rebounds, boasted a team-best +17 differential, and only committed one turnover in 36 minutes against one of the best defenses in the NBA.
Brandon, after the game:
Like I've been telling everyone from day one, our main goal is to make the playoffs.
The four-year playoff drought combined with the prospect of hosting LeBron in the playoffs makes chasing the eight seed a lot more fun than it sounds. The Bucks aren't going get the number one pick this draft or win the championship this year or next. I'm into this. You have to live in the moment.
85.7 % Since he didn't make Three Bucks but certainly deserves mention, Luc Mbah a Moute bounced back from a very quiet night to shoot 6-7 (.857) as he continues a very strong month from the field. Everything in the paint.
5. To reiterate, five blocks for Bogut, and for the second straight game.
.440/.500/.842 Those numbers represent Charlotte's shooting splits (fg/threes/ft), each of which was superior to Milwaukee's .405/.375/.769.
Still this worked, and the Bucks won, because they created more chances, making more threes (9-6) and free throws (20-16). Free throws...
Free. Charlotte has the best free throw rate differential in the NBA and Milwaukee has the worst. So it was all sorts of unlikely that the Bucks would win the free throw battle, but they did. Thank mostly the relentless backcourt of Jennings and Salmons for that, as each made 7-8. I could get used to that.
Meanwhile, Gerald Wallace, among the league leaders making 5.9 free throws per game, spent much of the night flustered on both ends of the floor and didn't even attempt a single free throw.
Overall, 20-16 in favor of Milwaukee, which really helped them overcome a 40.5 % shooting evening from the field.
First half. Some of the best basketball they have played this calendar year.
Bogut got a lot of touches early, Jennings was on, a quick-learning Salmons further ignited it, and that Big Three buoyed an offense that really, really clicked. Clicked to the sweet tune of 54 first half points against a team that wins with defense even more than the Bucks win with defense.
The rather excellent first half gave the Bucks some margin for error in the second half when Charlotte outscored them by 10 points.
Ex-Bulls. The Bulls moved names at the deadline, two of the biggest were on the court tonight, and they were two of the biggest on the court tonight.
Salmons was very good, as noted above. He's been instrumental in the two post-trade wins for Milwaukee. And Tyrus Thomas was a star off the bench for Chicago, putting up 12/11 with four blocks.
Then again, the Bulls stubbornly won again tonight too, as Hakim Warrick (15/9/3 and two blocks) had a stellar evening, so maybe this was a win-win-win. But there just aren't enough playoff spots.
THREE TWO BAD
Ers-on, Ers-off. After a wonderful game against Detroit in which he made all six shots and went for 16/12, the borderline (?) enigmatic Ersan Ilyasova was blanked tonight, rendered quite useless in eight minutes.
And, really, you should have seen this coming.
In 2010, this is how Ilyasova has followed up his best games:
@Portland: 9/15 fg, 24 points, 5 rebounds
@Golden State: 1/7 fg, 6 points, 8 rebounds
@Utah: 5/11 fg, 13 points, 11 rebounds
@Houston: 0/2 fg, 0 points, 3 rebounds
Philadelphia: 7/8 fg, 15 points, 6 rebounds
Miami: 2/8 fg, 4 points, 1 rebound
@New York: 10/18 fg, 25 points, 9 rebounds
Indiana: 2/7 fg, 5 points, 2 rebounds
@New Jersey: 8/13 fg, 18 points, 6 rebounds
Houston: 3/6 fg, 7 points, 2 rebounds
@Detroit: 6/6 fg, 16 points, 12 rebounds
Charlotte: 0/2 fg, 0 points, 2 rebounds
New Knicks. Next up for Milwaukee is a trip to Madison Square Garden, where they beat the Knicks just a couple weeks ago. So this should be a Good, but the problem is that this is an all new New York team. They lost in overtime 121-118 to OKC last night, but acquisitions Tracy McGrady (26/4/5) and Eddie House (24/5/2) were awfully good. Monday presents a very winnable game, but the Knicks are looking better than last time we saw them.