MILWAUKEE -- Back to where we started? Couldn't be further off.
Just as many wins as losses, just like it all started at 0-0. And the parallel to the start of the season is valid, but not because the Bucks are back where they started. Rather, because this is an entirely fresh, new team, by the looks.
The Bucks reached an even point at 28-28 for the first time in two and a half months -- they were 11-11 after an overtime win against Portland on Dec. 12, and then 11-12 after that most heartbreaking overtime loss to Los Angeles. Never got back to .500 again, until now.
Andrew Bogut won the opening tip, and won the night within three minutes and eight points. Unlike the victory over the Knicks, this game flowed -- the team's combined for 116 points in the first half -- but the constant was a thoroughly dominant Bogut. And this time his 'mates joined in on the offensive fury as a brilliantly balanced and consistent effort for the entire 48 minutes resulted in points upon points that poured easily against a team known for not giving them up.
Even without Chris Paul, the Hornets had a few other jetting young guards who kept it close, as Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton did so until the third quarter. That is when Bogut, Mbah a Moute and co. kicked it into another gear, turning a six point lead into seventeen.
This was a stress-free fourth quarter, one to enjoy: For the fans who braved the shaken snowglobe called downtown Milwaukee, for the television audience happy to have local viewing after the blacked out Knicks game, even for Bogut and Brandon Jennings, who sat contentedly on the bench.
And so we watched the Bucks win that fourth quarter, as Ersan Ilyasova, Charlie Bell, and Luke Ridnour propelled Milwaukee past New Orleans just as their teammates had in the first, second, and third quarters. This was an authoratitive win by a team that is sharp, sprightly, and proud on its home floor, nothing like the team that lost at home to Houston and Detroit so recently.
With the new starting five -- two easy wins in two games -- we certainly aren't back to where we started, but we do have a new start.
Andrew Bogut. An absolutely roaring start for Bogut, who is genuinely beginning to control games. The Knicks are the Knicks, but he owned that game right away, and this one was his to lose after scoring eight in the first three minutes on hooks from both sides and a pair of tip-ins.
He didn't lose it. Bogut won the game with hooks, rebounds, blocks, volleyball tip-ins, and with one of the most efficient per-minute games of his life: 26 points, 13 rebounds, and a couple blocks (two blocks almost registers as a letdown! this cat is legit...) in just 29 minutes. When his offensive prowess rivals his defense, Bogues is on another level.
Emeka Okafor was the second pick in the draft the year before Bogut was the overall number one, but they looked a lot more than a pick apart tonight, as the Aussie picked apart the foul-plagued, listless Okafor on both ends of the floor. Emeka actually had a better rookie season, but they have been going in opposite directions since, and tonight they collided on their respective paths ever-so-clearly-and-crashingly.
Luc Mbah a Moute. Guarding David West is not an easy task for anyone; he is strong, slippery, spinny, and skilled. But The Prince can and does guard pretty much everyone, and he made West work for his 19 points.
Mbah a Moute also showed sublime skill on the boards. Not every rebound is created equal, so while 10 rebounds (four offensive) might not jump out, Luc's were mostly in heavy traffic, stealing the ball from the opponent.
He delivered a third straight efficient offensive game (4-7 from the field for 10 points), and he is starting to find his niche out there, freeing himself with cuts for shots around the hoop.
John Salmons. The first home start for the new two guard was a goodie, and though it's only been four games, he is the offensive lift. 19, 19, 15, and 18 more points tonight, and the Bucks have legitimately found a consistent scoring option at shooting guard, one who actually speeds up the offense rather than slows it down while accumulating said points.
The best part about tonight for Salmons was an 8-8 showing at the free throw line, where he made three more than the rest of his team combined.
72. Milwaukee threw down a truly massive 72 points in the painted area, more than the Knicks scored altogether last game. Bogut led the way with 22 points in the point, and the Bucks just took it the Hornets instead of relying on jumpers.
3. Bogut was a force inside all night even when he wasn't blocking shots, but kudos also to Carlos Delfino, who registered a career-high three blocked shots.
26-9. New Orleans entered the night with the fourth best assist/turnover ratio as a team in the NBA, Milwaukee ninth. But while the Hornets were okay with the ball (17 assists and 11 turnovers), the Bucks were self-assured and precise, piling up 26 assists to just 9 turnovers, a 2.88:1 ratio. For perspective, the Hawks have the best assist/turnover ratio at 1.81:1.
Offense. Young Buck cruised from coast-to-coast in seven seconds for a pretty reverse layup to put a fine finishing touch on an explosive first half for Milwaukee's offense, which has rarely looked better than tonight.
The Bucks had made it into triple digits just once in the previous 12 games, when they dropped 114 against the Knicks without Bogut a couple weeks ago. They hit the century mark tonight with more than six minutes to spare. And this, against the sixth rated defense in the NBA.
Most encouraging of all is that the offense didn't sparkle simply because of an unreasonably hot shooting night, like Houston did in Milwaukee last week. No, the team made just 6-18 (.333) three pointers, below its season average (.360) from beyond the arc.
The Bucks got the ball to Bogut early, pushed the ball when possible, and made purposeful passes on every possession. Not just jumpers falling. And not an anomoly, this was a recipe.
High five. From Compton, California to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Sante Fe, Argentina to Yaonde, Cameroon to Melbourne, Australia, this starting lineup couldn't have come from much further apart. And yet, in just their second start as a fivesome ever, Jennings/Salmons/Delfino/Mbah a Moute/Bogut looked like a crew that grew up ballin' on the same block, late into the night, sky dark as the pavement, hoop dimly lit by that light across the street, an hour and a half past when mom said it's time to get in the house.
The Bucks have tried plenty of starting lineups this season, but they needn't try any more.
Rest. As previously mentioned, Bogut (29 minutes) and Jennings (23) were able to rest the entire fourth quarter, timely since the Bucks are taking off for Indiana in a back-to-back tomorrow. We've documented Bogut's struggles without rest (45.2 % from the field in 12 games with zero days of rest). Taking that final quarter off will help some.
Nice to get both of those guys a stretch there. Especially when you've got back-to-backs... It's a perfect week to be able to do that because we have so many games this week, and so we took advantage of it.
THREE TWO BAD
Chris-miss. Sure, the Les Paul, the better for Milwaukee, but I'm a point guard devotee and a writer who is just playing with words at this point in the story. The point is that the point guard of all point guards was out today, voiding a chance for Milwaukeeans to see Chris Paul in person, in all his basketball splendor.
Primo's premier. The Brezec Era officially and quite joyously commenced late in the fourth quarter, but he was soon posterized by New Zealander Sean Marks, whose dunk promoted a bid to seize the basketball hearts of Oceania away from Bogut.