MILWAUKEE -- Four and a half months into the season, and the Bucks have reached a new high point.
No one predicted the Bucks to start 8-3, the first three weeks were magical, but we had read that book before, seen that movie, and it didn't end well.
Remember 15-9 in 2005-06? 40-42 by the end. The 7-7 beginning in 2007-08? Finished 26-56.
The nice start was just something that happens every two years, and this was year two. Happens, and then we move on to reality, to a losing season, a lost season. In a way, you couldn't be too surprised to be happy -- it was November. Check back in December or January, it never took long.
And there the Bucks were, 12-18 leaving December, worse than the year before. From five games above .500 to six below in barely more than a month. It felt so wrong, but sadly, it felt all too right. Sure, it was hard to write the recaps of the piling losses, but it was also easy. I wasn't new to this, there was a template.
So this is new. This incredible recovery to not only get back to where they were in November, but to reach even higher than 8-3, now six games above .500 at 35-29. Five wins in a row, 11 out of 12, the only loss in overtime in Atlanta, a game that looked like they had won in regulation and overtime.
Tonight's game against Utah just sort of felt like a loss before tip. As hot as the Bucks were, they used a lot of energy to beat a LeBron-less Cavs team, a reeling Boston club, and you figured they would top the hapless Pacers on Sunday. You cautiously assumed the Bucks would at some point lose another game in the future, and this one, against such a complete, in-form team and tough matchup, looked like the one.
And so of course that didn't happen. What did happen: Brandon Jennings outplayed Deron Williams, Ersan Ilyasova was clutch-as-can-be, and the Bucks managed to win with a good-but-not-great game from Andrew Bogut.
The defense, at this point, is just remarkable. Five games into March, and these 87 points are the most that they have allowed.
35-29. The highest point.
Brandon Jennings. After all of the early-season comparisons, Brandon Jennings is proving to be one of the more unique rookies in memory. Is he a pure scorer, a natural distributor, outside shooter, floor leader, maybe even good defender? We are still figuring it out, he is still figuring it out. But as not only the starting point guard, but just about the only point guard with Luke Ridnour fading during the team's hot streak, it is obvious that Jennings is a whole lot.
Facing the player whom after the game he called the best point guard in the NBA, Brandon was in all-out attack mode. Despite giving almost 40 pounds and a couple inches to Deron Williams, he went straight to the hoop, straight from the start. Not all of his forays into the paint were fruitful, but most were: He converted on 4-7 in the lane. And while he passed well too, this was not passive Brandon, this was a brilliantly assertive Brandon.
John Salmons. Up by a couple points with 19 seconds to go, Salmons pretty much finished the Jazz with two calm free throws to give Milwaukee a 91-87 lead. His volume and success rate at the line has been one of the most important ingredients to the team's success since his arrival, yet he was just 1-1 at the line combined in the previous two wins over Cleveland and Boston.
Salmons found his way back to the line in this one, hitting 6-8. He was even better from the field, making an extra-efficient 8-14 on a night both teams hovered around 40.0 % overall. And he was best yet from outside, making 2-3 threes.
A big, seven-point fourth quarter highlighted 24 points altogether for Salmons, who has led the Bucks in scoring seven times in 12 games, 11 wins.
Ersan Ilyasova. Turkish Thunder got the call early with Luc Mbah a Moute struggling to guard the bigger, taller, burlier Mehmet Okur, and he got the call late with the game on the line.
And Ersan made all the difference. Skiles subbed him in with 5:48 remaining in regulation and the Bucks trailing 78-75. He spent just about every minute and every second bringing the Bucks back from down three to up eight. No coincidence.
In the span of just over a minute after entering, Ilyasova drew a foul on Carlos Boozer, made both free throws, blocked Mehmet Okur, and assisted Andrew Bogut.
And Ersan's biggest moment of the game and his season was an offensive rebound and putback that lifted the Bucks to an 89-87 lead, the final field goal for either team, and in essence the game-winner. Especially for someone who has struggled a bit in some clutch situations in the past, what a night.
0. Utah shot 0-10 on three-pointers. A couple of those go in, we have trouble. Three go in, and they win.
9. All nine players for the Jazz turned the ball over at least once, totaling 16 turnovers altogether. The Bucks only committed nine turnovers.
6. Four different Bucks (Salmons 6-8, Jennings 6-6, Bogut 6-8, Ilyasova 6-6) made exactly six free throws, as Milwaukee made 24-28 (.857) overall.
Defense. Before the game I noted that the Jazz ranked last in the NBA in technicals, a testament to their cool nature and a reflection of their steady leader, Jerry Sloan. It's not like these guys are just coasting through the season without a care. After all, this is a top notch team, just one that isn't as excitable as the Celtics, Nuggets, or Lakers.
And while they may or may not say it was the refs, it was really the Bucks who frustrated the typically pleasant team leaders like Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, the former earning an ejection and the latter who was outplayed by a rookie on both sides of the ball.
And it was Milwaukee's defense that frustrated them the most.
In a matchup of two very good defensive teams, the better one (defense, that is) won, as Milwaukee completely shut down all but three players, particularly stunting the threesome of Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, and Paul Millsap, who shot a combined 4-17 (.235).
BC. Not a sellout, but the 14,917 were practicing for the playoffs in one of the most electric fourth quarters in a long time, building on the momentum from the loud, late drama against Boston a few nights before. Squad 6 was festive as always, there was some sort of other Squad across the building with flags and plenty of cheer, and even the low, lower-level fans couldn't help but stand up for this team.
The BC rocked throughout a few sequences in particular during the fourth quarter, starting with Ilyasova's block of Okur and finishing with a Jennings three-pointer to put Milwaukee up 84-80 about a minute and a half later.
Oh, and the Bucks haven't lost at the Bradley Center since Feb. 17, and a win over Indiana on Sunday will guarantee more than a full undefeated month at home in a row. Unreal.
Pass. I'm not passing on the third Good.
I'm writing about outlet passes, backdoor passes, around-the-back passes, pick-and-rolling passes, extra passes, bounce passes, swing passes, the Bucks just passed their way right past the Jazz this evening. Jennings pushed the ball to every open player, Bogut went around-the-back on one play, Delfino was the maestro he longs to be, and the Bucks moved the ball with cunning and purpose.
Overall, 21 assists to 10 turnovers.
And it's not just the passes, it's the off-the-ball movement and awareness that has transformed this offense into a free-flowing one that in prior years was stagnant even in its better moments.
Meanwhile, the most memorable Jazz pass was one into a cup that doused a front-row patron with beer.
THREE ONE BAD
Bench? Skiles again had to ride the starters heavy, heavy minutes, as only Ilyasova was productive off the bench. Of particular concern is Luke Ridnour, who quite inevitably has been coming back to earth after reaching for some sort of starry stratosphere most of the season. The coach doesn't seem interested in giving Charlie Bell minutes (even on his birthday. Happy 31st, Charlie) so hopefully Ridnour turns it back around a bit.