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Bucks 114, Kings 108: Salmons, Jennings get the last laugh

Box Score

When Ime Udoka tipped in a Spencer Hawes miss to give the Kings a 91-82 with 2:28 left in the fourth, I felt pretty sure what the tenor of this recap would be. 

Remember the Clipper loss two days ago?  Yeah, pretty much the same story.  On a mission to piss off Scott Skiles, the Bucks looked sluggish on the road against a lottery team that looked as if they were the ones who had something to fight for.  The Modestly-Sized Three of Jennings, Bogut, Salmons put up numbers, but everyone else was MIA.  Not enough to get blown out, but a bad loss against a beatable opponent.

The added wrinkle was of course the "matchup" between rookie studs Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings, which would have been more compelling if not for the fact that a) Evans wrapped up the rookie of the year a while ago and b) Evans played off guard most of the night, which means they didn't really matchup much at all. 

Don't tell the Kings broadcasters of course, because when you're 23-45 it's probably not surprising that the entire broadcast would revolve around their star rook (I imagine FSN Wisconsin was probably similar).  Of course, the irony is that for most of the game it looked like the Jennings/Evans story would be a reverse of their overall rookie years: Jennings putting up big numbers in a losing effort, Evans doing a bit less but coming away with the victory.

And then things got a little zany.  In a most confounding, amusing and thoroughly enjoyable way...provided you're a Bucks fan.

Let's start with the plot summary.  Following Udoka's tip, Ersan Ilyasova put back Jennings' miss to cut the deficit to seven with 1:42 left. Jennings then stole the ball from Evans and set up ex-King Salmons in transition for a wing three with 51 ticks left.  Of course, every Kings fan will point out that Jennings dragged his pivot foot a moment before he located Salmons, but hey, who's counting?   Not the refs, so who am I to complain?  

Carl Landry missed on the ensuing Kings possession and Ilyasova grabbed the board, in the process giving Evans a forearm shiver that sent the presumptive ROY to the locker room with a bloodied mouth, concussion and a possibly fractured jaw.  Needless to say, things were going south in a hurry for Sacramento, and it turned out it was about to get even worse.  First, Salmons and Bogut worked a perfectly executed side P&R to get Bogut a dunk and bring the Bucks within two with 24 seconds remaining.  After two Kings free throws, Salmons used a Bogut screen (and no rotation from the Kings) to bury an open catch-and-shoot three from the top of the key, but Beno Udrih (26 pts, 9 ast) made both freebies to restore the Kings' three point lead with 20 seconds left.  

On the ensuing possession the Bucks looked headed for disaster when Jennings dribbled around what seemed like the entire perimeter of the court before picking up his dribble and barely getting the ball to Ilyasova at the top of the key.  But not bothered by the defenders in front or behind him, nor by the fact that he was about 27 feet from the hoop, Ilyasova erased all his previous last second misses by burying the game-tying three with just six seconds left.  Hey, whatever works.  

At that point I was still expecting Udrih to hit the game-winner, because, well, that's what Udrih seems to do.  And somehow the idea of winning still seemed like a foreign concept--I mean, surely the Bucks weren't going to actually win this silly game...right?

And yet, two overtimes later that's exactly what the Bucks did.  Neither team scored a point in the final 59 seconds of the first OT, as Jennings' shot at a storybook night went off the backiron as time expired.  But with Landry having fouled out and Evans in the locker room, the Kings simply ran out of ammo in the second OT.  Jennings found Bogut for a dunk and then drove, jab-stepped and buried a baseline jumper to give the Bucks a five point lead that thankfully stood up in the final two minutes.

A good team performance?  Not really.  But an example of why the pros can deliver drama and fun just as well as those college kids?  Most definitely.  More importantly, it keeps the Bucks on track for what really matters: the postseason.  That wasn't lost on Jennings, who pumped his fist as he dribbled out the clock.  Seeing a Bucks fan wearing a Robin Yount jersey near halfcourt, he walked over to give high-fives and hollered what he's really hoping for.

"Playoffs baby!"

Three Bucks

John Salmons: 53 min, 27 pts, 11/23 fg, 3/5 threes, 2/4 ft, 7 rebs, 5 ast, 1 to

The obvious choice here would be Jennings--that's what the headlines will likely be talking about tomorrow morning. But factoring in Salmons' defense on Evans makes him the obvious choice if you actually watched the game. While he got tons of support from his help defense, Salmons didn't give Evans anything easy and--when he wasn't overplaying Evans in order to bait him into passing or drive baseline--stayed in front of Evans about as well as could be expected.

Offensively, Salmons started the game looking very much at home in his old arena, sinking 5/6 fg for 11 first quarter points.  But he was invisible in the game's middle periods, making just a pair of free throws in the second and third quarters.  Fortunately, he got it going in time to not only help the Bucks take it to OT but win once they got there, dropping 14 in the fourth quarter and overtimes on a steady diet of corkscrewing layups, mid-range jumpers and those two big threes.  

Brandon Jennings: 45 min, 35 pts, 12/28 fg, 8/13 threes, 3/4 ft, 8 ast, 5 reb, 2 stl, 4 to
Do I think this game puts Jennings back in the hunt for the ROY?  Nah.  But did I absolutely love watching Jennings outplay Evans and help the Bucks steal a West Coast win?  Hell yes.  Sure, Brandon often talks (and tweets) a bit too much for his own good, but the kid keeps things...interesting.  And more importantly he has a knack for cashing the checks that his big mouth goes around writing.  Bucks fans love him, Kings fans hate him, and that's part of the fun, isn't it?

Tonight was in many ways vintage Jennings, carrying the Bucks' offense with 22 points in a mostly Bogut-less first half, before picking his spots more as the game went on.  The one constant was his three point shooting, which accounted for 24 of his 35 points, including a couple biggies in the fourth quarter to keep the Bucks within touching distance.  In fact, of his first 10 threes he made eight and missed only two--one a desperate heave at the end of the first half, the second a 75-foot hail mary that hit the rim at the end of regulation.  Though he missed his final three attempts from deep and, also in vintage fashion, made just 4/15 from inside the arc, he helped put the game away in the second OT with a beautiful dish for a Bogut dunk and the aforementioned drive and jumper.

Ersan Ilyasova: 35 min, 12 pts, 3/5 fg, 1/1 threes, 5/6 ft, 11 rebs, 2 ast, 2 to
On raw numbers alone, Bogut (21/11) would have been an obvious choice here, but I'll go with Ilyasova for his huge play down the stretch.  Besides, it's not like 12 points on five shots and 11 boards is anything to shake a stick at either.  And given I can distinctly remember Ersan airballing a couple other late-game jumpers (I think one was in his first stint in MKE), I was pretty excited to see him step up and bury such a difficult three to send the game to OT.

Moreover, the line above doesn't reflect any of the little things he does, either, intentional or otherwise.  While he wasn't trying to KO Evans, that play ended up being a hugely pivotal one in the game, since his rebound kept the Bucks alive and his forearm shiver meant the Kings were denied the services of their best player.  In OT he then took out the Kings' next best player by drawing a pair of loose ball fouls on Landry, sending him to the pine with six personals.

Three Numbers

83.  The Modestly-Sized Three accounted for 83 of the Bucks' 114 points and 14 of the Bucks' 19 overtime points.  They may not have the sex appeal of 2008 Garnett, Pierce and Allen, but it's working pretty well.  And I definitely prefer it to the perimeter-only Big Three of the Bucks 2001 glory days.  Let's hope Salmons doesn't opt out of his contract this summer.

8.  Evans only forced one bad shot--a thumper from three point range--and his 15 points on eight shots hardly represented an inefficient night from a scoring perspective.  But Salmons and his mates crowded Evans to great effect in the halfcourt, forcing him baseline whenever possible and daring him to make other guys win the game for Sacramento.  In the process the Bucks forced a couple travels, drew two charges, and a number of bad passes en route to eight Evans turnovers.  Considering Evans had averaged a triple double over the past two games, that's pretty damn good.

13.  Sacramento just seemed like the harder-working team for much of regulation, and the fact that the 6'5" Ime Udoka hauled down 13 boards seemed to capture that nicely.  Fittingly he didn't pull down any in the game's last 12 minutes, however.

Three Good

Rookie Battle.  It's the obvious storyline, and fortunately it went our way tonight.  While the Bucks have generally done a good job bottling up some of the game's most dynamic guards--their effort against Evans was particularly reminiscent of the way they've contained Dwyane Wade--seeing Jennings continue his strong play is just as encouraging.  The kid has now shot at least 43% from the field in each of his last six outings (yes, that's progress), including a scorching 21/38 from three point range.After scoring 20+ points just once in February, Jennings has already done it four times in March and is averaging 20.8 ppg over his last six.

Theft!  I generally prefer blowout wins, but that wouldn't have been nearly as fun as what the Bucks ended up delivering.  Yes, they deserved to lose for 46 minutes, and of course luck was on their side and then some in the late going.  But the ironic part is that the Bucks' late-game execution--generally a source of much hand-wringing by you, me and the rest of Bucks Nation--was actually their saving grace tonight.  Salmons' three and Bogut's dunk in the final minute were both perfect calls, for which Scott Skiles deserves a tip of the cap.  Ilyasova's prayer that forced OT was mostly just a ballsy, clutch shot by the Turkish Delight, but the Bucks didn't seem to tire in overtime and created enough quality chances to escape with a rather improbable victory.

Bogut's last 22 minutes.  Bogut looked out of sorts for much of the game, but seemed to catch a second wind in the late going, scoring 10 (5/8 fg) along with eight boards.  While the extra 10 minutes helped, it says a lot that Bogut can play poorly by his standards and still end up with 21 points, 11 boards, and two blocks.

Three Bad

No wake up call. The hope was that losing in Los Angeles would be something of a wake up call, reaffirming that the Bucks simply can't expect to beat teams just by showing up.  So it was rather disappointing to see Sacramento outplaying the Bucks in many of the same ways the Clips did on Wednesday--especially on defense.  Sacramento ended up at 44.4% shooting, but keep in mind they were at 52% through three quarters.  This sort of effort certainly won't fly in Denver, and it won't be helped by the fact that they're going to the Mile High City a night after a double OT game.

Bogut's first 36 minutes.  You had to see this game to appreciate how improbable Bogut's big numbers seemed to be.  Bogut looked a bit rusty in the first quarter and bricked his first four free throws before giving way to Kurt Thomas 11 minutes in.  Nothing weird about that, though we've come to expect more of late.

But those of us watching the game were then thrown into a minor panic when the second quarter came and Bogut remained planted on the bench throughout.  And it wasn't just that Bogut was on the bench--it was the fact that Primoz Brezec was playing meaningful minutes.  The horror! 

Was Bogut hurt?  (OH GOD WE'RE SO SCREWED IF HE'S HURT!!!!)  Or was Skiles maybe trying to send him some kind of message for not being sharp in the early going?  (FINE, THAT"S SKILES' THING, BUT PRIMOZ???)  Apparently it was the latter, and Bogut wasn't much better in the third.  Though he dropped in a couple hooks and was up to 11 points after finally making a free throw (after five misses), he looked to be moving gingerly, was getting beaten to rebounds, and Hawes (16 pts, 8 rebs, 4 ast, 2 blk) was clearly outplaying him.  I realize Hawes (still only 21) has his moments, and he may well end up developing into a very good center, but he's still a guy Bogut must outplay.

Beno'd!  For some reason Udrih just loves playing the Bucks.  He scores more against Milwaukee than any other team aside from his old club the Spurs, and those numbers are skewed since he's played a lot more since leaving  Tony Parker's shadow in Texas.  So of course he almost single-handedly carried the Kings to victory tonight, expertly using the space created by P&R and his deceptive quickness to kill the Bucks from everywhere on the court.  In fact, I barely celebrated Ilyasova's big three because I assumed a soul-crushing Udrih game-winner had to be on tap.  Thankfully his potential winner at the end of regulation rolled off the iron, but he was still the Kings' most valuable player on the night.