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It's March...and the Bucks are still good?

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I normally only get to do one "Whoa, the Bucks are actually good!" post per year, and unfortunately it's usually in November.  You probably know the drill: the Bucks jump out to a semi-promising start; nervous optimism ensues; plane crashes into mountain about a week later.

But hey, at least there's been consistency.  Since we started this website/self-help group in 2007, the first month or two of the season have always provided at least some mostly misplaced hope.  Believe it or not, November 2007 offered an opportunity to say nice things about Larry Krystkowiak's coaching (they were 7-4!), while in 2008 we still had some good feelings in late December (one game out of the playoff hunt!).

So it was only natural for the Bucks to offer us some early-season optimism back in November, though the Brandon Jennings Effect meant more talk about Jennings than the Bucks' 8-3 start to the season.  But as Scott Skiles told Charles Gardner this week, the Bucks' reaction to their early season success probably wasn't the real story--instead, it's how the Bucks handled the slump that saw them drop 15 of 19 games between November 23 and December 30.

"Sort of the M.O. of our franchise the last several years has been to get down, fall behind a little bit and boom, just cave. And the season's over by now.

"To sum it all up, we didn't quit, and at least we've given ourselves the opportunity to have a very good season. And now we have to take advantage of that with a quarter of the season left to play."

And so here we are, a whopping 62 games into the season and the Bucks are not only in the playoff race, but among the league's hottest teams at 33-29, the fifth seed in the East, and winners of nine of ten.  How'd we get here anyway?

If there was a bottoming out point for the 09/10 Bucks, it happened in late December--which was especially awesome given I was home for Christmas and got to see all of them up close.  The Bucks lost games against the Lakers, Cavs, and Kings by a combined margin of five points, which added to the whole "can't win close games" frustration that had been a hallmark of the first two months.  They may have rebounded with a nervous road win in Indiana, but two absolute clunkers at home against the Wizards and Spurs followed by rather uncompetitive road losses in Charlotte and Orlando erased any holiday warm and fuzzies rather abruptly.  And thus the 8-3 Bucks had morphed into the 12-18 Bucks by the end of calendar year 2009.  In a sad way, order had been restored.

But give the Bucks credit: they've shown the ability to bounce back from losses all season and they've looked like a different team in the new year.  Well, maybe not a different team, but at least a much better version of the squad that faceplanted at the end of 2009.  At the end of December, the Bucks ranked just 25th in offensive efficiency (102.3 pts/100 possessions) and a very respectable 7th defensively (103.9 pts/100), and the relative story is similar today, just...better.  They trail only the Celtics and Lakers in defensive efficiency (102.8 pts/100) and have upped their offensive efficiency by more than two pts/100 (104.5 pts/100).  They still rank just 23rd in the NBA in that category, but it's still progress and they've been dramatically improved of late. Though the defense has allowed about three fewer pts/100 over the past 32 games, the offense has improved even more, adding four points/100 over the first two months' performance.

Offensively it's not hard to see what has changed.  The Bucks have benefited greatly from an unselfish, inside-out balance keyed by Jennings' improving game management and the anchor provided by Bogut's post presence, with John Salmons' adding some much-needed shot-creating ability since he arrived 10 games ago [note: in retrospect it's funny how I never even thought to talk about Michael Redd while writing this--see sdsowlsa comment below.  Say a lot, no?] Jeremy has a good post on the Bucks' assist/to numbers over the past few years, and the crisp offense we've been seeing on the court is also reflected in the numbers.  In the last 10 games the Bucks lead the NBA in assist differential, racking up nearly seven more assists per game than their opponents.  In that span they also boast the league's best scoring differential (+11.6 pts/game), the lowest opponent fg% (42.1%), and the league's second-best rebounding differential (+6.1 rpg).  Good defense + good defense = profit.  Who knew?

The main irony is that the Bucks' offensive revitalization has coincided with Jennings' horrific shooting slump, though his care of the ball and game management have been remarkably good of late.  Even after his 25 point effort against Cleveland, Jennings has seen his fg% fall every month of the season--a pretty mind-boggling feat considering he only shot 32.4% in January but has somehow managed to worsen that number in both February (30.7%) and March (30.3% through three games).

Another interesting footnote to the Bucks' success has been the slower pace at which they've been playing.  Through December they had ranked 11th in the league in possessions/game (93.4), but have now dropped down to 15th (92.6).  That surprises me somewhat because it seems like the Bucks are getting more buckets in transition--as I write this I've got visions of Jennings flying up and down the court, dishing to hustling teammates for easy buckets.  And indeed, they've been well above their season average with 18 fast break pts/game over the last three, but they're still fourth from the bottom overall in that category (10.9 pts/game).  However, those falling pace numbers could also be attributable to good defense forcing longer opponent shot clock usage, more offensive rebounds by either team (thus keeping possessions alive), and the Bucks' using more clock themselves in the halfcourt.  Indeed, the Bucks' offensive rebound rate has increased since January 1, but they still rank just 19th in the league in that category.  The pace numbers could also be a reflection of the renewed focus on getting Bogut post touches, which tends to lead to longer possessions. 

Defensively, the Bucks' ability to force opponent misses is not surprisingly a big deal.  Since Skiles took over, the Bucks have generally been among the league's better teams in terms of forcing turnovers (1st last year, 4th this year) and defensive rebounding (11th and 3rd), which are two of the three basic ways you prevent the other team from scoring.  But aside from preventing shots (by forcing TOs) and not allowing second chances (by grabbing defensive rebounds) the Bucks generally have been middle of the road at the most basic part of defense--making teams miss.  Last year they ranked just 17th in eFG% (50.2%), but their current run has seen them crack the top ten in that category (48.7%, 9th). Obvious credit goes to Andrew Bogut, whose defense we've already singled out for praise.  Bogut's shot-blocking has increased every month this season, in the Bucks' 9-1 run he's averaged a remarkable 3.8 blocks per game, upping his season average to 2.4 bpg.  But not to be overlooked is the return of Luc Mbah a Moute to the starting PF spot, where his mobility, rebounding, and harassing defense has complemented the big fella's shot blocking rather nicely.  The Bucks' big weakness remains at the foul line, where they still rank dead last offensively and second-to-last defensively in free throw rate, but even that gap has narrowed a bit the past couple months.

With 19 games left,  the Bucks need just nine wins to record their first winning season since George Karl's last season in 02/03, which given the overall middling level of talent on the roster speaks volumes about the work Skiles has done in his second year.  Skiles deservedly won Eastern Conference Coach of the Month in February, and if the Bucks can continue their surprising run to the playoffs he'll demand serious consideration for coach of the year honors when all is said and done.  From Bucks fans everywhere, there's just one thing to say: thanks.