MILWAUKEE --Boston didn't really want to lose, but they didn't really, really want to win. And they still won. So who really wins?
Probably not the Bucks. Boston came into the Bradley Center and rested Kevin Garnett (tweaked ankle) despite trailing Atlanta by just a game for third place in the East. Presumably, they did so in order to rest their aging star for the playoffs, but also because they wouldn't exaclty mind playing the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks in a 4/5 first round matchup, despite going 3-0 against currently sixth seeded Miami this season.
The Bucks certainly wanted to win, and they might just prefer to play Boston too, though no one has said that out loud for obvious reasons.
Regardless, the Bucks lost this one, and they lost a nine-point first half lead when Paul Pierce caught fire with 18 points in the second half. A back-and-forth first half gave way to a Boston-controlled, chippy second half during which the Bucks had plenty of fight but not nearly enough firepower to hang.
Kurt Thomas, Jerry Stackhouse, and Scott Skiles all got tangled up in little bits of trouble -- Thomas was hit with a flagrant after fouling Glen Davis, Stackhouse received a technical after mixing it up with Paul Pierce, and Skiles was ejected after a pair of technicals for dissent.
They've got a little bit of a kind of brash overtone to their team. Obviously they won a championship, so they've got a right to feel that way somewhat. But this team, we're not going to back down... If that's who we wind up playing in the playoffs it should make for an entertaining series. Both teams are well-coached and play defense first, hopefully we can muster enough points.
Winning comfortably in Milwaukee despite resting their future Hall-of-Fame power forward isn't going to do much to reduce the brashness. About those points, though. The starting backcourt did well behind Brandon Jennings (19 points) and John Salmons (21 points), and Jerry Stackhouse (12 points) and Ersan Ilyasova (11 points) came through off the bench. But in the end, Andrew Bogut's missing 25.0 point average in two games against Boston made it pretty clear why Boston doesn't seem to Fear the Deer.
John Salmons. A dandy points-per-shot night (21 points on 10 shots, 10-11 free throws), his best yet as a Buck asamatterofact. Trouble was, fellow shooting guard Ray Allen (21 points on 7 shots, 11-11 free throws) was even better. Salmons led everyone with 41 minutes as Milwaukee continues to get absolutely everything good out of this Philadelphian.
Ersan Ilyasova. Offensive rebounds and threes, two good picks if you are playing word association.
And he was one for two tonight. Ersanator hit the offensive glass as usual (four offensive rebounds), putting back a few Bucks' misses, and there were plenty of misses (47). Unfortunately, there was no Turk Nowitzki on this night, as Ersan missed on all four of his long-range efforts.
He's actually shooting more and making threes at a lower clip this season (34.1 %) than he did back in 2005-06 as a 19 year-old (36.5 %). Hopefully that goes back up next year, because with the clear lack of a post-game, threes are paramount to his offensive game. And he's not the only one...
Brandon Jennings. A quick start for Brandon, and Skiles actually kept him in the game (played the entire first quarter, and more than 40 minutes overall). For the most part, he lives and dies scoring (not offensively, there is a difference) with threes. A night after missing seven of eight three-pointers, Jennings made 3-3 from deep in the first quarter alone. The three pointer is Brandon's best bet to score -- he make threes at a better rate (37.5 % on threes, 36.8 % overall) than twos, and they are quite obviously worth more points.
On the other hand, Rajon Rondo started slowly (zero first half points), but got going in the third quarter by getting to the hoop, which is where scores the bulk of his points (22.4 % on threes). These two have very different games, and they had very different games tonight. But in all, pretty even matchup this time.
31. Back to losing at the line. After a +12 difference at the free throw line in Philly, the Bucks went -11 against Boston as the Celtics made 31-35.
14. The Bucks totaled just 14 assists and shot 31-78 (.397) from the field. John Salmons led Milwaukee with four, no one else on the team had more than two, Jennings just one. Rondo racked up 10 of Boston's 15 assists.
1. One assist for Jennings, and he hasn't hit double digits in assists in two and a half months. That seems problematic for a guy who starts every night and hasn't scored consistently, but the Bucks don't really get out on the fastbreak (for example, three total fastbreak points tonight), and Jennings seems to get quite a few hockey assists. Still, though. One assist.
Defending centers. In the four games since Andrew Bogut went down, opposing starting centers have caused Milwaukee little offensive harm. In fact, none have even reached double digits scoring. First it was Joakim Noah (4-7, 8 points), then Brook Lopez (1-6, 5 points), then Samuel Dalembert (3-6, 7 points).
Tonight Kendrick Perkins started in the middle, owner of a 10.8 points per game average and the NBA's highest field goal percentage, 60.8 %. The Bucks went with a number of small-ball lineups, which led to Doc Rivers sitting Perkins for all but 18 minutes, during which Perk missed all four field goal attempts and didn't score a single point.
Leaders of the Bucks. Andrew Bogut led the Bucks offensively, defensively, all over the court. Going to the playoffs without your leader is a bit of a troubling prospect, but this team has no shortage of guys ready to lead. And that was on display all night.
John Salmons continued to lead the team offensively, and just a couple games after getting a technical he again showed a bit of emotion on the court after a particularly absurd call that awarded Boston the ball despite a Celtic clearly and fully bouncing it out of bounds. Brandon Jennings is always plenty confident and went on the offensive against elite defensive guard Rajon Rondo. Kurt Thomas wrapped up Glen Davis, leading to an unfair flagrant foul on him and a technical on Big Baby. Jerry Stackhouse didn't even consider backing down from Paul Pierce, netting them both technicals. Yes, the Celtics lead the NBA in technicals.
And Scott Skiles, who was ejected after a pair of technicals, is the real leader here.
Playoff fun? It's not so much that I dislike the Celtics, but I kind of like to not like them. A fun little rivalry brewin'.
With just a few days left in the regular season, the Celtics and Bucks are currently a playoff pairing. And if this game is about fun in the end, and it is, then this is absolutely the ideal matchup for Milwaukee.
We asked you a couple weeks ago whether you prefer the Bucks to play Boston or Atlanta in the first round and 63 % of you said the C's, at the time of this post. I assume most of the votes were based on which team gives Milwaukee a better chance to win. I maintain that Boston is that team. But all of the extra little things -- namely the chippiness between Brandon Jennings and Kevin Garnett, and Jerry Stackhouse and Paul Pierce, and Rasheed Wallace and the referees, and Tony Allen and possibly someone, and Big Baby Davis and Squad 6 ("You're a Baby") -- have added a bit more zest to these head-to-head matchups. And so a Bucks/Celtics series is the most intriguing possibility, even after a loss, even without Andrew Bogut.
Boston cheer. Lots of Celtics fans. Like, too many. Probably the most for any visiting team aside from the Bulls, who are at least proximite enough to bring fans. It contributes to a fun atmosphere, but it won't be so fun if your first-round playoff opponent gets cheered off the court after a win.
Defense check. Three games after losing Andrew Bogut, the Bucks had climbed all the way to the overall top spot in defensive efficiency before this game. And a 15-point first quarter for the Celtics only seemed to reaffirm that Milwaukee was as good as it gets on defense. But then they gave up 90 points in the final three quarters, a rather unsightly sum, the same number they allowed the entire game to Philly the night prior.
Skiles, after the game.
He didn't have a great statline, but Rondo has owned us in these games so far. He just goes wherever he wants to go. We've got to do a much better job of getting him out of the paint. He causes the defense to collapse, opens up things up for everyone else. We've really struggled to contain him... On the ball, and the guys getting in proper help position, we struggled with that.
Can the Bucks maintain their defensive prowess without Bogut? Jury's out.
Sans Garnett. At this point, Andrew Bogut means more to the Bucks than does Kevin Garnett to the Celtics, but the fact is Bogut won't be back for the potential playoff rematch, and Garnett certainly will. A 15-point home loss to the Garnett-less version of Boston doesn't bode well.