MILWAUKEE -- The Bucks are figuring out how to play without Andrew Bogut pretty quickly, which is good because they don't have much time.
In the two hours and nine minutes against the Nets, they got better and better and better. Granted, there wasn't much room to get worse after allowing 38 first-quarter points to the most hopeless offense in the NBA. Still the Bucks went from losing the first quarter by five points, to winning the final three quarters by five, seven, and nine points respectively.
The defense went from awful to awfully good as the game progressed, allowing 38, 20, 17, and finally just 14 fourth quarter points. And though it was against the historically bad Nets, this win provided reason to hope. For one, the severely undersized frontcourt harassed seven-footers Brook Lopez (1-6 shooting) and Yi Jialian (2-8) into truly forgettable nights, even for guys who are approaching 70 losses on the year.
The Bucks are going to face a pretty serious frontcourt in the playoffs. Whether it is Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett, Al Horford and Josh Smith, or Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis, things are not going to be easy. So this was encouraging.
The Bucks have accumulated 44 wins and counting in large part because they beat the teams they should beat. They are supposed to beat bad teams, even on back-to-backs, and especially at home. So we've learned. The thing is, we don't know exactly who the Bucks should beat anymore, because these aren't the same Bucks. So we're learning.
John Salmons followed up an ace performance against the Bulls with an even better night, scoring 22 points on 13 shots and at this point it is just impossible to overstate his value.
This game featured 12 lead changes and 11 ties, as Devin Harris exploded for 18 rousing first quarter points to keep the Nets afloat for most of the game. The local had it all working, even making all three of his shots from outside in the first period, in spite of a 27.1 % percentage on threes coming in. But he couldn't maintain that pace, no he couldn't score 72 points, and the real problem for New Jersey was that Brook Lopez couldn't score more than five points.
Dan Gadzuric -- despite one lowlight during which he got super-crossed-up and tripped over his feet (check the shoelaces maybe) and fell quite dramatically -- played effective, meaningful minutes.
Indeed, Kurt Thomas and Gadzuric did a real number on Lopez, making sure neither team had a player to simply dump the ball in to get easy buckets. And despite that 38-point first quarter, the Nets ended up shooting 39.5 % from the field as Milwaukee showed more and more signs that they are more defensively than simply Bogut. Two wins without Bogut, and two wins holding the opponent under 90.
Two wins to start without Bogut, and the Bucks actually managed that same feat during their first two games without Andrew back in November. Only they lost the next five without him. So let's just hope the Bucks keep figuring out how to play without Bogut, and get better and better like they did tonight against the Nets. Because five games from now is Game 1 of the playoffs.
John Salmons. So I'm a bit of a Dwyerist, and here is what the man wrote after the win against the Bulls.
John Salmons(notes), who it must be pointed out was absolutely terrible for 90 percent of his year with the Bulls, continued to play well for Milwaukee, tossing in 26 points.
Terrible is hard to believe, but I do believe it. And I more than simply believe that Salmons has been absolutely wonderful for 90 percent of his year with the Bucks. A perfect 6-6 first half let the Bucks hang around, and 10 more points in the second half helped push Milwaukee away from the visitors. The ever-calm Salmons, who didn't get hit with a technical his first five years in the NBA, received a technical in the third quarter. After the game, a smiling Salmons dismissed it as "just talk."
But it's not just talk to say this is the best basketball Salmons has ever played. Timing is everything, you know?
Jerry Stackhouse. Sometimes he looks like a 35 year-old: He turns the ball over at about the same rate he racks up assists, that shooting percentage had plummeted under 40.0 % before the tip, he made one free throw in the last four games coming into the night, and we've seen precious little of that post-up game.
And sometimes he looks like freshest player out there: Getting to the line (4-4), hitting from outside (2-2), posting up and facing and scoring, stealing and dunking, stuffing a young star center.
We didn't get much of the former, but plenty of the latter tonight. Stackhouse is up their in NBA years, but he also just started hoopin' again in January, remember.
Kurt Thomas. All sorts of professional stuff from the new starting center. At one point, with the game tied 66-66, and Thomas (6'9") in the post with the undersized Mbah a Moute (6'8") and against the oversized Brook Lopez (7'0") and Yi Jianlian (7'0"), Thomas fought his way to not one but two offensive rebounds, eventually kicking to Salmons for a corner three to break the tie. And that is how it's going to be from here on: a fight, because Andrew Bogut is simply not replaceable.
But Thomas (12 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block) came a lot closer to replacing Bogut's typical production (15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.5 blocks) than we ever could have hoped.
And the defense on Lopez was very Good...
38. One night after allowing 38 points in the second half against the Bulls (and 47 points in the final three quarters), the Bucks gave up 38 points in the first quarter against the NBA's worst offensive team. And then they gave up 37 combined in the next two quarters.
27. Milwaukee racked up 27 assists to 12 turnovers, compared to a 14/13 split for the Nets. Milwaukee spread the floor, and they spread out the assists; Salmons led the way with only five, and 10 Bucks registered at least one dime. The starting five combined for just four turnovers, one fewer than Brook Lopez.
49. The Bucks' bench came through in a huge way, adding 49 points led by Stackhouse (18), Ilyasova (15), and Ridnour (9). And in some order, those are the three off the bench that the team will rely on to add the offensive spark.
A quiet Brook. We noted how well the Bucks had defended Brook Lopez (10.3 points, 5.7 rebounds) in the first three matchups. And the correct assumption was that Andrew Bogut had a lot do with that. But the tandem of Thomas and Dan Gadzuric frustrated Lopez tonight into his worst game against the Bucks yet, and one of his least productive of his NBA life: 1-6 from the field for five points along with five turnovers.
Lopez always looks a bit upset, but at least that makes sense based on his play versus the Bucks.
Stack's block. This one doesn't top Delfino's stuff on Demar Derozan back in December. But there is something special about a 6'6" 35 year-old rising up to deny a 7'0" 22 year-old so emphatically.
Winning moves. And the reminders about John Hammond's shrewd moves just can't stop, won't stop. Last night, it was John Salmons punching Milwaukee's playoff ticket against the team he was traded from a couple months ago, while Hakim Warrick (zero points, rebounds, assists) watched from the bench for all but four minutes and twenty-one seconds. That was 4:21 more than Joe Alexander.
Tonight the Bucks gave it to Yi Jianlian (2-8 shooting, 11 points in 33 minutes), who appears destined to play pretty ineffective big minutes on bad teams, and there might just be a correlation there with regard to the seven-footer who is shooting under 40.0 %. And you thought it was bad this year's top rookie pick can't crack 40.0 % from the field. Just be glad he isn't three years in and 7'0" tall. Also: Bobby Simmons "plays" for the Nets.
The Bucks of course dealt Yi and Simmons for Richard Jefferson, who gave them a decent year. And then it netted them Kurt Thomas, in what was universally deemed one of the most lopsided trades of the last couple years. And not in Milwaukee's favor.
Happy to have Thomas right about now?
Missing Jefferson much? Or Yi, or Warrick? Maybe Joe Alexander or Bobby Simmons? Even Sessions? When you thank your lucky stars about having so many guys currently on the roster and don't miss anyone who recently departed, that's a pretty good sign the team is making winning moves, and moving in the right direction.
Now just watch Jodie Meeks break our hearts in Philly on Friday...
Slow start. For the second Bogut-less night in a row, the Bucks were blitzed in the first quarter by a bad offensive club. The Bulls rocked Milwaukee 27-14, and New Jersey just torched them for 38 points in the first 12 minutes, mostly the result of Wauwatosa native Devin Harris, who scored 18 all by himself in the opening quarter.
Rough road ahead. First the Bucks hit the road for a date with always-tough Sixers. And then it's all Celtics and Hawks, quite possibly including the playoffs. So if you are a real pessimist (and it would be difficult to be one after this season), you might think tonight could have been the last win of the season.