Andrew Bogut is expected back in the Bucks' starting lineup for Milwaukee's MLK Day matinee with the Sixers in Philadelphia.
Inline Sixers. Who says you need a superstar to win big? While it's still early, the Sixers have been the feel-good story of the NBA season to date, storming to an Atlantic Division-leading 9-3 record and the league's best efficiency differential despite lacking an obvious offensive superstar. After finishing 7th defensively and 17th offensively a year ago, Doug Collins' squad enters Monday's game an impressive 1st and 4th, respectively. In other words, they're not just squeaking by opponents--they're crushing them. Philly enters Monday's game having won eight of nine, with the last two coming in a home-and-home sweep of the Wizards in which they outscored Flip Saunders' sorry bunch by a combined 44 points. They haven't had the roughest schedule--the current streak includes home games against Detroit, Toronto and Sacramento in addition to road games in New Orleans and Oakland--but they're simply taking care of business.
Four factor fun. Philly's success has come thanks to a stifling, athletic group of perimeter defenders and a young, balanced offensive attack featuring seven double-figure scorers. The offense is led by perennial Buck-killer (and sixth man) Lou Williams (16.1 ppg on 56.6% true shooting), with Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday leading the starters with a modest 14.3 ppg each. Thad Young is once again the other bench star for Philadelphia, adding 12.4 ppg on 55.6% true shooting. Glance at the stat sheet and you probably wouldn't figure Philly for an offensive juggernaut, but they quietly rank third in eFG% and have the lowest turnover rate in the league, offsetting mediocre marks in drawing fouls (22nd in free throw rate) and offensive rebounding (27th). Simple as it sounds, the stout Sixer defense has been built on forcing misses: they rank 1st in eFG% allowed and sixth in opponent free throw rate, but are middle of the pack in both forcing turnovers and defensive rebounding.
In defense of the Bucks. Scott Skiles will be hoping that Bogut's return will help tighten up a porous Buck defense. Milwaukee ranks third in forcing turnovers but 21st or worst in eFG% allowed (21st), free throw rate allowed (27th) and defensive rebound rate (26th)--somewhat understandable when you consider that Bogut has been in and out of the lineup and Luc Mbah a Moute has missed all but one game.
Pace is the Trick. Both teams have increased their tempo this season, which helps explain how the Bucks have improved from the worst fast-break team in the league last season (10.0 ppg) to middle of the pack this year (12.7 ppg, 13th). Philadelphia is not surprisingly even better at 18.2 ppg (4th).
Above the Rim. The Sixers lead the league in finishing at the rim (72%), though they're just 26th in total attempts around the hoop. Meanwhile the Bucks have improved from dead last a year ago to 15th currently (65.5%), and they're virtually even with Philly in points scored at the rim per game due to their higher number of attempts (14.2/21.6 vs. 14.3/19.8).
Brandon's Shot. Brandon Jennings' shooting percentage might be the most obsessed-over individual stat in Milwaukee, and so far, so decent. Jennings enters Monday's contest with a downright healthy shooting line of .443/.357/.811, compared to .384/.352/.813 in his first two seasons. Some good trends: he's made 15/29 from distance over the past six games and 7/9 in his last three. He's also made at least half his shots in six of 11 games so far this season including three straight. The biggest factors in Jennings' improvement has been better and more frequent finishing at the rim (60% of 4.5 fga this year vs. 51.4% of 4.0 attempts last year) as well as his more respectable performance from deep. That said, he'd be even better if he got to the line more regularly--through 11 games his free throw rate is actually down slightly from last season.
Jennings will face a major challenge keeping up those numbers against Philly, which has the aforementioned top-ranked defense and an excellent defensive PG in Jrue Holiday. Both Jennings and Holiday struggled in the two teams' matchups last year: Jennings shot just 30% in three games against Philly, while Holiday was more accurate (40.5%) but averaged 4.3 turnovers in four games against the Bucks. So far the 21-year-old Holiday's numbers haven't shown any improvement in his third season, but something tells me that will change. Meanwhile, Bucks' backup PG Beno Udrih practiced on Sunday and could play as well.