Milwaukee Bucks: road warriors!
It's not a title that has been bestowed upon the Bucks unironically in quite some time, and yet here we are. Three road games into the 2012 season, the Bucks have claimed three wins--so for at least one more day, they can lay claim to owning the NBA's very best road record and the top spot in the NBA's Central Division.
Early as the season may be, that's still something to be thankful for. And while we're giving thanks, we should probably start with Brandon Jennings (33 pts, 8 ast, 5 rebs, 4 stl). Coming off a Saturday night clunker and matching up with the recently extended Jrue Holiday, Jennings once again showed that hell hath no fury like a motivated Brandon Jennings.
The Bucks wasted no time getting started in Philly, pushing the tempo early en route to hitting their first eight shots--which was fitting, because this was nothing if not a game of runs. Tobias Harris' confident finishes and Samuel Dalembert's movement against his old team highlighted a 19-12 start, and the Sixers continued to look slow-footed defensively for much of the first half. The Bucks shot a blistering 65% en route to a 62-50 halftime edge, with the Sixers applying surprising little pressure on the perimeter while struggling to challenge shots around the basket. The good news for Philly started with Holiday, who brought the Sixers back into it in the second quarter by dissecting Beno Udrih and a disorganized Buck defense, slicing to his left time and again to either get to the rim or set up Dorell Wright (14 first half points) or noted Buck-killer Jason Richardson (20 points on 16 shots) for open threes.
The Bucks (and Harris in particular) seemed all too interested in sagging off their assignments when Holiday and others made the vaguest move to the bucket, and Richardson and Wright predictably made them pay with a combined seven threes between them. Wright's fourth triple of the half gave the Sixers a 45-43 lead midway through the second quarter, but that's when Jennings took over.
Jennings would score 13 in the final four minutes of the half to keep the Bucks in control, twice punishing Holiday for going under screens with triples and artfully reversing home a fast break lay-in after racing past Spencer Hawes. The downside was that the Bucks' 12-point halftime lead could have been twice that if not for their 13 turnovers in the first two periods, as Ellis and Udrih (three each) were particularly guilty of trying to make plays that weren't there.
Still, the good times continued in the third quarter and the Bucks looked like they might be on the verge of a blowout when Harris, Ellis and Jennings propelled the Bucks to a 16-point lead midway through the period. But then came another one of those runs. With Richardson, Holiday and Thad Young finding increasing room to operate, Philly ended the period on a 24-8 run to tie the game going into the fourth, as the Bucks came apart at the seams on both ends. Shots stopped falling, turnovers became more creative (example: Larry Sanders blowing a dunk and then hanging on the rim anyway), and you began to wonder if Philly might just run away a bit.
Enter Jennings once again. Spencer Hawes put the Sixers ahead to start the fourth, but the Bucks didn't wilt and Jennings would eventually reel off nine straight Buck points. The Sixers wouldn't lead again. Jennings didn't mind going up against defensive "specialist" Royal Ivey one bit, attacking the former Buck on a number of occasions and finishing at the rim three times in the final period. The fact that Ivey's presence also gave Jennings a mostly free pass on the defensive end also helped, and in general it felt like the Sixers' lack of depth was more of a story line than the Bucks' embarrassment of bench riches. Wright was the only Sixer reserve who looked remotely dangerous--sorry Nick Young!--and even he failed to score a single point in the second half after ripping off 14 in the first.
But in the end it was the Bucks' big names who simply outperformed their Philly counterparts. Holiday's poor decision-making (eight turnovers!) ignited two Milwaukee fast breaks, Ellis and Jennings both broke down the Sixer defense for layups, and Ellis sealed it with a drive-and-kick for Mike Dunleavy's open three that made it 103-93 with just under three minutes remaining.
Brandon Jennings | 12/21 fg, 4/9 threes, 33 pts, 8 ast, 5 reb, 4 stl, 2 blk, 1 to
Jennings' opening night was nice, but this was more dominant--and more in control. Whereas Jennings' signature shots in Boston seemed to be a series of off-balance floaters, tonight it was about going straight to the rim and taking advantage of the Sixers' lack of size up front. The Sixers weren't terrible in P&R--Ivey was particularly diligent in shading Jennings to force him right--but Jennings found seams to exploit going to the basket in halfcourt as well as transition, and the Sixers' lack of size/shot-blocking up front was evident in his sterling 7/7 night of finishing at the rim. Considering both his attempts and conversion rates had been way down through five games, that's a great sign and hopefully indicative of what we'll see more of going forward.
Mike Dunleavy | 4/6 fg, 2/3 threes, 13 pts, 5 reb, 3 ast, 2 to
I nearly had a stroke when Dunleavy made two bad passes and missed a three pointer in the span of a single quarter tonight, but I guess this how we know that the man is mortal. Just another efficient, productive night from the Bucks' most reliable player.
Ekpe Udoh | 22 min, 2/5 fg, 7 pts, 5 rebs, 2 blk, 0 pf
Ellis might seem like an obvious choice for the top three, but Udoh and Sanders helped deliver critical stops down the stretch while Ersan Ilyasova (again struggling with his shot) and Sam Dalembert (looking better) mostly watched from the sidelines. Udoh corralled four defensive rebounds to double his season total (seriously, Ekpe...) and blocked a pair of shots without committing a foul, helping stifle the Sixers down the stretch.
23. The Bucks' scoring prowess was matched only by their agonizing penchant for turning the ball over, and all too often those turnovers ignited Philly's offense going the other direction. The Sixers scored 29 points off the Bucks' 23 turnovers while the Bucks managed 21 off Philly's 15 turnovers.
+25. We've grown accustomed to seeing the box score +/- numbers severely tilted towards the Bucks' deep core of reserves, but tonight it was all about the stars. Jennings was a game-high +25 and Ellis was a strong +17, while Beno Udrih was an uncharacteristic -16.
10. The two teams combined for just 10 offensive rebounds, with the Bucks besting the Sixers in the all-important defensive rebounding department: Milwaukee nabbed an excellent 91.3% of Philly's misses, while the Sixers were also quite good (82%)--but not good enough.
Star power. I love the bucks' depth, but it's kinda nice to see the Bucks' supposed stars get it done down the stretch, isn't it? I'm not going to lie, I was worried that Ellis' penchant for going iso-heavy and jacking up mid-range jumpers might derail the Bucks' late game effectiveness, but both Ellis and Jennings continued making plays for others down the stretch, none bigger than Ellis' drive-and-kick for Dunleavy's three late in the fourth.
Roadhouse. Not only have the Bucks won all three of their road games, but they've all come against Eastern Conference foes who they could be tussling with for playoff positioning next spring. And while it'd be nice if the Bucks were better than 1-2 at home, it's difficult to complain about where the Bucks currently sit in the standings.
Weathering the storm. The Sixers are hardly at full strength right now--you may have heard this Andrew Bynum fellow will likely be out until January--but they came into Monday's game having won three straight on the road and look the part of a playoff team with or without Bynum. Like last year, this is the kind of team the Bucks have to measure themselves against, and beating them early in the season (injury-plagued or not) is the kind of thing that will be critical to determining if the Bucks live up to their own potential or not. While Philly didn't look at the top of their game, they came at the Bucks in waves, and in previous years that might have seen the Bucks crumble under the pressure. But so far the Bucks are passing those tests and responding like a team that knows it can play. While Ellis has been up-and-down thus far, his ability to handle the ball and create offense makes life much easier for Jennings, and their shared penchant for gambling with passing lanes and ball pressure has helped more than its hurt.
Give it away. The Bucks' inability to hang onto the ball both offset some of their excellent shooting AND gave the Sixers too many opportunities to run out. Avoiding turnovers was a strength of the Bucks a year ago, but it's been an Achilles heel so far this season (23rd in TO Rate).
Close outs. How many times do Jason Richardson and Dorell Wright need to be left wide open before you realize they will kill you on spot-up threes? Apparently a whole bunch of times. Some of this was collapsing on penetration in half court, some of it not finding a body in transition, but overall the Sixers' open looks (10/24 threes) helped them stick around much longer than the Bucks would have liked.
Ersan. Different game, same story. Ilyasova continues to look hesitant with his jumper and has been a non-factor on the offensive boards this season: he's attempting half as many shots at the rim this year and converting a dismal 25% through six games, which can likely be attributed in large part to his offensive rebound rate plummeting by more than 50% so far. Is it purely a matter of confidence? Did Ilyasova benefit that much from Drew Gooden's ability to pull big men out to the perimeter and clear lanes for rebounding and cutting?