Watching the Milwaukee Bucks alternately sputter and surge against the plucky Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, you could only conclude that, contrary to their performance in Boston on Friday night, the Bucks are decidedly not perfect.
I know, earth-shattering stuff.
And yet a modest two games into the 12/13 NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks are still, at least as far as records go, perfect. It took slightly more than 48 minutes of basketball on Saturday to confirm it, though, as Brandon Jennings' tie-breaking catch-and-shoot three pointer fell through the basket only after the buzzer sounded against the Cavs.
Friday night's outcomes--a blowout win for the Bucks in Boston, a blowout home loss by the Cavs to Chicago--suggested a more comfortable result would be likely in the Bucks' 45th home opener. But the uneven execution we saw from Scott Skiles' team against a middle-of-the-pack opponent on Saturday should serve as a reminder that this club is still a work in progress, and one that is unlikely to backpedal its way to easy wins.
And as it turns out, there are few easy wins when Kyrie Irving is playing at his best. Irving (27 points, 10/18 fg, 33 min, 7 ast) was simply devastating down the stretch, scoring 13 straight Cavalier points to close the game as the Bucks struggled to contain the ball-handling dynamo one-on-one or in P&R. Irving worked expertly with Anderson Varejao (20 points, 10/13 fg, 17 rebs) all night and kept the Cavs in it despite trailing by as many as seven in the final two minutes, scoring seven straight in the last 88 seconds to erase the Bucks' seemingly safe 102-95 lead.
But for one night at least the Bucks' depth proved more useful than the Cavs' individual star. Skiles' starters were outplayed at the start of both the first and third quarters, with Sam Dalembert looking particularly lethargic and Tobias Harris getting a pair of quick hooks for some rookie moments trying to contain Alonzo Gee (16 of his 18 in the first half, 6 ast and some very good defense on Brandon Jennings). Ersan Ilyasova wasn't helping either, bricking seven of eight shots and doing next to nothing other than taking a couple well-timed charges.
Monta Ellis (23 pts, 8/20 fg, 4 ast, 5 to) wasn't bashful about trying to keep the Bucks in it early and led the Bucks with ten first quarter point to help keep things respectable, though my cynical side would note that he was also wielding an especially itchy trigger finger on long twos. Fair warning: this is a topic you can expect me to bemoan as long as he's a Buck.
Enter Larry Sanders and Mike Dunleavy, whose energy and long-distance marksmanship (respectively) inspired a 14-0 run that saw the Bucks turn around a 22-10 early deficit with runs of 11-0 and 18-1 in the late first and second quarters. Not that this should be terribly surprising; we all know the Bucks' advantage most nights will come from their depth, and it was particularly obvious against a Cavs team whose bench is painfully thin (note: 6/24 fg).
But the Cavs invariably cut back into the Bucks lead whenever Irving and Varejao returned to the court, and by halftime the Bucks found themselves up by a mere six points despite shooting over 60% from the field. The third delivered similarly poor results from the starting five, with Skiles once again showing a quick hook for Harris and Dalembert. But the Bucks weren't able to run away from the Cavs' second unit this time around, and needed a respectable effort from their best five--Jennings, Ellis, Dunleavy, Ilyasova and Sanders--to rebuild a seven point lead inside of two minutes.
Irving would see to it that the Bucks' sense of security was short-lived, however. Predictably, Jennings and Ellis were more interested in running clock than any semblance of an offense in the final few possessions, with each hoisting up and airball to keep Cleveland's hope alive. This isn't unique to the Bucks of course. The "run the clock down" offense late in games is the hoops equivalent of the prevent defense: everyone does it, it doesn't work very well, and coaches don't seem to care. Rinse, repeat.
Trailing by two with 10 seconds left, Irving would complete the Cavalier comeback with a contorting finish to cap a length-of-the-court drive, but Jennings would have the last laugh. With Dunleavy inbounding from sidecourt, Jennings would curl around a secondary screen to flash to the top of the key, receiving Dunleavy's perfect pass and in one motion squaring to his right for a good look at a straight-away three as the red light came on. You know the rest:
Mike Dunleavy. Saturday saw Dunleavy put on his best Larry Bird impression and he came away with his finest performance as a Buck, reminding us that Tobias Harris starting at small forward has little bearing on Dunleavy's status as the team's best wing player. The Cavs were curiously insistent on hedging off Dunleavy to help defend against Ellis and Jennings, who connected with Dunleavy five times in both halfcourt and transition.
But while no one will say this is a typical performance from Dunleavy, it also never felt surprising either (well, aside from the rebounds). There's little question that he's the team's best pure shooter, and he probably owns the best basketball brain on the roster as well. When he shoots, you expect it to go in. When he passes, you expect it to go to the right guy. It's difficult to ask for much more from your sixth man, and with James Harden now starting in Houston we'll hopefully see Dunleavy with a better shot at the sixth man of the year award come next spring.
Larry Sanders. Anyone object to throwing Sanders into the starting lineup at this point?
Sanders' defending was once again chaotic, challenging and disruptive--90% in a good way, 10% in a "why are you fouling everyone all the time?" kind of way. Speaking of which, it was a bit confusing to see Sanders stoking up the crowd after he fouled out allowing a three point play opportunity to Irving in the final two minutes, but everyone in the building loved it. And yes, I was in the building and I also loved it, Kyrie Irving's three point play be damned.
For the second straight night he was also a highly efficient finisher, connecting on eight of his nine shots en route to a career-high 17 points, seven boards and four blocks. This wasn't just dunking either; aside from a steady diet of dunks around the basket, Sanders also finished a shaky spin and lefty hook shot in the lane (note: I was shaking my head at this one), a shot clock-beating jumper late in the fourth (somebody had to take it) and a highlight reel cross-over drive and throw-down in the same period. This wasn't just the "keep it simple" Larry that we've been raving about over the past month, but when he's doing all the simple stuff it's easier to accept some freelancing on the side. Here's a complete video summary:
Brandon Jennings. Jennings didn't look for his shot much all night and played off the ball more than usual, particularly when the Cavs put the bigger Gee on him for much of the third quarter. Jennings' inability to take advantage of his quickness advantage against Gee was probably the most frustrating part of the night from my vantage point--it's nice that Jennings can defer to Ellis and let someone else initiate offense, but Ellis and Jennings seemed to spend way too much time dribbling the ball 35 feet from the basket, causing many possessions to start later in the clock than you'd prefer.
Either way, it's probably a good sign when a so-so night still ends in a game-winning shot and a double-double, right? Jennings' 13 assists tonight weren't as flashy as in Boston and seemed much more dependent on Dunleavy and others making jump shots, but that's OK. After all, it's not like Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo rack up double-digit assists every night on dunks alone--there's no complaining about Jennings tying his career-high in assists twice in the span of 24 hours. Defensively, Jennings didn't do a particularly poor job on Irving, though the decision to pressure the ball on the Cavs' last possession led to Jennings being rubbed out by a screen at midcourt and forcing Ekpe Udoh to deal with Irving's drive on his own.
62-15. Just a monster night from the Bucks' bench, which combined for 62 points on 71% shooting.
32. The Bucks cracked the 30 assist mark with shocking regularity down the stretch last season, but I have to say I was a bit surprised to see them end up with such a big number tonight against the Cavs. The offense wasn't entirely fluid, but the Bucks shot well enough from the perimeter that it didn't matter.
-4. Seeing his first minutes as a Buck since the 02/03 season, Joel Przybilla was a -4 in a little less thin five minutes of action, which would normally barely even qualifies as a statistical footnote. The interesting part is that Przybilla was the only player for either team who broke with a pattern: every other Buck reserve was +8 or better, every Buck starter was -7 or worse, every Cav reserve was -14 or worse and every Cav starter was +11 or better.
Bench. Dunleavy and Sanders have been great, but Udrih (11 pts, 5 ast, 0 to, +20) and Udoh also deserve mention here for their supporting roles in the season's opening weekend. The upside is that Skiles really hasn't needed the injured Luc Mbah a Moute or John Henson yet, nor has he been tempted into playing Drew Gooden a single minute through two games. Hold your applause--remember that Gooden barely played before Bogut's took his personal absence early last season, too.
I think we've seen too much of Skiles to believe that the Bucks will settle on a consistent bench rotation for an entire season, and some of that is understandable. Aside from his own random rotational whims, Skiles doesn't like letting guys rot on the bench for weeks on end (good news, Drew!), and as Bucks fans we know better than to expect our team to go through a full season with relative good health (sigh). Thankfully, Skiles only has two players who border on unplayable (Przybilla and Daniels), and even they can be useful in some situations.
Speaking of Mbah a Moute, he was putting up shots at the BC before changing into his suit and tie for introductions. As mentioned yesterday, Gery Woelfel reports that Mbah a Moute's return is still a matter of weeks rather than days, but stay tuned.
Brandon the Point Guard. Two games, 26 assists. Can this last?
Send 'em home happy. It's not rocket science: win early on the court, and it's much easier to win off the court. I'm not expecting fans to come charging back to the BC at the first sign of a decent team--look how quickly people gave up on the team after the Fear the Deer season--but it's also silly to think that Milwaukee fans need a championship contender before they'll start to care about NBA basketball again.
As an aside: I was at the game with a dozen people, and it couldn't have been more diverse as far as interest in the Bucks went. On the one hand you had fellow BrewHoopers Dan Sinclair and Steve von Horn, who similarly live and die with all things Bucks. And on the other hand you had a bunch of my East Coast friends who inexplicably agreed to meet in Milwaukee of all places for a November reunion weekend. Everyone went home happy, and more than a few of my non-Buck fan friends commented on how the fun game was even aside from the obvious last-minute excitement.
Thankfully, this was the kind of game where you really didn't need an interest in the Bucks or the NBA to go home happy: after sitting on their hands during intros, the crowd was roused from its slumber by the bench's efforts in the second quarter, and the back-and-forth final quarter kept everyone on the edge of their seats even before Jennings' dramatic game-winner. No one's really sure where the current iteration of the Bucks will end up come April--an encouraging playoff showing or spontaneous combustion before the end of the year seem equally likely at this point--but there's no better time to play well than now.
Break it down. Thirty-two assists and 52% shooting would suggest a fluid offensive night, but it really didn't feel that way from our seats in section 215. The Cavs' P&R hedge-and-recover scheme was executed rather brilliantly all night, and it meant minimal forays into the paint by Jennings. Ellis had more luck, particularly against Dion Waiters, but he also seemed to do much of his damage on those long-two jumpers that he loves and which many of us, um, struggle with.
Starters. So how bad do the starters have to fare before it's worth worrying about? It's not surprising that the Bucks' bench would be more successful in a relative sense than the starters (again, the whole depth vs. top-end talent thing), but that's no excuse for the starting unit to hemorrhage points in the first and third quarters. It's not worth freaking out after just two games, but it was beginning to become a trend in the preseason as well.
So what can be done? Well, some of it is self-imposed--no one forces Skiles to bring Dunleavy off the bench. But Dalembert has played just 25 minutes in his first two games, which seems about right given how little he's brought to the table early in both games. He'll get better, but it'd be nice if it could happen quickly, particularly with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph coming to town on Wednesday.
Offensive rebounds. The Bucks grabbed a measly three offensive rebounds all night on Saturday--1/12 of the total rebounds available (3 of 36) when you'd typically you'd expect them to grab about a quarter of their own misses. I'm not losing sleep over this in the same way that I'd worry about a deficit on the defensive boards, but it did lower their overall efficiency.