The Bucks have been getting increasingly creative with their losing of late, but they still can't figure out how to lose to the New Jersey Nets.
Admittedly, that might be a mixed blessing for Bucks fans wondering how the team can salvage anything but a middling lottery pick from the next two months, but one thing everyone should be pleased by: the refreshingly awesome play of Ersan Ilyasova, which reached new heights on Sunday night with career-highs of 29 points (11/23 fg) and 25 rebounds (13 offensive) in 36 minutes. Less awesome were the Nets, who bricked their way to a ninth consecutive loss against Milwaukee, a streak dating back to 2009.
After snapping an eight game skid by surprising the Bulls in Chicago on Saturday, the Nets came crashing back down to earth (in this case, New Jersey) on Sunday, testing the durability of the Prudential Center's rims with an abysmal first half that saw them clang their way to 23% shooting from the field. The Bucks didn't exactly run away and hide, but after trudging to a 43-36 halftime lead they took control early in the third. Carlos Delfino buried threes on the Bucks' first two possessions of the second half, and Brandon Jennings (6/15 fg, 15 pts, 7 rebs, 4 ast) extended the Bucks' edge to 58-40 with a triple less than four minutes into the third. After a slow start, Deron Williams (26 points on 24 shots, 6 ast) helped the Nets close to within five in the final minute, but the Bucks' 13th win was never seriously threatened.
Brook Lopez made his long-awaited regular season debut, but he mostly looked like a guy who hasn't played in three months, drawing plenty of fouls but doing little else (2/7 fg, 5/11 ft, 9 pts, 2 rebs, 22 min) against the Bucks' vertically-challenged front line.
Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova's playing the best ball of his career over the past month, but there was still nothing expected about what he did on Sunday night. Ersan tore down 11 boards in the first quarter and had 14 in the first half by doing exactly what he's been doing all season: throwing his body at the ball, beating guys with his second, third and fourth jumps, and winning seemingly every 50/50 ball. You've seen all this from Ersan before, just never this many times in a single game. Ilyasova outworked the slow-footed Lopez and the rest of the Nets from the opening tip, grabbing nearly a quarter of the Bucks' missed shots (13 of 53) all by himself, getting free time and again around the hoop, and even offering up a drive and dunk past Lopez in the third.
Luc Mbah a Moute. After starting 14 straight games, the Prince reacted about as well as Scott Skiles could have hoped to his Friday night DNP: playing with energy (eight rebounds), attacking the rim rather than settling for jumpers (12 points on 5/9 shooting), and making life complicated for the Nets' big men.
Shaun Livingston. We could have gone with Brandon Jennings here, but Livingston was the Bucks' primary playmaker most of the night and pieced together a nice night (10 points, 6 assists, 1 to) despite finding zero luck with his jumper (1/9 fg). Also not to be overlooked: a solid night defending MarShon Brooks (3/14 fg, 12 pts).
29/25. Ilyasova's career night deservedly takes all the headlines tonight, matching Dwight Howard's NBA-high for rebounds in a game this season. It's also the Bucks' first 25/25 game since Swen Nater dropped 33/30 back in 1976. Best performance by a Buck since...?
40%. Jennings made 40% of his shots for the third time in eleven games, missing his last three shots to finish 6/15 fg. Unfortunately, he hasn't made a higher percentage since hitting 8/15 on January 30.
37. Made shots and box outs were at a premium for much of the evening, as the two teams combined for a whopping 37 offensive rebounds (21 by the Bucks, 16 by the Nets). While Ersan will deservedly get the headlines, Shelden Williams also nabbed nine offensive rebounds and 15 overall for the Nets.
Ersanity. Ilyasova's shooting efficiency might be down this season, but his hustle game has been nothing short of fantastic, as evidenced by the career-high 18.4% rebound rate he carried into tonight's game. Though his rebounding binge probably has at least a little bit to do with Andrew Bogut's absence, his rebound rate is also miles ahead of the solid-but-not-great 14.1% he registered last year and the career-high 15.5% of two years ago.
The other big positive for Ilyasova has been his reliable touch from deep. Though his accuracy inside the arc has declined--his long two percentage is down from 48% to 36% and his at-rim finishing is also lower (59% to 56%)--his three point touch is now nearing 43% for the season after failing to crack 30% last year.
Now what do they do with him? You'd think Ilyasova and his expiring contract might be worth a mid to late first round pick at this point, a payoff that would be rather useful to a Bucks' franchise a) in need of assets and b) unlikely to accomplish anything of significance this season. Then again, we know the Bucks' brass really doesn't want to wave the white flag on yet another season, even if the odds of Ilyasova returning next season are modest at best.
Road warriors. After losing their first eight road games of the season, the Bucks are now 6-3 in their last nine games away from the BC. Go figure--especially considering they've lost five in a row at home after starting the year 7-2. So assuming you want the Bucks to win games and make the playoffs, maybe it's bad news that 19 of their final 35 games are in Milwaukee.
Defense. No one will claim the Nets are a finely-oiled machined on the offensive end, but let's give the Bucks' much-maligned defense a bit of credit. Milwaukee's defensive energy deserves a good chunk of the blame for the Nets' 34% shooting, while the Bucks also earned a 53-43 edge on the glass, including 28-15 in the second half.
Purgatory. The Bucks are still 2.5 games back of Jeremy Lin and the surging Knicks for the final playoff spot, and they're also a game behind the Cavs for 10th in the lotto standings. Choose your own adventure?
Bench. The Bucks' reserves have been Milwaukee's biggest strength most of the season, but Mbah a Moute was the only non-starter to contribute more than two points tonight. Bucks reserves not named Mbah a Moute shot just 3/15, as Mike Dunleavy, Stephen Jackson and Beno Udrih were all non-factors. The absence of Drew Gooden (wrist/knee) and Tobias Harris (shoulder contusion) didn't help either.
The Brandon streak. Jennings was hardly a negative on the floor tonight, but his fg% continues its descent towards the 40% mark.