So let's just put this out there: the Milwaukee Bucks are the most entertaining team in basketball right now.
Zany characters (Drew Gooden), overachieving role players (Ersan Ilyasova), intriguing youngsters (Ekpe Udoh), a new backcourt that could be either great or disastrous (Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis), and an unselfish, up-tempo approach--why wouldn't you want to root for these guys?
Best of all: they're actually winning now, too.
Playing their second straight game against an otherwise solid team that went into rebuilding mode last week, the Bucks cruised to their second straight blowout road win, dispatching the ailing Blazers thanks to a blistering 58% shooting night and a fourth straight 30+ assist game from Scott Skiles' crew. It was nothing if not a team effort and it showed in the box score, as Jennings, Ellis, Gooden, Carlos Delfino, Mike Dunleavy and Beno Udrih all scored between 14 and 19 points while hitting 50% or better from the field.
The win allows Milwaukee to keep pace with the surging Knicks for the last playoff spot in the East, but the real test is likely to begin Thursday when the Bucks start a stretch of three games in three nights, including home games against the Celtics and Pacers. While the Bucks' recent win streak has largely come at the expense of teams going nowhere, they'll now have to show they can keep it going against teams ahead of them in the standings. Consider it an opportunity--both to make up ground on the pack they're chasing and to prove that their recent run of improved play is more than a fleeting glimpse at the team's true potential.
Gooden's 13 first quarter points helped the Bucks edge to a 25-23 lead after one, but they would begin to run away early in the second. Blazer subs missed all 14 of their first half shots and Portland was fortunate to trail by just 11 at the half, as the Bucks began to get easy buckets galore in transition (21-9 edge in fast break points). To characterize the Blazer transition D as "disinterested" would probably be a bit charitable, and even the most paranoid Bucks fan probably didn't see much of a threat from Portland tonight--whether it was the game's tempo or the body language of the players on the court, it was obvious which team was gunning for a playoff spot and which team had effectively thrown in the towel at the deadline.
While the Bucks looked energized and in rhythm, the Blazers just seemed ready for the worst and couldn't get anything going against a Bucks defense that challenged shots at the rim and on the perimeter. LaMarcus Aldridge continues to soldier on and finished with a nice line (21 points on 11 shots, 12 rebs) while Wes Matthews had his three point touch working (5/7 threes, 21 pts, 9 rebs), but the Blazers could never string enough stops together to muster a serious challenge after the first quarter, and their bench and starters didn't do them any favors in the second and third quarters, respectively.
Monta Ellis. Ellis was scoreless in the first quarter (0/3) and took just eight shots overall, but he played in the flow of the offense and really hurt the Blazers off the bounce, creating easy buckets for teammates (nine assists) and finding his own shot as the game went on (4/8 fg, 14 pts). It's only two games, but initial signs are certainly encouraging that Ellis can share the ball with Jennings and the rest of his pass-happy teammates.
Ellis' best sequence of the game came early in the third after the Blazers had cut the lead to 58-49: first he buried a corner triple off a feed from Ilyasova, then followed it up by blocking a cutting Nicolas Batum's layup attempt, recovering the ball and leading the break the other way. Pushing the ball to the heart of the defense, Ellis drew a swarm of retreating defenders before dishing back out to a trailing Delfino, who ripped the open three and forced a Portland timeout.
Drew Gooden. The reigning Eastern Conference player of the week did most of his damage in the first quarter (13 of his 19 points) and kept up his unselfish ways the rest of the way (5 ast). It's the sixth straight game in which he's totaled at least four dimes.
Carlos Delfino. Jennings (15 pts, 6 ast), Dunleavy (15 pts) and Udrih (15 pts, 4 ast, 4 stl) could all be mentioned here, but let's give a nod to Delfino for breaking out of his recent slump with a 6/8 shooting night that featured 4/5 threes as well as five boards, two assists and two steals.
35. Two games after their NBA season-high 38 assists against Cleveland, the Bucks nearly matched it with another 35 helpers in Portland, becoming the first team since the Suns in 2007 to notch 30+ assists in four straight games. As usual, the playmaking was contagious and by committee, as four Bucks recorded at least four assists.
Interestingly, the Bucks totaled as many rebounds as assists, as they allowed the Blazers to outrebound them by a 44-35 margin despite Milwaukee's huge advantage in fg% (58% to 35%). As you might guess, that's not normal--because the defensive team gathers 70-80% of all rebounds, a team that shoot significantly better from the field should have a big advantage on the boards. In case you're wondering, the only time the Bucks managed more assists than rebounds this season came in the home win over the Spurs back in January (31-30).
2/29. The Blazer bench's cold shooting doomed any hope Portland had of keeping the game competitive, as they missed their first 23 shots and finished a cringe-worthy 2/29 from the field while scoring nine points. Meanwhile, the Bucks bench got it going in the second half and finished with 45 points on 35 shots, including 15 each from Dunleavy and Udrih. Both players continue to look completely at ease coming off the bench, and Udrih's sparkling form of late raises serious questions about how much we'll see going forward from Shaun Livingston, who returned from an ankle injury to get some fourth quarter garbage time minutes.
4. Ekpe Udoh blocked four shots, grabbed six rebounds and had three assists in 16 minutes, gamely defending LaMarcus Aldridge at times and generally making it very difficult for the Blazers to score inside. He's not a true center like Bogut and he has monstrous defensive shoes to fill, but I think we're all going to really like this guy.
Passing. When they pass, move and make open shots this team is a joy to watch. Not coincidentally, Milwaukee has averaged 32.3 assists per game during the current win streak.
New kids on the block. Ellis hasn't exploded offensively in either of his first two games, but I think everyone will be OK with that so long as the Bucks keep winning games by 22+ points...just a hunch. While many (this guy included) wondered how the Bucks could integrate another diminutive, shoot-first guard into a Brandon Jennings-led offense, the two seem to be enjoying each other's company so far and have been playing within themselves as well.
Meanwhile, Udoh has begun to provide flashes of the kind of dominant interior defensive presence the Bucks have been missing since Bogut went down with his ankle injury in January. It's early and Udoh won't ever rebound like Bogut, but the Bucks will need him playing like this consistently if they're going to straighten out their defense this season.
Plus. Every Buck managed a positive +/- for the evening, and that seemed about right.
Knicks win. We've debated the merits of the 8th seed time and again, but at this point there's no use fighting it: this team needs to be in the playoffs. They're simply too interesting to be a lottery team, even if the franchise needs another quality youngster more than a first round loss to the Bulls. So it's with disappointment that I report the Knicks won yet again tonight, maintaining a half game lead over the Bucks for the coveted final Eastern playoff spot.
Back-to-back-to-back. The Bucks kick off their only three-games-in-three-nights stretch of the season on Thursday, hosting the 7th seeded Celtics in what will hopefully be a rocking Thursday night at the BC (how often have we been able to say that?). Things get easier Friday night in Charlotte, and you'd expect the Bucks to be rather focused after losing to the Bobcats on opening night, before finishing things off on Saturday night at home against the Pacers.
Ill-yasova. Ersan was listed as day-to-day following a bout with bronchitis that kept him out of the Golden State game, but he returned to the starting lineup with a fairly anonymous seven points, four boards and four turnovers in 22 minutes. I'm just tickled that we feel entitled to complain about Ersan when he isn't racking up double-doubles. I think they call that progress.