While the Bucks' playoff hopes remain alive, there's no escaping the gravity of Milwaukee's' down-to-the-wire home loss against the Knicks on Wednesday: a win would have brought the Bucks even with New York record-wise and given them the critical head-head tie-breaker going into the season's last fortnight. Instead, Scott Skiles' team now finds itself trailing the Knicks by two games plus the tiebreaker, with precious little margin for error ahead of a trip to Detroit in what is essentially a must-win.
Programming note: This game is being shown on FS-Wisconsin's alternate channel due to the Brewers game, which means Time Warner Cable subscribers may not be able to watch the game. Similarly, Ted Davis and the radio broadcast will be heard on 1250 WSSP in the Milwaukee area. (h/t Steve and ks13and1)
Rewind. Remember February 3? Back then the Bucks were 10-11 and kinda getting things together, having reeled off three straight home wins over the Heat (season's high point?), Lakers and Pistons. And then they went to Detroit, where Brandon Knight and the 4-20 Pistons promptly dealt them a momentum-killing 88-80 loss that began a streak of 13 losses in 18 games. Ouch.
Since then the Pistons have quietly played some rather respectable ball, winning 17 of their subsequent 33 games to claw their way to tenth (albeit six games behind the ninth-seeded Bucks) in the East while plummeting to eighth in the lottery standings. So take heart, Bucks fan--Piston backers know a thing or two about NBA purgatory, too. The Bucks have meanwhile won half of their games in the interim (34 in total), following up their 5-13 stretch with 13 wins in their last 19 games.
Bucks on the run. When these teams last met in Detroit, the Bucks entered with efficiency splits of 102.5 pts/100 for (17th) and 102.4 against (16th) with a pace of 92.4 (10th). But they've been playing much faster and looser since, with their offensive (105.9) and defensive efficiencies (105.4) both ballooning by over three points/100 while their pace factor has risen to third overall in the league (93.4).
Don't feed the Moose. The Bucks know as well as any team how good Greg Monroe is, having seen the sophomore big man destroy Andrew Bogut to the tune of 32/16 in the teams'' first matchup at the BC this season. Monroe ranks fourth among all centers in PER, scoring efficiently (56.3% true shooting) and beasting on the boards (18.3% rebound rate) despite not getting as many shots as you might expect of one of the league's best young post players.
That's been especially true of late, and Monroe hasn't been particularly thrilled about it, noting ahead of the Pistons trip to Charlotte on Thursday that other players (read: Knight, Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon) had become more of a priority of late. And I haven't even mentioned Tayshaun Prince, who inexplicably leads the Pistons in field goal attempts despite an awful 47% true shooting figure. Either way, Monroe backed up his comments against the woeful Bobs on Thursday, scoring 25 on 14 shots to go with 11 boards in Detroit's easy win in Charlotte.
Knight and Daye. While Joe Dumars appears to have hit a home run with Monroe--picked one spot after Ekpe Udoh, by the way--I'm having a tougher time figuring out Knight (8th overall in 2011) and Austin Daye (15th overall in 2009). Daye has been a huge disappointment this season, hitting a fantastically awful 32.4% of his shots (39.9% TS) while playing his way out of the regular rotation. The news is better for Knight, who at 20 has become a staple of the Pistons' starting lineup and still has plenty of time to figure things out. Still, Knights' shooting and assist figures are both well below average, and he'll need to make major strides if he's going to be the long-term PG solution in Detroit.
Hunt: Bucks need to start thinking bigger
Over at the Journal-Sentinel, Michael Hunt weighs in on what might be next for the Bucks after their disappointment against the Knicks:
Let's face it. The trade for Monta Ellis, who was a daring scorer against the Knicks with 35 points, wasn't meant to make the Bucks seriously competitive this season.
It was made to hold their place until they can finally get control of their payroll and maybe find the right pieces to get them out of this NBA no-man's land.
Though he spends much of the piece taling about the Bucks' need for a legit big man, Hunt also defends the Bogut trade on the grounds that the Bucks weren't going anywhere with the Australian as their center piece, and it's that premise which I find to be the only vaguely satisfying justification for dealing away Milwaukee's only all-star caliber player. Don't get me wrong, the Bucks might well come to regret the move and it's generally sad that Bogut's tenure in Milwaukee would have to end in such disappointing fashion. But the myth of the Jennings/Bogut core had been exposed for some time and a broader reconfiguration of the team was clearly in order. If nothing else, cashing in on Bogut for a pair of quality players and cap relief was the first real indication of the Bucks' acceptance of that fact. Maybe Jennings should have been the one to go first, but it's not as though his long-term future in Milwaukee is assured either. And the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
As for this season, missing out on the playoffs would no doubt be a major disappointment to the organization, especially given that the Bogut deal was premised at least in part on giving the Bucks' additional ammunition for this season. For what it's worth I'm not quite ready to bury the Bucks' playoff chances once and for all; I wouldn't put a stumbling finish past the Sixers (who have six of eight on the road to close the season including one game in Milwaukee) or Knicks.
Even so, the symbolic value of making it to the playoffs may not be of much more practical value in the long run than narrowly missing out and picking a few spots higher in the lottery, which was the main reason why I didn't find myself mired in a deep depression after Wednesday's game (I'm not sure if this makes me a cynic, a stealth tanker, an optimist, a pessmist, or some combination of all of them). Would it be easier to feel excited about the team if they managed to slip into the playoffs? Sure, and that's especially true for casual Bucks fans (read: most of them) who tend to lose interest unless the team is playing well. But is picking 11th in the lottery that much worse than a first round loss to the Bulls (and their invading fans)? Is it worse at all? I'd say reasonable people could disagree.