The Milwaukee Bucks as a basketball team? Pretty so-so.
The Milwaukee Bucks as 48 (or more) minutes of tension, weirdness and quality entertainment? Well, that part they seem to be getting down.
Fresh off an encouraging road sweep of the Rockets and Mavericks, the Bucks should have been looking to lay the wood to a Raptor team that a) had lost three straight b) had played the night before and c) was playing without leading scorer Rudy Gay, which in theory should not help them. This last point is debatable, but you know how it is.
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Instead, the Bucks went down to the wire for the sixth time in as many games since the all-star break, struggling to put away a not-so-mighty Toronto team before finally pulling away in overtime while rolling up a season-high 122 points in the process. All those points not surprisingly came courtesy of a slew of encouraging stat lines: the always-overlooked Ersan Ilyasova continued his excellent run of form with 29 points (12/21 fg), 11 boards and a number of critical plays on both ends down the stretch, while Brandon Jennings made up for yet another off-kilter shooting night (3/12 fg, 11 points) by obliterating his career-high with 19 assists and burying a game-cinching corner three in overtime.
Less surprising was another 13-point, 12-rebound, 5-block night from Larry Sanders, while Monta Ellis continued to do the "good Monta" thing with 23 points (9/18 shooting), five boards, five assists, three steals and just two turnovers. Oh, and J.J. Redick continues to do what J.J. Redick does, dropping in 16 points on 12 shots while playing the final 24 minutes of the game. Honorable mention goes to John Henson, who helped stabilize the Bucks in the second quarter with eight quick points in seven minutes, and was promptly never heard from again. That was a recurring theme for the Bucks' bigs: Boylan played Henson, Ekpe Udoh and the doghousing Sam Dalembert less than 10 minutes each, with Redick (35) and Dunleavy (20) the only reserves to crack double-digits in PT.
The Bucks needed all of those big nights to offset a balanced Toronto team that had seven players in double figures, including 19 points on 9/11 shooting from former Buck/Buck-hunter Amir Johnson, a just-barely-triple-double from Kyle Lowry (10 points, 10 rebs, 10 ast) and 36 points combined from Gay stand-ins Alan Anderson and Landry Fields. Fields did his work early while Anderson did his late, scoring 11 in the fourth as including a surprising drive-and-dunk past Larry Sanders of all people with just two seconds left. That came after Ilyasova had tipped in a (predictable) Ellis mid-range miss to give the Bucks a 104-102 lead inside six seconds.
Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova failed to hit a three for just the second time in 19 games, but he scored almost every other way in hitting 12/21 from the field and totaling a not-quite-season-high 29 points. He scored off the bounce in the first quarter, twice finished off respectable-looking post moves that weren't fadeaways, buried all sorts of the mid-range stuff we've grown accustomed to, and rolled to the hoop for a series of finishes as well. Matched up with Andrea Bargnani for much of the night, Ilyasova soundly outplayed the former first overall pick (4/14 fg, 11 pts) and took a big charge in overtime in addition to scoring six in the extra period.
Brandon Jennings. I'm not sure if Jennings was actually the second best Buck on Saturday night (OK, he wasn't), but his 19 assists were a fair representation of his most unselfish night in the NBA. Jennings had nine assists before finally sinking his first basket of the game just before halftime. The Bucks' hot shooting certainly helped Jennings' assist totals, but he also created his fair share of easy buckets and it was most certainly a different Brandon from what we're used to seeing. See all his assists and points below:
Larry Sanders. There was a time when 13 points, 12 boards and five blocks from Sanders would have had us high-fiving for days. Now? Just another game from the Bucks' most valuable player, who was once again a hugely disruptive interior presence and converted 75% of his shots to boot. Sanders' early foul trouble was a major contributor to the Raptors' 32-point first quarter, which is rather predictable: Sanders' value is as obvious when he's off the court as it is when he's on it.
32. Jennings' career passing night fueled a 32-assist night for the Bucks, who hit 50% of their shots on their way to an overtime-assisted season-high in points.
7. Seven Raptors hit double-figures, as different guys hurt the Bucks throughout the game. Early on it was Fields and Johnson hurting the Bucks inside, while in the fourth it was Alan Anderson and John Lucas III killing the Bucks from deep.
+11. The Bucks' offensive aggressiveness was a big story all night, manifesting itself in a 25-14 edge in free throws made.
Three Guards. The Bucks' trio of guards played more or less what you'd : Jennings seeing the lion's share of point guard time, Ellis doing a bit of everything (making shots! defending DeMar DeRozan!) and Redick scoring efficiently off the bench (and defending pretty damn well, too). While the Raptors' 114 points doesn't speak well of the Bucks' defense, both Ellis and Redick deserve plenty of credit for limiting DeRozan and Anderon to a combined 14/41 shooting.
Ersan. While we seem to spend most of our time talking about the Bucks' combustible guard rotation and the defensive brilliance of Sanders, let's take a minute to acknowledge that Ersan has been rather fantastic over the last 19 games: 17.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.7 bpg, 1.3 to on sizzling .524/.516/.800 shooting. That's good for 62% true shooting and is making Ilyasova worth every penny of the $7.9 million he's being paid this season.
Getting by. Like it or not, the Bucks are all about the here and now (I'm trying to suppress Tobias Harris-induced pain as I write that), which means there's nothing more important than continuing to scrape out wins and making up ground on the 7th seeded Celtics. Make no mistake, the Bucks won't be threatening anyone in the playoffs so long as they're playing this inconsistently, but any hope of making noise would seem to rest in catching Boston and avoiding Miami in round one. Milwaukee is now 1.5 games behind Boston with the tie-breaker and a game in hand, plus 3.5 back of sixth seeded Brooklyn with three games in hand.
Nothing easy. These are the kinds of games the Bucks need to win more handily, but for whatever reason they always seem to dig themselves early holes and/or struggle to put teams away in fourth quarters. In their last 29 games they've won just two games by double figures, a pretty remarkable figure for a team that's once again above .500.
Amir the Great. The Bucks haven't had any answers for Johnson (19 points, 9 rebs, 9/11 fg) in either of their games this season, as not even Sanders was able to prevent Johnson from getting deep position throughout the game. The only thing that could seemingly stop Johnson was foul trouble, as Ilyasova drew Johnson's sixth foul on a charge with three minutes remaining in OT.