The Milwaukee Bucks' improbable season still has a long way to go, but it's now officially one for the history books.
On Wednesday the Bucks became the first team in NBA history to double its prior year win total before the all-star break, recording their 30th win of the season in a 111-103 decision over the Sacramento Kings at the Bradley Center. As usual the Bucks' strength was in their diversity, leaving Sacramento to play defensive whack-a-mole for most of the night. Khris Middleton (11 of his 15 points in the first half) and John Henson (all of his 12 points plus four blocks in the opening half) did the business early, Brandon Knight (20p/6r/5a) couldn't be stopped in the third (14 pts), and O.J. Mayo (21 points on 14 shots) was all the Bucks needed in the fourth (10 pts). Giannis Antetokounmpo added another 13 points and seven boards, a bit pedestrian by some of his recent performances but certainly solid by mere mortal standards.
The only obvious bright spot for the Kings was a rather familiar one. All-star big man DeMarcus Cousins put up another monster statline with 28p/19r/5a/4b, though Henson and the Bucks' help defense did frustrate him at times, limiting him to 4/13 shooting in the first half and five turnovers overall. Rudy Gay added 17 points on 12 shots, but the Kings never showed more than a wandering focus on the defensive end and didn't really threaten the Bucks after drawing within a 66-64 margin midway through the third quarter. That's when the Bucks reeled off a 21-5 run to break the game wide open, with Knight shaking off an anonymous first half to score 14 in the period including the Bucks' final 10 points. Sacramento then hung around in the fourth, but the game never seemed like it was too close to slipping away, assuring Tyrone Corbin a losing end to his brief tenure leading the Kings' bench.
It's the first time the Bucks have cracked 30 wins before the all-star break since 1991, which speaks volumes about just how far (and quickly) this team has come in the 10 months since Larry Drew's trainwreck squad finished the 13/14 season a miserable 15-67. The Bucks' scrambling defense didn't have its best night against the Kings, but the offense picked up the slack with timely shooting (49% overall, 7/15 from three) and drew enough fouls to keep Sacramento comfortably out of reach for most of the second half. It marks the Bucks' sixth straight win at home overall, and the first one in a couple weeks that actually felt fairly comfortable. The only downside? With the newly extended all-star break beckoning, they now have to wait nine days to keep their momentum going at the Bradley Center a week from Friday against the Nuggets.
-- It was revealed during the game that the NBA had officially reinstated Larry Sanders following his 12-game drug suspension, which meant his absence tonight was once again due to personal reasons. So when will Sanders be back?
Jason Kidd says there will be discussions during the break about a potential return to the team by Larry Sanders.— Andrew Gruman (@AndrewGruman) February 12, 2015
Kidd said Jorge Gutierrez was able to play tonight due to an injury exception.— Andrew Gruman (@AndrewGruman) February 12, 2015
-- Gutierrez's second 10-day contract will expire next week before the Bucks' return to action Friday against the Nuggets, at which point they would have to sign him for the remainder of the season or waive him. Unfortunately, Jerryd Bayless also left Wednesday's game in the first quarter with a hip flexor injury, so Milwaukee's need for point guard depth isn't getting any less acute, and Sanders' possible return only further complicates matters. The team was only able to initially sign Gutierrez due to Sanders' roster spot opening up midway through his 10-game suspension, so the fact that both were on the roster tonight meant another exception had to be used. Presumably the injury exception was granted due to Milwaukee missing four players for at least four games: Kenyon Martin's absence for a fifth straight game and the season-ending injuries to Jabari Parker, Kendall Marshall and Damien Inglis. What happens when Martin returns? Your guess is as good as mine (should Johnny O'Bryant be worried? I don't know).
-- Giannis wasn't a real focal point of the offense tonight, though he still managed to scrape together a solid line in his usual Giannis ways. He got to the rim for a couple tidy finishes in the first quarter, then collected a steal and monster slam as part of the Bucks' key third quarter run:
He also spent much of the night right in Rudy Gay's grill defensively, limiting him to 12 total shots and four turnovers in 38 minutes. Gay took it to him a couple times and shot a solid 7/12, but his overall impact was muted.
-- Henson was terrific early on, hitting 5/6 shots in the first half and swatting four Sacramento shots to help Milwaukee to a 52-47 halftime lead. He handled Cousins' bulk about as well as could be hoped, challenging shots in the paint and relying on help defenders to gang tackle Boogie into a poor shooting half. Unfortunately, Henson then picked up a couple quick fouls (and a technical) early in the third to send him to the bench, but the Bucks managed to make their run without him.
-- Is Khris Middleton the Bucks' new go-to post guy? After a shaky first half on Monday, Middleton got himself into the game against the Nets by burying turnarounds on three post-up plays in the third quarter; tonight he got into it right away, shooting over the likes of Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas in the first quarter. In case you're curious, Middleton isn't eligible for an extension right now, but the Bucks will have matching rights on any offer he receives when he hits restricted free agency on July 1. Considering what he's doing at the moment, don't be surprised if Middleton demands a deal in the $8-10 million range.
-- Even Johnny O'Bryant had his share of moments tonight, grabbing a Herculean (by his standards) four defensive rebounds and scoring four points in 14 minutes. And while the Bucks have recently seemed to be at their worst with JOB on the court, tonight they were a team-best +14.