What can the Nets and Bucks do for an encore?
Three months after Jason Kidd returned to Brooklyn with a triumphant (and riveting) triple-overtime win, the Nets make their first visit of the season to Wisconsin hoping for some payback, while the Bucks will be hoping to keep their mojo going into the all-star break. Milwaukee has won six of seven following Saturday's too-close-for-comfort win over the Celtics, including four straight at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Among the fun storylines in Milwaukee these days: Brandon Knight (20.7 ppg, 8 apg, 10/21 threes over his last three games) is making a late case to replace Dwyane Wade on the East all-star roster, while reigning player of the week (!) Giannis Antetokounmpo has been doing new and fantastic things on a nightly basis.
Looking ahead a bit, Kidd and the Bucks close out their pre-all-star schedule with home games tonight and Wednesday against the Kings, with the chance to improve to 30-23 if they take care of business both nights. That seems doable given where both the Nets and Kings sit in the standings, though tight squeezes against the Lakers and Celtics should serve as reminders that there's no such thing as a gimme for the Bucks. On the one hand, the Bucks' effort virtually guarantees competitiveness -- only six teams have fewer double-digit losses than Milwaukee (7), and it's been two months since the Bucks last lost a game by more than eight points (12/9 @OKC).
On the flip side, the Bucks have also been so shorthanded that you can't blame them for struggling at times -- no one expected this club to be in the playoff picture even with good health, so for them to be competing AND winning so regularly speaks volumes about the team's effort and coaching. They don't have much margin for error, but of late they haven't needed it either.
Brooklyn saw its three-game winning streak snapped (and then some) over the weekend, as the Wizards throttled them by 37 in DC. The Nets shot just 33% overall with Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Alan Anderson combining to miss 22 of 26 shots, though Brooklyn had been playing much better heading into that game.
Interestingly, Brooklyn's success has coincided with Brook Lopez coming off the bench, and so far it's working out well for both Lopez and the team. The veteran big man has averaged 21.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 2.4 bpg in 34 mpg over the past five games, including a 19/8 effort while starting in Garnett's place in Washington.
The bench hasn't been so kind to Deron Williams; he's been used as a reserve since returning from an ankle injury four games ago and has shot just 2/17 from the field over the past two games. Fortunately for Lionel Hollins, Jarrett Jack has been picking up the slack with 19.2 ppg and 7.6 apg in 39.4 mpg over the last five contests.
Williams is now back (although not back), but Mirza Teletovic is out for the season after doctors discovered blood clots in his lungs. Scary stuff. Kevin Garnett was rested against the Wizards because it was the second night of a back-to-back, so look for him to return tonight.
As for the Bucks, Zaza Pachulia (calf) is listed as questionable, Kenyon Martin (ankle) is doubtful, and Larry Sanders remains suspended until further notice from the league. Sanders' suspension reached 10 games on Friday, but he'll be out indefinitely until the league determines he's complied with his rehab requirements. When that happens? Your guess is as good as mine, though the Bucks (remarkably) haven't been missing him in spite of their spate of injuries.
The Nets are below average in both offensive and defensive efficiency terms, which makes sense when you look at their four factor splits:
The Nets have been above average in only one of the eight categories -- they're 12th in opponent free throw rate -- which seems to summarize the overall situation in Brooklyn. Yes, they have some veteran talent, and Lionel Hollins had a history of coaxing phenomenal defense out of the roster he had in Memphis. But it doesn't add up to a team that right now appears to be particularly good at, well...anything.
Key Matchup: Giannis vs. Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett
Antetokounmpo's length and energy bothered Johnson throughout the overtime periods on November 19, with the win capping arguably the best game of Giannis' career up to that point (18 pts, 12 rebs). Though he's been seeing time at all three frontcourt positions of late, Giannis on paper will again be matched against Johnson, who despite the thumping in DC was talking a big game heading into tonight's affair:
"We'll go into Milwaukee fresh and there will be no excuses," he said of a team that had Sunday off. "I'm sure we should come out of there with a win."
Of course, recent history suggests Giannis could end up seeing as much or more time facing off against the likes of Garnett and the Nets' other big men. Giannis has seen more minutes at power forward than on the wing overall this season, and with the Bucks' current lack of big man depth he's been racking up major minutes at both big spots.
Though he's as prickly as ever, Garnett couldn't contain Jabari Parker (23 points) when the teams faced off in November, and given Jared Dudley's perimeter orientation it's very possible he's tasked with checking Giannis tonight. Oh, and an extra level of intrigue? Check out how similar Giannis and KG's per minute stats were as second-year players: