Milwaukee got a much-need victory Thursday night against the Indiana Pacers, a key win as the Bucks look to secure their playoff spot late in the season. It came on the back of an unlikely hero, Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks' up-and-down power forward exploded for a career-high 34 points on a spicy 12-14 shooting line (5-6 3PT, 5-6 FT). He blitzed the Pacers early, outscoring Indiana 17-15 by himself in the first quarter as the Bucks build a massive early lead.
Few would have predicted Ilyasova as the guy to lead Milwaukee's offense in a critical game, but is that skepticism justified? For as easily overlooked as he's been this season, Ersan has actually played quite well over the last few weeks, and in doing so has positioned himself as a key player in Milwaukee's stretch run to the playoffs.
His full-season raw numbers aren't going to turn any heads: 11.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game on 48% shooting from the floor. But in the 18 games he's played since the All-Star break, he's been productive and consistent, continuing a trend that began in November but was short-circuited by injuries in December and January. He's scored in double figures in 16 of those games, sinking at least one three-pointer in each of those 16, and has six double-doubles. His overall averages in that stretch are 15.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game with 44.9% three-point shooting on a healthy 4.3 attempts per game and a sterling true shooting mark of 58.5%. He leads the team in PER during that span (19.1) as well, and over the full season no one other than Brandon Knight has scored more points per minute. Increased minutes are part of the story -- he's averaged almost 30 minutes per night since the break after playing under 18 minutes per contest before it -- but his efficiency numbers are all way up as well.
As helpful as the sheer production has been, the spacing Ilyasova provides with his ability to hit jumpers from midrange and behind the arc can't be overvalued. Khris Middleton is the only other reliable shooter among Milwaukee's starters, meaning players who thrive in space like Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo often find their driving lanes clogged with defenders. And though he still has a tendency to make things more difficult on himself with those herky-jerky pump fakes and stepbacks, Ilyasova is definitely making his mark. Since February 22, the Bucks have scored 14.1 more points per 100 possessions with Ersan on the court than when he hits the bench. For context, plus/minus wizard Khris Middleton has a 10.5 offensive rating split in that same time frame, though Middleton's defensive rating split is also excellent.
And to be sure, defense remains something of a concern for Ilyasova. He can struggle a bit with the aggressive help and recover scheme Milwaukee employs under Kidd, and his defensive rebound percentage is down quite a bit from its peak a few years ago. But Ilyasova has always been a more capable post defender than his reputation suggests, and nobody denies his effort or ability to take a charge.
Overall he's still some way from Peak Ersan, but ending this season on a roll should give the Bucks a valuable weapon in the playoffs, a player who lets them do things they simply can't do without him. The Bucks were surely hoping to get production like this every year when they signed him to a $40 million contract back in 2012, but with one more fully guaranteed season on his deal they'll happily take it now.