If you had asked me before last night’s game just how well two teams coming in on late flights for the second game of a back-to-back would look, I’d have said it would be an ugly slopfest. The Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic did their very best to live up to that hype, though it was Milwaukee who persevered to a 111-100 victory.
Though, admittedly, it didn’t look like it’d be too bad if the first quarter was anything to go off of. While Orlando took a bit to get into gear, the Bucks were throwing all sorts of strange combinations out there: Donte-Ersan pick-and-rolls, Brook Lopez post-ups, Khris Middleton isos, and a whole bunch of other work from an all-sub unit to end the quarter gave Milwaukee a 37-25 lead.
Then things began to slow a bit for the Bucks. Threes weren’t falling all that reliably (the team would shoot 2-10 from distance in the second), only six points were ground out in the paint, and the first instance of a gummy offense without a “true” guard to helm it or Giannis to distract opponents showed up. A 56-46 cushion at the halfway mark looked promising given the okay play.
It wouldn’t have been a strange back-to-back if there wasn’t one hellacious quarter, though, and the third stepped in wonderfully to play the role. What jumped out most was Milwaukee’s inability to continue to get tight passes through corridors of defenders and a few instances of miscommunication. The difficult job Khris Middleton (21 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds) was saddled with was made that much harder by a 9 turnover frame. While the Bucks were stuck in the muck, Jonathon Isaac (19 points, 9 rebounds), Nikola Vucevic (21 points, 9 rebounds, 7 steals), and Evan Fournier (23 points, 3 rebounds) came somewhat to life on the way to a measly 78-74 Bucks lead.
Like a scene out of a movie, however, Ersan Ilyasova (17 points, 14 rebounds) stood tall to stem the proverbial tide. You might ask what Ersan did. I’ll tell you what he did: Everything. Tipped passes, offensive rebounds, three-pointers off of Vucevic assists, stingy defense when called upon. More than anyone else it was Ilyasova’s stretch of frenetic play a few minutes into the quarter that sparked a 9-1 Bucks run that would keep the team permanently ahead on their way to the well-deserved win.
Ersan, Ersan, Ersan
I could continue to wax poetic about just how much fun/important Ersan was tonight, but I’ll let coach Mike Budenholzer take it away:
“He’s been great all year, I think just so many nights he gives us great minutes and production. Feels like he came off this summer playing for his national team and was in a good rhythm, and just the way he shoots it and then the 14 rebounds tonight. Just so many good things, and him in the pick-and-roll game, just so smart. It’s just great to have him, we feel like he’s a starter we can bring off our bench.”
Now, not to quibble too much, but George Hill is truly the team’s starter who comes off the bench. That notwithstanding, we should all continue to marvel at Ilyasova’s ability to really turn things up even if only for a few minutes. He might not have the speed to keep up defensively in tight moments, but damn does the man have a nose for the right play.
Revenge of the Subs
Both Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez (10 points, 3 rebounds, 3 blocks) were able to break double-digit scoring, but it was the usual bench crew who really carried the team tonight. If we count Ersan as part of the Bench Mob, that group churned out 68 of Milwaukee’s 111 points, led also by wonderful outings by both George Hill (17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) and a can’t-miss shooting night from Robin Lopez (17 points, 3 rebounds). The Bucks weren’t necessarily going to be able to out-talent the Magic’s starting unit with their own slapdash top five, so a win was going to come off the back of the rest of the roster stepping up again. They did so emphatically.
Point guards: They’re sorta important
It’s moments in games like last night which really drive home how important having some semblance of a “real” point guard can be even for a team as ball-handling fluid as Milwaukee. Khris Middleton did a solid job deciding when to attack and when to bail himself out passing to a teammate, and oftentimes the ball-movement would continue unabated regardless of the player. However, outside of George Hill nobody available truly had a lot of comfort with being the point of attack. Worry as we may about Bledsoe in the playoffs, and head-scratching as his shot selection can be on some nights, he is undoubtedly high-level when it comes to taking the ball and penetrating in a way that clears the decks for Giannis & Co. Get well soon, Bled.
Bonus Bucks Bits
-Thought this bit from Budenholzer before the game regarding experimentation offensively to be interesting if only to understand his mindset when it comes to regular season flexibility:
“[Experimenting] is a tough balance, especially because we love to play out of motion so much, we love to play fast and random. I think that’s where we want to live 70-80% of the time, so there’s an even smaller pie to figure out how are we going to work on these other things, not just to get comfortable, but get where we’re executing well and getting good shots, guys are doing good things. So... I don’t want to say my job is hard, but it’s hard to figure out how to get all those things done but, I’ll probably show up tonight and still do it. My best at least.” (note: the last line was delivered in typically Budenholzer dry humor)
-In years past Nikola Vucevic would get his numbers via nasty interior scoring thanks to his sheer size. Now, with the Lopii around it’s a bit more difficult for him to feast inside. That doesn’t stop him from getting numbers from the perimeter either, but it’s just another example of an inside force pushed elsewhere by Milwaukee’s personnel.
-Aaron Gordon did not return after the half due to Achilles soreness. Given how important a piece he is for Orlando that’s a tough blow to handle midway through a game.
-Last night was my first experience as a credentialed member of the media. I was lucky enough to represent Brew Hoop at the Fiserv Forum and thoroughly enjoyed myself. All my thanks to all of you wonderful readers/commenters for making this community what it is; my being there last night wouldn’t have happened without you.
The Bucks are back at things on Monday as they head to Chicago to face the Bulls.