After toiling in anonymity the past few seasons, things are finally on the up and up for the Milwaukee Bucks. In fact, based on their 104-87 victory over the New York Knicks, they finally have a realistic opportunity to make the playoffs.
A foreword should be included that the Knicks were severely short-handed after dealing away their top two scorers, and played with only seven able bodies (Eight if you include the quasi-banished Stephon Marbury who didn’t see any action). Still, Milwaukee’s own All-Star, Michael Redd, missed the game with an ankle injury and Richard Jefferson played as if he had been traded.
The Bucks weren’t fazed a bit and romped. Good teams jump on bad teams when they’re down, and persevere when their best players are out or struggling.
Like any Scott Skiles-coached team, Milwaukee’s success was predicated on defense. Every dribble, every pass, every catch, every drive, every rebound, every shot, and every loose ball was challenged. Players moved their feet, they pressured passing lanes, they had their hands up on every shot attempt, they covered for one another, and their close outs were exemplary.
Knowing New York’s proficiency from beyond the arc, the Bucks made sure to charge hard out to the perimeter to prevent open looks. They didn’t go under any screens, their bigs showed hard on the far side of the screen, and the guards did a great job of funneling the ball carriers away from the screen and into help.
Most impressive of all was the non-stop hustle and enthusiasm showed by Milwaukee on that side of the ball. For down-in-the-dumps franchises, that’s usually the first step, and the toughest step, to becoming a formidable team again.
As for the specific cast of characters?
If Andrew Bogut is slow off the floorboards, and if his post moves are deliberate and mechanical, he boxes out and earnestly hunts down rebounds, sets sturdy screens, and possesses an effective right hook over his left shoulder from the right box.
Bogut’s rebounding (17 REB), passwork (3 AST), and simple post offense (7-11 FG) were too much for the Knicks to overcome and he can certainly be a serviceable center on a playoff-caliber team.
Luc Mbah a Moute outworked the Knicks all by himself. Of his 13 boards, nine came in the first quarter alone. He contested everything in his area, hustled, bustled, and played with the kind of energy that can win games all by himself. If he’s too thin to box out more muscular players, and too inexperienced to know how to defend, his non-stop motor alone is a viable asset.
Richard Jefferson was passive and never seemed into the game (4-16 FG, 1-6 3FG, 1 REB, 0 AST, 11 PTS). While his defense was fine, the Bucks will have trouble scoring against good teams if RJ plays sleepwalking.
Charlie Bell made some bad passes, posted Nate Robinson for a layup, and played good help defense. He can certainly be a contributor off the bench,
Luke Ridnour harassed Chris Duhon for the duration and made it impossible for the Knicks to cleanly get into a set. If he got nailed by every screen he met, and if he had trouble defending Chris Duhon one-on-one, his quick hands picked up four steals fueling Milwaukee’s break.
On the other end, if his jumper is still inconsistent (especially on the catch), his superb handles, great instincts, good court vision, tricky running layups, and wonderful passing skills are back after a lost 2007-08 campaign in Seattle.
Ramon Sessions also is a pesky defender with lightning hands. Like Ridnour, Sessions keeps his head up while penetrating allowing him to see the whole court and make the right pass. Like Ridnour, Sessions is a poor jump shooter. However, unlike Ridnour, Sessions has great body control and a fearless nature allowing him to be an effective finisher despite his size. Sessions is also a mite better at defending his man straight up.
While the point guard spot was deemed a weakness heading into the season, the Bucks are in better hands with Ridnour and Sessions than with Mo Williams at the helm.
Charlie Villanueva still shoots too much, still turns his head defensively, still doesn’t attack the defensive glass as hard as the offensive one, and still misses his share of layups. But with his ability to fill the basket, Villanueva can be a valuable main scorer of a second unit.
Francisco Elson turned his head, made several faulty rotations, and scored in the post and off the dribble. There are worse backup centers to have.
Joe Alexander plugged a three-ball, kept his hands up, and played with energy.
Tyronn Lue was able to scoot and shoot.
Malik Allen moved the ball and made a difficult jumper.
When Michael Redd comes back, he’ll further open up the floor for Jefferson, Ridnour, Sessions, Bogut, and Villanueva to create one-on-one, and his shooting will add another dimension to the offense.
So what do the Bucks need to help their quest of making the postseason?
- Michael Redd to return ASAP.
- From here on out, every opponent must be decimated by trades.
- More low baseline screens for Richard Jefferson. When Jefferson was able to curl off a low baseline screen his jumper was spot on, and he has the ability to make nifty passes to the roller should big men show hard on the screen.
- Non-stop hustle all the time.
- A two-way power forward who can post some and hit jumpers.
If the Bucks don’t tune out Skiles’ constant barking, and continue to buy in to his perpetual demands for energy and hustle, then the they'll be in good shape to hang around .500 and make the playoffs. Considering Milwaukee’s recent history, they’ll gladly take it.