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Bucks-Spurs: Will the Perplexing Mismatch Continue?

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst INovember 23, 2009

If you were asked to name the team Tim Duncan least likes to play, the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks might come to mind.

Both teams have ended his quest for a repeat championship. Both teams have given the Spurs some matchup nightmares of late.

You would be wrong, though.

The Milwaukee Bucks? If you didn’t know before that Wisconsin’s lone pro basketball franchise has become San Antonio’s unsolvable riddle, you know now.

Duncan’s usual response when reminded the Bucks are on tap? “Yuck.”

If you know this odd mismatch, you understand his pain and fear.

In the 2007 championship season, the Bucks grilled the Spurs twice, scoring 114 points in San Antonio and topping 100 in Milwaukee to end a 13-game winning streak.

If the Bucks had not won a game this year, a la the New Jersey Nets, they would still present a tough roadblock for Duncan’s squad. Instead, Scott Skiles arrives in the Alamo City with a defensive squad and a rookie who have exceeded all expectations.

Potential malcontent and bust Brandon Jennings has been the early star of the 2009 draft class. This writer wondered if preachy and uptight Skiles could co-exist with Jennings. The pair has proven a perfect fit.

A few GMs’ seats could start to feel toastier if the high school prodigy-turned Europe contributor keeps up his spectacular play.

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Jennings already owns a 55-point game and a better scoring average to start his career than a former Milwaukee rookie. Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, was a decent player.

Decent enough to become the league’s all-time leading scorer and a five-time champion with the L.A. Lakers. Decent enough to be regarded by many as one of the greatest winners in the sport’s history, alongside Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.

While Jennings will not join that company anytime soon, his rookie scoring binge makes tonight even scarier for Duncan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Oh, and the Bucks also have an established Spurs killer.

Roko Ukic. I’m serious.

In a February game against the Raptors, Ukic sealed an unlikely Toronto win with a triple and a floater over a Tony Parker and Duncan double-team. Ukic entered that contest shooting a paltry 29 percent from behind the arc. His shooting percentage on layups, even uncontested ones, wasn’t great.

Parker managed to contest both shots, and Ukic still scored twice to cap off a career-high, 32-point night. Then, the Spurs wasted 33 points from Manu Ginobili, who was darting through the lane and scoring at will. The next night, team doctors would shelve the Argentine slasher, and he would not be the same again.

Such inexplicable performances have defined the Spurs-Bucks series. Anything can happen, even when most of it shouldn’t.

If Luke Ridnour catches and dunks a lob pass from Ersan Ilasyova tonight, it would fit the Bucks 12-8 record over the Spurs in the Duncan era. Which is to say nothing fits.

Most mismatches can be reasoned. The Spurs have struggled to contain versatile Mavs forward Josh Howard because defensive attention has focused Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. Even in his prime years as a pest, Bruce Bowen couldn’t stop three guys at once.

Pau Gasol’s addition has made the rest of the Lakers tougher to defend for everyone in silver and black.

Should we chalk Milwaukee’s success up to dumb luck? Probably not, but the Bucks do accomplish rare things against the Spurs.

Jennings will start opposite another point guard with a 55-point game on his resume. Popovich hopes a seasoned Tony Parker can tilt that matchup in the Spurs’ favor.

Spurs assassin Michael Redd and center Andrew Bogut will not play due to injury, but Charlie Bell and Carlos Delfino provide troublesome firepower on the wings.

One Spurs advantage: They grabbed a valuable two-way performer from Bucks GM John Hammond this summer. Maybe after years of torture, Hammond decided to show some mercy in the form of a gift. Instead of a fruit basket, he sent Richard Jefferson to San Antonio.

Jefferson’s athleticism will help a lot in tonight’s matchup. He leads the team in dunks, field goal attempts, and free throw attempts.

Two disadvantages: One of the players included in that June deal, Kurt Thomas, will want to show his former club what it traded away. As will Spurs castoff Fransisco Elson.

You would be stupid not to credit Thomas for helping this young Bucks team start strong. His presence has always synchronized locker rooms.

He played for the Sonics in their last year in Seattle. Look what Oklahoma City is doing now.

Bogut, who is out at least two weeks with a leg injury, usually shows up for contests against Duncan with rage and an apparent vendetta. His absence will unclog the paint a bit on both ends, as less effective Dan Gadzuric will be forced into the starting lineup.

The NBA thought so little of the scrapped Bucks that its schedulers buried them in the first-week of action. No team played its firs game later than Milwaukee.

How could a squad with injury-plagued Redd and no other stars compete in any conference? Could a team that let Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions walk even compete in Conference USA?

To the shock of many, the Bucks have emerged as the kind of team many thought the Washington Wizards would be.

Revived with a more consistent commitment to defense, Milwaukee could reach the postseason.

You can put one person in the "not surprised" category when it comes to the Bucks' winning ways.

Oh, Duncan knows. Yuck.

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