Tuesday, it was the starters. Wednesday, it was the bench.
For the first time all season, the Milwaukee Bucks strung together a back-to-back set of games where the first unit drove the Land Rover of victory one night, only to have the second unit jump start the stalled vehicle on the way to another win 24 hours later.
By Jake McCormick
Of course, beating the Washington Wizards 95-76 on the backs of Brandon Jennings (23 pts, 10-20 fg, 3-9 3fg, 5 rbs, 4 asts, 3 stls), John Salmons (22 pts, 7-14 fg, 2-5 3fg, 5 rbs, 5 asts), and Andrew Bogut (14 pts, 7-13 fg, 9 rbs, 7 asts) was expected to be an 82-game plan of attack rather than a pleasant surprise. And a 110-90 thrashing of the D-League-worthy Cleveland Cavaliers without Baron Davis and Antawn Jamison should be analyzed less critically than a Twilight book.
The Bucks starters were fairly sluggish at the start of Wednesday’s game, despite the extra rest after beating the Wizards in three quarters the night before. Milwaukee committed five turnovers that led to eight Cavaliers points, and entered the second quarter trailing Cleveland 27-24 and making Samardo Samuels look like one of the best players on the court at times.
Coach Scott Skiles has never been afraid to shake up his rotation like it’s a vending machine holding a Reese’s bar hostage. His choice to let the Bucks bench take over happened to pay out a few unexpected candy bars, as the second unit rattled off 33 of Milwaukee’s 39 second quarter points on 12-16 shots and 8-9 free throws to give the Bucks a 62-49 halftime lead.
Contrary to recent trends, Milwaukee’s starters came out with guns blazing to start the second half, tallying 88 points through 36 minutes for the first time since their January 8 win over the New Jersey Nets. The bench took the wheel to start the fourth for the second night in a row, and guided the Bucks to their second comfortable victory in a row.
Milwaukee Bucks starting lineup:
Brandon Jennings (18 pts, 7-10 fg, 2-3 3fg, 4 asts) and Earl Boykins (18 pts, 8-9 fg, 2-3 3fg, 3 asts) combined for a vintage Gilbert Arenas stat line. Boykins did most of his work in the first half during a 17-2 run that moved at the speed of Darren Sproles. Boykins was a part of two aesthetically pleasing fast break buckets (one assist to a CDR dunk, and another layup courtesy of a ¾ court pass from Andrew Bogut).
Jennings took a little longer to get going, but attacked the rim only when lanes opened up and added a couple three pointers to seal the game long before the clock ran out. Brandon Jennings has looked much more like himself since the beginning of March, as he’s averaged 20.2 points on 44.7% shooting, 4.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.4 steals. When Jennings is efficient with his shots like on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Bucks are a much more confident team.
Alex Boeder at Brew Hoop did a good job of mapping out John Salmons’ apparent penetrate-phobia (that sounds bad, I know) over the past month. His findings have been corroborated by advanced stats, but Salmons (12 pts, 5-11 fg, 4 asts) had little trouble finding his horizontally-moving jumper in the lane against Cleveland.
Larry Sanders (12 pts, 6-9 fg, 5 rbs) used most of the fourth quarter as shooting practice, and it was nearly as successful. With the exception of one corner jumper that airballed badly, Sanders hit four of his seven fourth quarter attempts, mixing in a couple dunks with his popular mid to long-range shots in isolation.
Corey Maggette’s sore right knee paved the way for Chris Douglas-Roberts’ (13 pts, 5-10 fg, 3 asts) return to semi-relevant basketball situations. Jeremy Schmidt at Bucksketball outlined the cult following of CDR, along with a description of his style that somewhat mirrors Maggette. He was right by CDR’s own account Wednesday, as the slasher got most of his points off the dribble.
Pessmist: These are the Wizards and Cavaliers
If this were 2004-05 or even last season, wins over Washington or Cleveland this late in the season would be lauded as major steps forward in the Bucks’ final playoff push. But its 2011, and both wins are simple proof that Milwaukee is better than two of the likely top three NBA Lottery teams.
The Bucks still have a long way to go towards proving their legitimacy as more than a first round Eastern Conference doormat, especially with an upcoming schedule that features games against Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando, Boston, and New York (twice).
Although their rotation is thinner than Larry David’s hair, the Bucks won two straight games with more than a quarter to play on the backs of two separate groups of players. The Milwaukee starters combined for 75 points Tuesday night, and the Bucks bench carried that momentum with 67 points, including four players in double figures, on Wednesday.
Milwaukee’s wins came against NBA punching bags, but it should be noted that Sunday’s loss to the Boston Celtics was decided with less than two minutes to play. Any measure of offensive analysis shows that scoring at or above the NBA average points per game (99.5), while playing the fourth best defense in the league, almost always means a win for the Bucks (15-5 when shooting above 45%, and 22-11 when scoring 90+ points).
If they make the playoffs, even as an eighth seed, Milwaukee could be very dangerous if they can manage to scrape together offensive production mirroring the previous two games.
Realist: The Pacers and Bobcats are even worse right now
Believe it or not, the Bucks’ playoff heart is still beating regularly. Milwaukee is 1.5 games out of the final spot in the Eastern Conference, and has looked noticeably comfortable and focused on the task at hand since Sunday’s game against Boston.
Using the Chicago Bears analogy, any confidence, no matter the opponent, is good when there are so many question marks surrounding a team. Nearly every player that stepped on the court in the past two games made a significant contribution to the victory.
All too often this season the Bucks have followed up a couple of solid offensive performances with shooting percentages lower than Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s approval rating. With 19 games remaining, there are still more questions than answers for the 2010-11 Milwaukee Bucks.
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