By Jake McCormick
With a 4-0 start to the post-trading deadline season, the Milwaukee Bucks are conclusively better than they were on February 18. The team’s 115-95 win against the Chris Paul-less New Orleans Hornets serves as a blueprint for what the team can do with their new toys and newfound identity.
The Bucks shot 52.2% from the floor, held the Hornets and their elusive guards to a 42.7% clip, and had five players hit double figures in points. Milwaukee out-muscled New Orleans inside and pulled an Of Mice and Men by smothering them defensively, as they’ve done pretty consistently since the deadline. With six games in the next 10 days, including four on the road that should be a fair test of the team’s recent four-game winning streak away from the Bradley Center, the Bucks are coming together at the right time.
MVP: Andrew Bogut
Bogut shot 13-20 from the field and had a 26 pts/13 rbs/2 bs night for his 27th double-double of the season and NBA-leading 21st straight game with at least one block. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Bogut didn’t play in the fourth quarter, which could bode well for his energy levels over the next week of games.
“He’s having a very good year, and as it’s going on he’s getting better,” coach Scott Skiles said. “Obviously he’s a big factor for us. He makes teams guard our perimeter guys much differently when we got someone inside doing some work. When he’s making those shots he’s difficult to stop.”
If the big Aussie makes his shots, Milwaukee wins. It’s really that simple. The Bucks are now 14-3 when Bogut scores more than 20 points and 11-1 when he puts up a 20/10.
“Shots were just falling for me,” Bogut said. “I had some offensive rebounds again. When you get baskets early it gives you confidence throughout the rest of the game.”
Hopefully someone outside of Milwaukee starts noticing the former No. 1 pick’s recent stretch of dominance, because Bogut is becoming the type of player everyone expected him to be coming out of Utah. Late development is better than no development, that’s for sure.
LVP: Ersan Ilyasova
This win was so communist in nature that it’s hard to put anyone in this spot, but Ersan gets the nod because his growing pains are continuing to surface.
He’s young enough where the mental strains of his first NBA season as a significant contributor are affecting his shooting consistency, but should be more of a baptism by fire than anything else. Ersan makes more facial expressions after a missed three than Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall.
Best supporting role: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
LRMAM was sneaky good against New Orleans, grabbing 10 rebounds, including four offensive, and added 10 points. His athleticism and length worked to his advantage against a mostly flat footed Hornet team, and on more than one occasion he dipped under David West and Emeka Okafor to put back an offensive rebound.
LRMAM kept his title as the Most Underrated NBA Defender by containing the linebacker-sized David West, and is simply one of those players that doesn’t always fill up a stat sheet, but always seems to make an signficant play when it matters.
Key stat: What a paint job!
The Bucks scored a season high 72 points inside the paint and shot 36/56, taking complete advantage of a New Orleans interior defense about as strong as Bill Walton’s knees. Milwaukee wasn’t just throwing the ball to Bogut all night either; they were driving, scoring and subsequently opening up outside shot opportunities for Carlos Delfino, John Salmons, Luke Ridnour and Jerry Stackhouse. That doesn’t sound like a lethal injection of offensive output, but when Milwaukee makes their high percentage shots it opens up the floor for their shooters.
All four players made no more than five shots, but shot above 45%. Like Skiles said, when the Bucks can work the ball inside out, they’re a fun team to watch; especially when Brandon Jennings isn’t expected to do more than he can to carry the team.
“We need multiple guys doing the damage out there,” Skiles said. “We spread ball around well. I say it all the time; we’re very unselfish and always look for the open man.”
The game was sealed when…
The pudgy, and probably hairy, Aaron Gray had to play for a decent stretch of the game, and Skiles went with a fourth quarter lineup mostly consisting of Ridnour, Delfino, Ilyasova, Stackhouse, and Kurt Thomas. Milwaukee was having no trouble scoring at any point throughout the game, but the team has often struggled coming out with energy in the third quarter. Closing out New Orleans with a 28-17 advantage in the third got me typing this story by about the 10 minute mark in the fourth.
“Our defensive intensity picked up noticeably (in the third quarter),” Skiles said. “We stayed with good ball movement, driving the ball inside, and for the most part we were going in there and attacking the rim. We’re starting to show the ability to self-correct a bit while the game is going on.”
No doubt the Bucks are soaked in confidence on both ends of the floor right now, but Bogut was quick to point out the perils of letting a good stretch of games get into a team’s head.
“We’ve got to stay grounded,” Bogut said. “We’re at .500 and it’s nothing to brag about in the NBA. We still have a lot way to go.”
He added that playing Indiana tonight could potentially be a trap game, but the team is zeroed-in enough right now where it’s hard to envision anything but a win. That’s the type of mindset that could work against the Bucks if they don’t stay concentrated on one game at a time. Still, it’s hard not to notice the change in overall team attitude, confidence, and makeup since the acquisitions of Jerry Stackhouse and John Salmons. Both veterans have been big contributors to Milwaukee’s resurgence in the playoff race.
“We’ve fought our way back from seven games down to get to .500,” Skiles said. “The guys are bringing pretty good focus to every game right now, and we’ve played better on the road lately, so we’ll see if we can get it going again against Indiana.”
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