Game Time: 5:30p.m. Pacific TV: Comcast
When news came down that Milwaukee's main star, Olympian Michael Redd, had strained a knee tendon and would be down for an indefinite period the assumption was the Bucks were going to struggle. Correction...the assumption was the Bucks were going to struggle even more than they otherwise would have struggled, which was presumed to be a fair amount. Surprise! Milwaukee has actually managed to eke out a decent season so far. They're 10-11 overall but were cruising at 9-7 before a tough road swing and a home date with the Cavaliers busted them in the chops for four straight losses. They won their last game against Toronto and are looking for a critical gasp of air while they're near the surface because the L*kers and Cleveland are next on the docket.
The guy getting all the headlines for the new-look Bucks is rookie Brandon Jennings. The 6'1" 20-year-old has posted double-figures in every game of the season but one including pasting 55 on the Warriors back in mid-November. Jennings is also dishing 5.7 assists, grabbing 3.8 rebounds, and shooting 44% three-point range. He's actually better from distance than he is inside the arc. You literally have to watch him everywhere because he's made a cottage industry of tearing teams apart and then letting his teammates feast on the carcass. In fact there's a bright, nearly-straight line running right down the middle of the Bucks' schedule. When he tops 40% shooting on the night the Bucks win. Under that and they lose. He's everything for them right now.
That doesn't mean that Jennings is absent help, however. A bright spot on the season has been Turkish forward Ersan Ilyasova. He's long, rangy, and tends to score and rebound in flurries. Oh, and he too can shoot the three. He doesn't bring it every night but he's a double-double waiting to happen, especially if you take him lightly. Luke Ridnour's defense hasn't improved any since his Seattle days but he's found a niche with this team taking smart shots and dishing the rock when Jennings doesn't have it. Veteran sharpshooter Charlie Bell also haunts the roster along with small forward Carlos Delfino. Both of them can hit the long ball as well.
If you're starting to notice a pattern here that's because there is one. The Bucks take and hit a ton of three-pointers. The constant threat of toxic rain keeps the middle clear for penetrators and for center Andrew Bogut, who started the season slowly but now is rounding into form, averaging 52% from the field, 15 points and 9 rebounds. Forwards Hakim Warrick and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute round out the rotation adding athleticism and a little more scoring punch.
In their element any of the Bucks players can cause you harm, which is the secret to Milwaukee's battle plan. They want you thinking in four directions at once. They like to space the floor and watch you scramble. On good nights you need to field at least two octopi in order to cover them all.
Unfortunately most of these guys are spotty, up to and including Jennings himself...likely due to being a rookie and all. When it goes bad for the Bucks it goes really bad. If they're in the 80's they're done. They are just not set up to win that kind of game. It happens every now and again because they're neither a great paint scoring team nor a fast breaking team. They rely on the jumper and the jumper is a fickle mistress. When push comes to shove they'll settle for getting up more shots than you do and hope for the best.
Here's the thing, though. Unlike Bucks teams of yore this year's incarnation often wins when scoring in the 90's because (gasp!) they can play a little defense. Mind you, we said a little. Nobody's going to confuse this team with the Robinson-Duncan Spurs. But they get after it most nights, possibly because they play a legit 10 guys and keep them fresh. What they lack in individual prowess they make up for in covering ground, though they can get caught lapsing in transition sometimes. Like many young teams their defense tends to feed off of their offense. On nights when the scoring is easy the energy is high. Grind them down offensively and they'll lose focus on the other end too. Their huge, HUGE Achilles Heel is that they foul like a mug-mug, again an example of enthusiasm over true defensive chops. They're giving opponents 29 free throws on average while drawing fewer than 20 themselves, losing around 7.5 points per game at the stripe. Even a decent turnover differential can't make up for that.
The Bucks are better offensive rebounders than defensive. Their eyes light up when they get a chance to score. You have to worry about nearly every forward they put out there plus Bogut. Boxing out is an important skill against them.
Pivotal Points to the Game
1. Just deal with Jennings somehow and the Bucks are your oyster. Unfortunately that key has been on the chalkboard of every team they've played since he broke out. Obviously you should never leave him alone to help on anyone else...ever. If he gets a single shot uncovered beating sticks should appear in the hands of the coaches. Portland's propensity to mix defenses may come in handy here, as he's yet inexperienced in the league and overall. Throw different looks and different players at him. If nothing else put Bayless on him and let them fight.
2. The Bucks KILL teams that play fast and play no defense. The Blazers' best bet is to grind it out and make them work for their points.
3. Limit their offensive rebounds. Remember lots of shots are going to come long and on the whole you have better rebounding guards than they.
4. Take care of the ball, eh?
5. If you don't drive on this team and draw some fouls it's like telling those Publisher's Clearing House guys to get the hell away from your door when they bring that oversized check and balloons down your walk.
Need a win here. Just take the good things you did last night, repeat them, and patch up a small hole or two. At least you know you won't have LeBron driving a truck through your roadblock tonight. Come out to win this one and don't let go until you have done it.
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