After intensity lagged considerably against the Clippers and Kings, one could only assume things had to get better against the Nuggets for the Bucks Saturday. Unfortunately, they were coming off a double overtime game Friday night, got to their hotel around four in the morning Milwaukee time and were facing a team with the third best home record in the league. So this one was over before it started.
I mean, you just can’t expect to write the Bucks off so easily and then not have them win. That’s just not how they roll.
Forgive me for sounding like a broken record lately, but once again, the Bucks have another win that can be placed on the pedestal as “their best win of the year”. That’s becoming a recurring theme, no? Beat the Cavs, (still a good win even if they were without Lebron James) best win of the year. A full strength Celtics team drops one to the Bucks: Milwaukee’s best win of the year. The scorching hot Jazz can’t topple the Bucks either? That was the best win of the year. Regardless of which win was your personal favorite or which one should stand out as the signature on what’s becoming a thrill ride of a Bucks season, they all count for one and they’re all sending the same message: these Milwaukee Bucks are for real.
I will say I enjoy the road wins a little more, especially the ones against upper-echelon teams. For so long the Bucks have been automatic losses when heading into opponents territory, even as recently as earlier this season. Now the Bucks have a fighting chance wherever they go. Scott Skiles said earlier this year that he thought it’d take 15 road wins for this team to make it to the playoffs. As he was saying that he was pining for a signature road win too. He wanted to beat a real legit team on their court, probably for the sake of his own guys’ mentality. If they want to win in the playoffs, they’re going to have to beat some playoff teams on the road. As recently as Saturday morning, the Bucks still hadn’t proven to themselves that they could do that.
Well, they finally did it Saturday night. Even sweeter? They did it in their 15th road win. Playoffs … playoffs … playoffs …
The strategy this season has been simple: get the ball to Andrew Bogut. So what happens when Bogut’s saddled with foul trouble like he was Saturday night? Simple, just ride John Salmons and Carlos Delfino. What was once the Bucks biggest weakness, wing scoring, turned into their saving grace against the Nuggets. Salmons finished with 26 points (8-16 FG 1-1 3FG 9-9 FT) and hit all six free-throws he attempted in the fourth quarter. When it got down to the nitty gritty, Salmons didn’t fold up. That’s a great sign for the Bucks going forward and whether he can do that consistently will have a lot to do with how far they go this year.
Delfino may have missed his final two free-throws that would have iced it, but that was about the only thing he screwed up all night. The Argentinian finished with 21 points (6-11 FG 4-5 3FG 5-8 FT) and seven rebounds – all while shadowing Carmelo Anthony at the other end for the majority of the game.
- After stepping out of the spotlight and into the shadows for the last two games, the Bucks bench was back at it Saturday night. Milwaukee’s reserves chipped in 32 points in Denver after scoring just 17 Friday night against the Kings. Ersan Ilyasova did the heaviest lifting again with 14 points and 10 rebounds, but the Bucks got big contributions from Kurt Thomas (five points and six boards, while mixing in timely defense and one big assist to Ers) and Luke Ridnour (11 points on 5-8 FG). Balance is a friend of the Bucks and the more it’s embraced, they better they play.
- The very same Milwaukee Bucks that couldn’t shoot the Clippers out of a zone last Wednesday have now 23 of 51 (45 %) threes in their last two games. A good barometer of the Bucks shooting prowess is often Delfino and his 4-5 effort from deep in the Bucks win Saturday was as huge as his absence in the loss Wednesday.
20-62. That’s the combined makes and attempts for Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith against the Bucks. For those that aren’t math whizzes, that means Milwaukee held three of Denver’s best offensive players to 32% shooting. The collective efforts of Delfino, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Salmons, Brandon Jennings and Thomas were terrific. With Bogut’s minutes limited due to foul trouble, the Bucks were allowing more offensive rebounds than they usually do, but somehow were able to keep it together defensively. I’ll give a lot of credit to the wing players for their effort on Billups and Anthony, but it’s hard for me to quantify Kurt Thomas’ impact. He was clogging up the middle on defense and being physical with the Nuggets. That makes a huge difference. The team that showed up for the Bucks Saturday and brought buckets of defensive intensity, physicality and effort is a lot closer to the team the Bucks will be come playoff time.
- The Nuggets shoot a lot of free-throws and the Bucks are a very aggressive defensive team. That spelled disaster heading into Saturday’s game and played out as everyone expected. Denver shot 30-38 from the free-throw line while the Bucks were just 23-28. Considering Milwaukee was out-fouling Denver 14-5 at one point that isn’t such a big difference. The Bucks seem to be getting better at this as the season’s gone on and the acquisition of Salmons has only helped. He’s denying the straight line penetration guys like Tyreke Evans and Carmelo Anthony could have got earlier this year.
After a 2-1 trip out West, Milwaukee now has five straight at home. That’s a big deal. Milwaukee’s been incredibly tough to beat in Milwaukee and have got to be flying high after the big wins against Sacramento and Denver. I can only imagine that the Bucks suspect they’re the third best team in the East and a team with that sort of confidence and their defensive intensity is dangerous. And fun too. For proof that these guys are having a blast right now we need look no further than Scott Skiles after Saturday’s improbable win. Rarely will you see him so much as crack a smile, but Skiles was slapping his guys on the back and on the receiving end of a headlock from Carlos Delfino.
It reminded me of the 2001 season, when Tim Thomas grew so fond of rubbing George Karl’s head after wins. Those were good times.
And so are these.