So he’s still got it.
Good to know. Now if everyone else on the Bucks can get it together, this might be a very different series than the masses (I’m raising my hand especially high on this) expected.
It’s fitting that Brandon Jennings donned the cape in game one of the Bucks playoff series. After all, at the start of the season, he was the unknown variable. Coaches and teammates raved about his work in practice, but the pre-season didn’t indicate he’d be too significant a factor. Then he exploded in his first month and everyone was on notice. After that, the peaks were rare and the valleys steep, but Jennings would still show occasional spark. Milwaukeeans had pegged him as their big game guy, everyone’s hope down the stretch. Until John Salmons came along. Salmons has been the flavor of the moment since his arrival in the Mil, but in the back of our collective minds, we all know Jennings is the franchise’s future. The hopes and dreams of this franchise rest on Jennings slim shoulders. And for some time, that’s been rocky. Sure, he had the great start, but had we placed a square peg in a round hole? Is the burden of star too much for him to bare? The regular season isn’t the place to find that answer. No, that’s a test reserved for the end of the season, when the pressure is really on.
And Jennings appears to be on his way to passing with flying colors.
35 points (14-25 FG 4-6 3FG 2-4 FT), three rebounds and three assists. Jennings had the largest percentage of his team’s points of any rookie ever making their playoff debut and scored the fourth most points for a rookie in their playoff debut. In short, he turned back the clock to November. About the only things missing was a win.
Which is kind of a big deal.
But, only kind of. Look, I’d like the Bucks to win this series or even just a couple games as much as the next person, but it’s important to look at the bigger picture here. The most important thing about getting to the playoffs this season was so the younger players, namely Jennings, could get the feel for it and even more important, a hunger for more. What would serve as a better motivator this off-season for him and the rest of the younger Bucks players than this taste of the post-season spotlight? Next season, the Bucks should then come back stronger with a group that’s been working and now has post-season experience. By next October, Milwaukee should be ready to strive to surpass the semi-lofty expectations sure to be placed on them next season.
And it all starts here.
So that’s why I can’t put somewhat of a happy face on a performance that, at times, was borderline unwatchable. Virtually everything about the first half was straight out of my worst case scenario booklet for this series.
So it’s a good thing I’m looking ahead. And an even better thing that I think I really have something to look forward to.
But first we must cover Saturday’s game. A game that went from out of reach to reachable to possibly slipped away in a matter of time. It’s easy to say the Bucks never had a chance after letting the Hawks grow their lead to more than 20 points in the first half. But the fact of the matter is that the Bucks did have some serious chances in the third and fourth quarters. Would they have had to play virtually flawless and hit their shots? Yes. But that’s what very good teams do.
With six minutes to go in the fourth, the Bucks trailed by eight. Ersan Ilyasova had a clear look at the basket, caught and shot in rhythm for a three … and just couldn’t connect. After forcing an Al Horford miss and grabbing a tough offensive rebound on a Jennings miss, the Bucks found Jennings again, this time wide open for a three from the right side … but he missed. Teams aren’t going to make every shot, but the Bucks aren’t good enough to miss on wide open shots. Especially when they spot the opposition 20 point leads.
From there, a moment here and a moment there could have potentially swung the game and given Milwaukee a shot, but the Bucks needed one of those to go down to pull this one out. It’s a strange coincidence that it was Ilyasova and Jennings missing the shots too, because at various points in this one I found myself wondering where each of them was.
- Ilyasova didn’t find himself in the game for the first time until the Bucks were already down 19 points with 48 seconds left in the first quarter. Milwaukee spent a lot of time in the first half trying to go small on Atlanta with the Jennings-Luke Ridnour back court and Carlos Delfino on Josh Smith. That did not go well. I’ll cover that more when we get to Milwaukee’s defense. Ilyasova was on the court enough, 23 minutes in all, to be one of three Bucks in double figures (Jennings and Salmons, with 16 points, were the other two) and grab six rebounds. Ilyasova also shared with Kurt Thomas, the distinction of being one of two Bucks with a positive plus/minus at +2.
- Sitting the first four minute of the fourth quarter didn’t seem to do wonders for the streaky Jennings. Coach Skiles was in a tough spot here: leave Jennings in and run the risk of him wearing out or take him out and run the risk of having him cool off and shoot them out of the game. Skiles opted for what I’m sure he considered a quick rest before going back to Jennings down the stretch. It didn’t work. Jennings played 40 minutes, a crazy number for a rookie starting his 83rd game of the year, but his game showed little exhaustion before his last stretch. Did he cool off or just come back to life? Let’s hope he cooled off and let’s hope next time he doesn’t come out.
Small ball still doesn’t appear to be the answer against the Atlanta Hawks. In the wretched first quarter, when Atlanta wasn’t busting out on a fast break, they were pounding the ball inside. Nine of the Hawks 13 first quarter field goals came from within 10-feet of the hoop. Delfino, Ridnour and Mbah a Moute were all victims of post-ups at various times in the first quarter. The Ridnour-Jennings back court certainly didn’t seem to be the answer. We saw the Hawks lead go from 13 to 17 in the five minutes they played together from the end of the first quarter into the second. Jamal Crawford and Maurice Evans really got into them early.
- Going forward, Milwaukee will need to find a way to keep Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on the floor while keeping other bigs on the court. The LRMAM at the three experiment failed earlier this year, but him next to Ilyasova, Thomas, Salmons and Jennings may be a productive lineup for Milwaukee. Milwaukee made Joe Johnson work very hard for his 22 points and kept him off the free throw line yet again (10-21 FG 2-2 FT). A lot of the credit on that goes to Mbah a Moute.
- Can anything be done with Josh Smith? 12 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and four assists for the NBA’s matchup from hell. I can’t think of one player on the Bucks that can effectively match Smith, but I don’t think that’s a problem unique to Milwaukee. Poor Carlos Delfino looked like a high school freshman guarding the senior star on varsity at times. Smith is just too athletic for him – and everyone else on the Bucks for that matter.
One half of good basketball and the Brandon Jennings explosion has me feeling okay about this game. There are some areas where the Bucks can see what they need to do better and the second half gave them some visual proof that they can get better. I wouldn’t count on another run to start next game like the one we saw Atlanta put on Milwaukee in game one. I’m willing to write that off as a “Welcome to the Playoffs” moment for the generally inexperienced Milwaukee Bucks. The playoffs require that extra gear that teams rarely go into and some teams never know they have. I don’t think the Bucks knew they had it, but they certainly found it in the second half. Especially Jennings.
Whether Milwaukee can carry over their second half effort and leave that miserable first half behind them will decide if they can pull off the upset in game two.