After a pre-season wrought with injury and uncertainty, the Milwaukee Bucks finally had their starting lineup and the majority of their players available to them Wednesday night as the regular season began. Now that an unimpressive 3-5 run through the exhibition season was in the past and the Bucks once again had more players on the court than on training tables, they would be able to display the impressive firepower they had spent the off season acquiring.
Not so fast.
For long stretches of Wednesday night’s 95-91 loss to the New Orleans Hornets, these Bucks looked suspiciously like the ones that hit the hardwood in the first half of the 2009-10 season. Take the beginning of the game for example. Milwaukee scored just 10 points in the game’s first seven and a half minutes. Later they sat on 81 points in the fourth quarter for over two and a half minutes.
Simply put, Milwaukee’s offense was stagnant at times. The big worry coming into the year was whether or not the Bucks would be able to improve their woeful free throw totals of last season. They did, thanks largely to the predictably impressive effort of Corey Maggette (16 points, 4-8 FG 8-8 FT). Milwaukee finished Wednesday’s game 17-28 from the free throw line, pretty good for a team that averaged just a hair over 20 attempts a night last season. At what price has that improvement come though? The ball wasn’t moving as freely Wednesday as it did last season. Milwaukee assisted on 57% of their made shots in 2009-10, yet Wednesday they only helped on 42.4% of their baskets.
The Bucks have certainly added talent, but not talent so great that the they will be able to get away with playing isolation basketball. They’re still a team that needs to put teamwork and defense above all things and it’s very likely that Scott Skiles has been pounding that message into his players and will continue to do so. Milwaukee showed signs of impressive individual and team efforts offensively, now they just need to do so for 48 minutes. It’s a challenge to get a team to do that 60 games into the season and it’s probably a bit much to ask to expect a team to have it down in their first game after an uneven pre-season. If the Bucks want to take advantage of the Bulls being without Carlos Boozer early though, they’ll have to figure it out sooner rather than later.
- Brandon Jennings was a bright spot for the majority of the evening, at least before a rough fourth quarter stretch that did the Bucks no favors. Jennings was cruising along, 5-12 from the field with 15 points and eight assists with no turnovers before a mistaken pass attempt to Andrew Bogut with 6:18 remaining. Jennings tried to catch the pass right after he’d thrown it and was whistled for the double dribble. From there he’d go on to foul Chris Paul twice and miss two shots. With the Bucks down three points with 27 seconds to go, Jennings dribbled around upon receiving the inbound pass, ultimately going nowhere. Having picked up his dribbled with eight seconds remaining, he fortunately found John Salmons who ultimately turned the ball over trying desperately to beat the clock on a bad look from three. It wasn’t a pretty finish in an overall effective night for Jennings.
- The Bucks went into Bogut immediately Wednesday, trying to establish him as their centerpiece offensively. He struggled initially, missing his first two shots, traveling and missing a free throw before finally getting on the board, but he rebounded later to finish with 15 points (6-12 FG, we’ll get to the free throws in a second) and 15 rebounds. His free throw shooting though, never was up to par. Bogut missed his first on the evening and that was a precursor of things to come. Bogut was just 3-10 from the stripe, especially hurting the Bucks with an 0-4 effort in the final six minutes. It was good to see Bogut out there playing 32 minutes, but it was troubling to see him struggle to shoot free throws with his right hand. A lot of his hooks and drop shots in the paint come with his left, not the right hand that he fell on. Hopefully this was an anomaly and not a sign of things to come.
- Carlos Delfino feasted on open jumpers created by Jennings, Bogut and Drew Gooden and ended up 5-10 from 3-point land. He finished with 19 points (7-12 FG) and thrived as a spot-up shooter. Delfino has the skills to really help the Bucks as a distributor too, but he didn’t do a lot of penetrating Wednesday. Milwaukee will need him to help keep the ball moving if they want open and easy shots.
Both teams struggled mightily defending the other off curls in the paint. Marco Belinelli (18 points 6-15 FG 5-5 FT) was especially effective coming from off screens and getting uncontested looks in the paint or ending up at the free throw line. Defending screens like that take a lot of communication and help, two things that are better left to teammates who are familiar with each other and used to a defensive system. Milwaukee will have to improve on that as they go.
- Being without Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurt the Bucks when it came to defending Paul. Jennings gave it his all, forcing Paul to get creative and use his teammates wisely when penetrating, but he was rarely able to keep Paul out of the paint. When Paul is able to get into the paint, he ends up with 16 assists and just one turnover like he did Wednesday. Mbah a Moute has the quickness on the perimeter to not get blown by and has the muscle to keep guards out of the paint. He may not have spent a ton of time on Paul, but it could have helped the Bucks to throw another look at him. When the Hornets then went to a pick and pop game with Paul and David West, the Bucks were often helpless. West had a very good game, finishing with 22 points on 9-14 shooting and Paul had a lot to do with that, as his assists can attest to.
Ultimately, it’s just one game. Salmons looked like a player who had missed all of pre-season and the Bucks couldn’t get the defensive stops they needed when they needed them. That’s what’s nice about having Chris Paul. When New Orleans absolutely needed a play to be made, it was usually Paul who made it. He hit a huge momentum 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter and drew a foul on Jennings when the Hornets had to have a bucket up one in the fourth quarter. It’s what a star does. Milwaukee doesn’t have a Chris Paul. They have a lot of talent, but they’ll only be at their best when that talent works together offensively and gets stops on the other end.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Then become a fan of Bucksketball on Facebook (to the right).