At some point, Brandon Jennings had two points last night and I joked with a friend that he’d probably still be the guy everyone would go talk to at the end of the night in the locker room. The media hourdes love Jennings. Then he hit the game winning three and obviously all the attention was heading his way.
But he wasn’t the only one the masses were looking for quotes from after the Milwaukee Bucks’ 105-102 victory over the Cleveland Cavs Saturday. Typically, it’s been Larry Sanders’ shot-blocking that has earned him recognition in the past. And he’s still turning away the opposition quite often (six blocks in two games). But the improvement Sanders has made offensively and on the glass have suddenly made the power forward the center of both the media and the fans’ attention.
Thought to be a potential candidate for odd man out in the Bucks deep rotation of bigs, Sanders has stood out in a big way through two games. He’s averaging 13.5 points and seven rebounds in just 26 minutes per game. Seven of Sanders’ 13 made field goals this season have been dunks and three have been layups. 13 of his 16 shot attempts have come within 5-feet of the rim. He’s finishing and blocking shots, just like everyone has always wanted.
There likely isn’t one moment or a specific conversation anyone had with Sanders that has ignited the changes in his game since the start of training camp that have made him so much more effective as a basketball player. It’s rarely that simple. Scott Skiles acknowledged that us sportswriter types often expect coaches to say something and players to immediately listen and carry out the activity.
The Bucks have probably been telling Sanders for two years to slow down, stay within himself and play to his strengths rather than try to expand his game. Staying within himself is what would keep him on the court. To his credit, Sanders acknowledged that often last year. He knew he needed to be more aware of what was happening, he knew the game still needed to slow down for him.
Somehow, the game seems to have slowed down for Larry Sanders.
“Larry has, basically since coming back in early September, has impacted every practice and every pickup game and every game he’s been in basically,” Skiles said after the game. “He’s doing a much better job of staying under control and letting the game happen. He’s always going to block shots and now he’s becoming a much better rebounder. And if he can throw in some catches and baskets around the rim, he’s effective.”
A better rebounder, capable of catching passes and finishing around the hoop with the same shot-blocking ability – that’s the player Sanders has been throughout the preseason and two games of the regular season thus far. That’s the guy Bucks fans always wanted Sanders to be. With all of his athletic ability and length, it didn’t seem that far out of the question he could be this guy, but he never really showed he could through two seasons.
So what’s changed for him as a rebounder?
“I think it’s all about positioning, with rebounding. Get to the front of that rim and not floating around that perimeter too much,” Sanders said after Saturday’s game.
Since media day, we’ve heard Sanders say how focused he was on getting in the paint and staying where he knows he should be. But we often hear players pay lip service to an idea that sounds like it’s in their best interest, but perhaps isn’t apart of the role they want on the court. If these first two games are any indication Sanders seems to have embraced the role he was destined to play.
And as he’s embraced that, fans in Milwaukee have embraced him. Very suddenly and very loudly in the fourth quarter, a chant of, “Larry!” broke out as he went to take a jump ball. One upping that was the chants and cheers he received when he fouled out not long after. Sanders got a standing ovation mixed in with those “Larry!” chants from the whole arena after picking up his sixth foul Saturday. He first pointed to the newly renamed “Sector 7” (formerly Squad Six) in appreciation of their efforts to get the whole thing started.
Then he mugged what seemed like all sides of the arena and did his best to point to each of his newly devoted fans. Finally, as he was nearing the Bucks bench, Sanders waved his hands up, encouraging the crowd to get louder, before he cupped his ears to drink in all the love that was being sent his way. Oddly enough, he was asked if he heard the chants after the game. Hear them? The man directed them.
“I love that. I love any time our crowd pumps our team,” he said after the adrenalin had long left his body.
Watch Sanders fire up the crowd at the 2:11 mark. (h/t Nick Monroe for the video)
The always stoic Skiles was asked if he caught Sanders exhibition on the way to the bench and he showed the faint beginnings of a smirk and said he did. He was asked what he thought. The consummate professional on the court since he was a youngster, Skiles wanted Sanders to act like he’d been there before.
After two up and down seasons, Sanders has finally “been there.”