The NBA preseason is often a combination of frustration, rationalization, and finally, relief.
In the preseason, Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut can ride the pine while Jon Leuer, Larry Sanders and Darington Hobson play crunch time minutes and experience the pressure that comes with protecting a tight lead. In the preseason, a team can find itself on the losing end of a 12-2 run over the game’s final 2:23 minutes and nearly every excuse for the misstep sounds valid.
So it went for the Milwaukee Bucks in their 85-84 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night in the final of two tune-up games before the start of their regular season against the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday.
The loss dropped the Bucks’ 2011-12 final preseason record to 0-2 against their border rivals, but the team has a chance at meaningful redemption next Tuesday when the Wolves return to the Bradley Center for Milwaukee’s home opener.
The Bucks’ bench contributed a very respectable 37 points on 44% shooting, but its main occupants also put the team in a position to lose when protecting a lead mattered most. The decisive play came off a Luke Ridnour inbound steal at midcourt with 9.1 seconds to play and the Bucks up 84-83. Michael Beasley then hit two free throws, and a last second shot from Leuer that clanked off the back of the rim clinched the game for the Wolves.
“I made the decision to let ourselves know that if we got in that situation, I wasn’t going to take (a timeout). I wanted to see what happened, and we panicked,” coach Scott Skiles said, with a slight smirk. “There’s going to be a time in the game when we don’t have a timeout and we’ve got to be able to handle that situation.”
The scenario and lineup Skiles put on the floor to end the game was not realistic, and the end result will ultimately be forgotten once the calendar turns. However, the team’s failure in the clutch, at home, against a typically bad defensive team, feels like a devil conscience, quietly trying to remind you the Bucks have the potential to be as bad as their preseason low-points (the fourth quarter, free throws).
Two games, much less meaningless ones, are not a large enough sample size to draw sweeping conclusions about a team’s resolve, its chemistry on and off the court, and its talent potential. There were good and bad things to take away from the Milwaukee Bucks last preseason scrum of 2011, and for the most part, there are more reasons to be hopefully than pessimistic.
Brandon Jennings, the facilitator
It shouldn’t be a revelation that the floor opens up when a point guard has the confidence to penetrate the lane traffic, but when you’re used to Brandon Jennings attempting pull-up 20 footers, it becomes a dream come true.
Jennings tallied 8 first-half assists (7 in the second quarter alone), despite converting just 3-9 from the field (4-13 overall). All of his assists were a direct result of his ability to draw an additional defender while driving to the hoop. Jennings mixed in a delightful sample of quick hit transition passes with a couple kick outs to a wide-open Drew Gooden (15 pts, 6-12 fg, 1-1 3fg, 3 rbs) and a couple basket cuts from his wing teammates.
As a whole, the team has looked much more comfortable and confident moving the ball around the perimeter, and it has opened up the offense in a way that allows for more easy shots inside and behind the arc (First quarter scoring consisted of two threes, four free throws, 10 points in the paint, just one mid-range jumper).
Mike Dunleavy, the chemist
No one has looked more in sync with Brandon Jennings this preseason than Mike Dunleavy, who has shot 50% from the field (4-11 3fg) and averaged 14.5 points, 3 rebounds, and 3.5 assist between both games. Dunleavy has fit quickly into Milwaukee’s scheme, and the entire offense is reaping the benefits.
“Offensively we’ve got a pretty open system, for the most part I’m going to be in the right place at the right time,” Dunleavy said. “Brandon has good court vision, so he’s pretty good at finding me.”
Jennings even joked after the game that he didn’t understand why Dunleavy has been so wide open so consistently. His basketball IQ and general ability to be where he needs to be when he needs to be there has already yielded some fun results. Even Bogut got to flash his underrated, no-look passing ability thanks to an off-the-ball cut to the basket from Dunleavy midway through the third quarter. I have a feeling we’ll re-visit that highlight sometime during the season.
Luc Mbah a Moute, the offensive defender
Who was that lengthy tweener knocking down corner jumpers (including a three!) and finishing at the rim in the third quarter, and what did he do to Luc Mbah a Moute (14 pts, 6-11 fg, 1-1 3fg, 4 rbs, 3 stls, 2 blks)?
Mbah a Moute exploded for 11 points on 5-8 shooting in the third quarter, and looked incredibly comfortable spotting up in the right corner. He was also fairly effective maneuvering in congested traffic around the rim, as well as his standard excellence in preventing scores.
“As usual, he had a good defensive game and he stepped up and got some good open looks,” Skiles said. “He’s usually open, and it’s important for him, it’s important for us, if he’s out there and he’s open to step up and knock down a good percentage of (shots).”
We’ve seen enough of the Prince to know that he has outlier games where his jumper just seems to drop perfectly through the hoop. But if this corner jump shot starts becoming a thing, the Milwaukee Bucks may have a much-welcomed power forward controversy on their hands.
Free throw misses, the apparent fluke
That’s what Skiles said after a game where the Bucks shot 9-23 (39%) from the line. Obviously, missed free throws are always accentuated when the margin of defeat is in the single digits, but Milwaukee does have a history of refusing free handouts when they need them the most.
Stephen Jackson, the chucker
Stephen Jackson hit the first three pointer of his Bucks career 19 seconds into his debut, and added another just two minutes later. He then proceeded to finish the game on an 0-5 streak in 15 total minutes. Six of his seven shots were from beyond the three-point line, so in his defense, Jackson’s back forced him to reconsider his naturally aggressive tendencies off-the-dribble.
Still, Jackson’s high volume shooting is the basketball equivalent of that ever-present activation surcharge that comes with every cable package you’ve ever purchased. You kind of know it’s always going to be there, and more often than not it’s worth the price because of everything else you get in the package.
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