Last night, after a week of nightmares, I had a very surreal dream.
The San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker was there, taking what the defense was giving and subsequently hitting a mid-range jumper or finishing at the rim. Tim Duncan was there too, quietly and impossibly sinking every jump shot without a bank while avoiding the paint like poison. Then the Milwaukee Bucks showed up, but they didn’t look like the Bucks from my usual nightmares.
These Bucks were answering every San Antonio shot with Spurs-like efficiency, sharing like hippies in a commune, and closing a 106-103 victory with timely defense and featuring their point guard in the role of “best crunch time player on the floor.”
At around 7:30 this morning, my conscious (and the Internet) pinched me back into reality. This vision wasn’t a dream; it was the best win of the Milwaukee Bucks’ young 2011-12 season, and one that came when it was needed most.
Just two days after the Milwaukee Bucks’ traveled the West Coast River Styx, culminating in an 0-6 road record for 2012, the Bucks managed to gut out an impressive 106-103 victory over the Spurs, a team that had the Bucks’ number for five consecutive games before Tuesday night.
In a game as offensive minded as this one (Bucks – 51.8% fg, Spurs – 60% fg), the outcome often comes down to which team can turn a stop into points the other way with the clock working against them. Capped by an errant Richard Jefferson three point attempt at the buzzer, Milwaukee emerged with a win you could only describe as gritty and advantageous.
San Antonio started the game hot, hitting 13-15 shots, headlined by six straight jumpers from the ageless Tim Duncan and four consecutive makes by Tony Parker. The Spurs even managed to stretch the lead to 10 with 3:43 left in the first.
However, as was the case all night, the Bucks kept composure and chipped away at the lead with excellent ball movement, confident shot selection, and most importantly, Brandon Jennings outplaying Tony Parker in the highest of pressure situations.
Jennings was responsible for six of the Bucks’ final 10 points, and with Milwaukee up 96-94 with 4:41 to play, he followed up a floater off the backboard by blocking a Parker jumper in the ensuing Spurs possession. Parker went on to commit two costly turnovers in the final four minutes, including a Jennings steal turned into a dunk that sealed the Bucks win.
What Happened? (In 140 words or less…)
Even without Manu Ginobili, almost everyone on the Spurs is capable of shooting (60% overall for the game. Duncan drained quite a few early jumpers (5-8 from 16-23 feet, 3-3 from 10-15 feet), and Parker had little trouble skating in and out of screens before launching a floater or pulling up for a quick jumper (3-3 at the rim, 5-9 from 16-23 feet).
San Antonio makes their bones by hitting three pointers (43.3% – 2nd in NBA), protecting the ball (12.43 TOR – 3rd) and social interaction (22.36 AR – 2nd). What the Spurs don’t do well is defend (103.4 DefEff – 25th), especially on the road (116.06 DefEff in three road losses).
The Bucks managed to exploit the Spurs’ weakness inside (20-28, 71.4% at the rim), while limiting damage from beyond the arc (4-14, 28.6% 3fg), and making stops when absolutely needed.
MVP: Stephen Jackson
Bad Stephen Jackson: High volume, ball-stopping, isolation shooting, Carlos Boozer-like screams for “AND 1” plays, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how to protect the ball.
Good Stephen Jackson (34 pts, 12-17 fg, 3-4 3fg, 7-7 ft, 8 asts): Socialist (8 asts against the Spurs+), aggressive around the hoop (4-4 at the rim, 6 assists leading to makes at the rim), and capable of making shots within the natural flow of an offense.
Jackson attributed his turnaround performance to increased health, which sounds justified if you’re looking to rationalize all of the problems he’s had so far. Good Jackson and Bad Jackson often stuck around the same areas on the floor, but against the Spurs Jackson looked much more confident utilizing all of his skills.
Throughout the game, he had no trouble taking defenders off the dribble through traffic for a finish at the rim or trip to the line, draining a spot up jumper, or making an impressive pass through a double team to an open teammate under the basket.
So far all of the criticism of Captain Jack has been justified, but it bears reminding that neither of the players he replaced has the capability to perform at the level Jackson did against the Spurs. We can only hope it’s more sustainable than his failures.
LVP: The defense
The Spurs have experienced so much success over the past decade because of their ability to adapt to the problems Father Time throws at them. Duncan has compensated for his physical atrophy by draining nearly every jump shot he gets, and San Antonio as a whole hit 54.2% (13-24) of shots between 16-23 feet.
Having Andrew Bogut back solidified the rotation as it was intended, but the Spurs’ emphasis on jumpers kept him pulled out from underneath the basket on too many occasions. This opened things up for Spurs’ slashers to get easy lay-ups (12-15 at the rim) and shots within 10 feet (6-9).
No NBA team can shoot or design a constantly adjusting offense like a Gregg Popovich-coached squad, so the Bucks’ defensive problems shouldn’t overshadow their success at out-Spurring the Spurs.
This should concern you…: Injuries
Realistically, there was little bad that happened during this game. Andrew Bogut was able to get regular position under the basket (14 pts, 7-15 fg, 6-10 on shots at the rim, 11 rbs, 5 orbs, 3 asts), Carlos Delfino (18 pts, 7-13 fg, 4-6 3fg, 4 rbs) kept the defense honest in the first half, and Brandon Jennings distributed the ball accordingly and showed off selectively explosive moves with and without the ball (15 pts, 7-13 fg, 1-1 3fg, 11 asts, 2 stls).
It should be noted that all of this success came without the services of Mike Dunleavy, Beno Udrih, and Luc Mbah a Moute. It remains to be seen how Scott Skiles will handle the team’s depth when/if the Bucks return to full strength.
…And these should delight you: 31 assists on 44 makes, 4-14 3fg (28.6%)
In order to beat the Spurs, the Bucks had to become the Spurs. That meant making the most of long range opportunities, and being as unselfish as possible. Milwaukee bested San Antonio on three pointers (9-14 3fg), and dropped dimes on a staggering 70.5% of their total baskets. Jennings and Jackson were major facilitators, combining for 19 assists, and everything opens up when shots are falling around the cup and beyond the arc.
Overall conclusion: Don’t turn your key, sir
Coming off an embarrassing road trip, getting Andrew Bogut back, and playing with the motivation of a team with its back against the wall, it’s not surprising the Bucks emerged victorious against a Manu-less Spurs team. Beating San Antonio is no easy feat, regardless of their current road record (now 0-4), but this win undoubtedly passed the eye test much better than any Milwaukee Bucks win from a year ago.
This was a consummate team win, and by far the most enjoyable game the Bucks have played all season. If Skiles and John Hammond get bashed for their roster decisions on and off the court when the team loses, they deserve as much praise for huge wins like this one.
It’s always easy to call for a coach or GM’s head on a stake when a team falters to start a season, especially when you aren’t required to come up with a valid replacement solution. It’s a long season, so jumping to any conclusion this early isn’t going to make the remaining 57 games any more exciting.