If these are the healthy 2011-12 Milwaukee Bucks, a certain “Fear The Deer” towel may need a trip through the wash.
Without question, the Bucks’ 91-82 win over the Miami Heat was their most significant road victory since 2010’s Game 5 against the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks pushed through 19 lead changes, sealed off the interior on defense, and closed the game on an 8-2 run that sent Jon McGlocklin and Jim Paschke into Hatter/March Hare jubilation.
Up 85-80 as the clock dipped below 2 minutes, the Bucks went into a defensive quarantine. Without Andrew Bogut (fouled out at 2:31 mark), Milwaukee forced two turnovers, two fouls (one flagrant), and limited LeBosh to 1-2 shooting (a Chris Bosh outlet dunk with the game out of reach).
Every Miami strength (penetration off the dribble, finishes at the rim, kick out passes) morphed into an exploitable weakness by game’s end. The Bucks outdished (18 to 9 assists), out-finished (16-24 to 9-17 shots at the rim, 42-26 scoring edge in the paint), and out-stole (22 to 12 points off turnovers) the Heat.
Of course, the Bucks had their usual shooting troubles (35% FG, 16.7% 3FG), and conceded 28 and 23 points to LeBron James and Bosh, respectively. But a smothering defense, good ball movement, and near-perfect night from the charity stripe (30-34) creates advantageous opportunities that mitigate quite a few missed shots.
This wasn’t a win that defines a season, but it was one that builds confidence in how the Milwaukee Bucks are currently constructed.
MVP, part 1: Shaun Livingston
Shaun Livingston (10 pts, 3-7 FG, 4-4 FT, 5 asts, 5 rbs, 2 stls) is the Shane Battier of point guards; he won’t start on your fantasy basketball team, but his influence is always apparent.
Off the ball, Livingston glides along the baseline like Brian Boitano. With the ball, he uses his size to take out smaller guards in the post, and always makes the extra pass regardless of his proximity to the hoop. Sunday’s best example of Livingston’s exceptional decision making came down to that “extra pass” with the Bucks up 83-80 and 1:50 on the clock.
Playing against a Miami zone designed to keep the ball outside the arc, Livingston stepped up and dished the ball to Stephen Jackson (10 pts, 4-13 FG, 2-8 3FG, 4 rbs) in the right corner. Jackson flipped it right back, and Livingston drove hard towards the middle. Miami’s defense collapsed, and Livingston dropped in a perfect jump no-look pass to an open Ersan Ilyasova (16 pts, 5-8 FG, 5-5 FT, 1-3 3FG, 6 rbs) under the hoop.
MVP, part 2: Brandon Jennings
The Heat were effective at forcing Brandon Jennings (23 pts, 5-20 FG, 1-10 3FG, 12-13 FT, 6 asts, 6 rbs) to play within the mid-range dead zone, and never gave him the opportunity to get hot around the perimeter (1-10 3FG). Still, Jennings remained aggressive, and had a 12-13 night from the free throw line to show for it.
One mark of a smart point guard is his ability to create something based on what the defense gives him. Jennings couldn’t do much inside by himself, so he often took a foul or drew a defender out of the paint to create an easy shot for his teammates (5 of 6 assists occurred within 9 feet of the basket).
Brandon Jennings is also building a reputation as a closer. Playing a shade over half the quarter, Jennings hit his only three of the game, tickled in a two pointer after grabbing an offensive board, and sunk 5-6 free throws to put the game on ice.
This should delight you…: 39-11 bench scoring advantage
The Bucks and Heat represent two completely different basketball philosophies. With no bench, Miami can often roll the dice nightly with a heavy reliance on the Big Three. In contrast, Milwaukee needs its bench to survive. Jennings is ripening admirably, but no Milwaukee Bucks player is guaranteed to carry the team in the vein of LeBron/Wade/Bosh.
Getting the most out of a bench rotation requires a puppet master that understands each player’s best attribute, and how to maximize its potential. Scott Skiles is quirky and unpredictable with his minutes, but seemed to push every green-lit button at the right time Sunday night.
…And this should scare you: 5-30 three pointers (16.7%)
The Bucks are prone to playing down to their opponents’ level at any time. Despite possessing the NBA’s third highest three point percentage (40%), Miami shoots just 15 threes per game. The Heat took 18 fewer (3-12) and made just two fewer threes than the Bucks (5-30). Milwaukee won’t get that lucky all season against good teams with affinities for the perimeter.
Final ruling: To quote Joe Biden: “This is a big f*&king deal,” but…
The Bucks completely shut out the NBA’s second most efficient scoring offense and turned the Heat’s usual gameplan against them…in Miami’s building. That’s a big, big deal. The Bucks get no rest this week, traveling to Houston and Chicago, but two straight road wins against superstar-laden teams lightens the queasiness brought on by any travel woes this week.
However, no one wants this win to be the highlight of the 2011-12 season, and if that’s what it becomes, things will get really ugly. The Milwaukee Bucks are still wading in a big pool of “if’s,” and how they deal with this boost in confidence will show how far they can swim into the deep end.