Do you remember those hot, sunny days in July when the Bucks were playing Summer League games in Vegas? Do you remember when John Henson looked like a third-year pro, flipping in lefty hook shots and commandeering the paint on defense? Or when Larry Sanders was trying to do too much, getting frustrated, fouling at head-spinning rates and working his way out of the rotation?
You don’t? Well, neither do I.
On a cool night in Canton, the tables were reversed — at least for one night in a 97-80 win over Cleveland. Larry Sanders played exactly the way Larry Sanders is supposed to play. There were precious few awkward Larry moments, save for a jump ball with Tyler Zeller that he won easily and pummeled out of bounds, and an accidental baseline tussle with Joel Przybilla in a failed attempt to corral a rebound.
Instead, Sanders treated the Bucks to a number of putbacks — four of them on four offensive rebounds. In fact, every one of Larry’s baskets on the night came via the offensive glass. If he can continue to salvage lost possessions this way, it will be hard for Scott Skiles to keep Sanders out of the rotation.
Even Sanders misses looked like good shots. On one possession, he set up left and drove the lane hard to the right. The attacking shot was ever so slightly off, but John Henson came charging down the lane for a tip-in on a play that looked suspiciously like the ones Larry contributed on the evening.
But overall, the NBA debut for John Henson lacked crispness in spite of a few bright spots. On one play, Udoh posted off to one side, and Henson cut sharply down the lane, collected a pass, and banked in a lefty runner. He showed a confident willingness to fire up 20-footers from the top of the key, even they clanged off the rim repeatedly.
In the second quarter, Cleveland trapped the ball, largely ignoring Henson. John looked lost. He didn’t cut to the rim and didn’t offer anything in the way of penalizing the Cavs for the tactic. A few sputtering possessions later, Skiles gave Henson the quick hook and subbed in Drew Gooden. In the second half, his positioning improved, but he looked as if he were going to have the ball muscled away at the top of the key simply because he wasn’t physically strong enough to nudge away his defender. He barely made contact (or whiffed entirely) while attempting to set screens. It’s only one game to be sure, but Henson played very much the way that you would expect a rookie to play.
Tobias Harris: Much has been made of Tobias’ need to shoot the corner three-point shot in order to make the floor spacing work on offense. Harris took two of these shots on the evening, making one.
Beyond that, he showed a physicality away from the ball that he only seemed to show when the ball was in his hands last season. When he set a pick, it was thick and time-consuming for the defender. He stepped up and planted in the lane trying to take a charge or two.
Much has been made of the Monta-Brandon backcourt. Will it work? Won’t it work? Are they too small? Do they both need the ball, etc…?
When Tobias is added to that picture, he’s often portrayed as the third phase of the problem — another player who does his best work with the ball in his hands.
But here’s why I like pairing Tobias with Monta and Brandon: If the solution to the Jennings/Ellis conundrum is pace, then they need someone to run with them. The 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 fast breaks that the Bucks can generate aren’t going to work as well if it’s a tiny guard or two paired with a forward who is mediocre in transition. Tobias will be the best fast break finisher on the Bucks this season. He’s fast and can hit a shot on the run with regularity. He can elevate, and he has a big body to shield away would-be defenders.
This trio can work together, especially with Ersan Ilyasova spacing the floor at a stretch-4 power forward and Samuel Dalembert protecting the rim in a way that no Bucks big man could a season ago. Those fast breaks start on defense after all.
Samuel Dalembert: Dalembert runs the floor like a yak hauling a plow up the side of a mountain, but it matters not.
In just 15 minutes of action, Dalembert blocked three shots, two of which turned into fast breaks for points. Cleveland isn’t winning an NBA title anytime soon, but they were routinely flustered and stifled when their guards penetrated the lane. In addition to the blocks, there were a number of heaves, flings, and off-balance shots that barely glanced the rim as they ran into the forest of Bucks’ big men willing to contest them. It was a noticeable difference even without the numbers, but for the record, Milwaukee outscored the Cavaliers in the paint, 48-28.
A subtle bonus for Sam is that his free-throw shooting is vastly improved compared to when he entered the league. He possesses a smooth stroke from the charity stripe — a far cry from the clunkers Andrew Bogut gave the Bucks in recent years.
Monta Ellis: From the boxscore, it looked like a typical Monta night. He scored 15 points, dished out five assists, and plucked two steals. His counterpart, C.J. Miles, scored 18 points on a similar number of shots.
Any concerns about Monta freelancing as a one-on-one playmaker can be put to rest. He shares the ball willingly and plays within the confines of the Bucks’ motion offense. He proved this at the end of last season, and this Cavs game was no different. Bonus points? he looked really comfortable taking the three-point shot. If Ellis eschews the long two in favor of the three-point shot, the spacing and efficiency of Milwaukee’s offense will rise accordingly.
On defense, Ellis needs to gamble less. Or, at the very least, gamble smarter. He does a great job cutting in front of his man to intercept cross-court passes, but he could also do without the ‘hands-y’ on-ball defense that often leaves him out of position with his body.
Joel Przybilla: Nothing special. Plays defense like a true physical, but slow, center. Wouldn’t surprise me if Skiles makes Joel one of the DNP-CDs that inevitably await a few of his seven big men.
Mike Dunleavy: An irreplaceable cog on the bench unit. I get the feeling that the offense of the second team would fall apart if Dunleavy weren’t there to keep the ball moving and/or take the perimeter shots. He logged a team-high +18 in the +/- rating for the night, to go with three steals and 12 points.
Brandon Jennings: Had a typical Jennings night. Got to the rim for some lefty layups, and hit one of his new ‘Steve Nash’ one-footed floaters. Hit a three-pointer when he feet were set. Fought hard on D, including getting picked a lot, but didn’t shut down his man. Aside from five turnovers, he looked a lot like the player that the Bucks want him to be.
Beno Udrih: Left the game after hitting the back of his head in the first half, but he did not sustain a concussion. When the guard rotation got thin in the fourth quarter with Beno gone and Brandon and Monta resting, Eddie Gill got the call. To sum up his performance in two words, he was ‘not good’.
Marquis Daniels: Showed that he really sees the floor well. If someone is open, Marquis is going to get them the ball. Grabbed six rebounds. Also showed that if the opportunity arises, he will cut hard to the basket off a back screen without the ball. If there’s not yet a play that involves Marquis and Dunleavy playing off each other — with Daniels going to the hoop and Mike coming away from it — then there needs to be one soon. He didn’t get to show his excellent footwork in the low post yet, but did surprise me with a smooth-looking 19-footer. Don’t expect that to be a featured part of his arsenal, though.