By the time the Milwaukee Bucks limped into the Boston Garden for their finale a season ago, the common denominators of their (less-than-regular) wins had developed a rather routine recipe.
* Pass the heck out of the ball.
* Let the starters triage their way through the beginnings and ends of games.
* And, most importantly, make sure a lottery-bound opponent visited that night. (Or oddly enough, the eventual champion Miami Heat.)
When the Bucks made a late playoff push that eventually fell short, they routinely beat up on the weaker teams in the league. The top Eastern Conference teams had no troubles in Milwaukee; the Bucks won only 3 of their 20 games against Chicago, Miami, Indiana, Boston, Atlanta, and Orlando — the top six seeds in the East.
The Bucks had enough talent to toss out a 10-deep rotation of very good players, but not quite enough to challenge the squads with elite stars.
Saturday’s win against Cleveland fit the patterns of 2011-12 perfectly: A lottery fixture. 32 assists. A uniform slate of +/- ratings that were negative for every starter and positive for their five backups.
When Brandon Jennings hit his remarkable game-winning jump shot, euphoria gripped the Bradley Center. The video clip made the highlight rounds on TV and the web. The Bucks leapt to the top of the conference standings. ‘Brandon Jennings’ trended on Twitter, not just in Milwaukee, but in the US and worldwide. However, the incredible shot masked the truly significant development of this short season: the dominating win in Boston.
The game in Boston broke the old habits. The Celtics will be in the playoffs this year, probably in the top four seeds. The Bucks crushed them in every aspect. The only time Boston offered any resistance was in the final three minutes when the contest was already long decided.
And while both halves of the teams performed well, the starters outpaced the bench. Enter Tobias Harris.
There was a point very early in the game (above) when the Bucks got out on the fast break. Harris, fulfilling one of his duties for this season, sprinted out on the wing with Brandon Jennings headed down the middle.
Jennings dropped in a pass behind the defense. Harris caught it, stepped to the hoop, rose, and leaned in toward the rim. Kevin Garnett tossed the shot aside in a disdainfully Kevin Garnett manner.
For a player who never quite got his feet under him in his rookie season, this moment held great import. Thirty seconds into the clean slate of a fresh season, Harris had been spectacularly denied. Would he slide into passivity? Would he lose the mental battle to Boston and Kevin Garnett?
Absolutely not. In fact, he left his mark on the game with at least a half-dozen highlight-worthy plays.
In the first half, he finished with his left hand at the rim twice — once over Paul Pierce, then later over Kevin Garnett.
In the second half, it got even better. First, he Paul Pierce’d Paul Pierce, bumping and backing him down closer and closer to the rim exactly like the Celtics captain has punished smaller small forwards for a decade.
Then, on my absolute favorite play of the season so far (yes, even more than the game-winner), Harris hit Monta Ellis with an inbounds pass as Monta came off a screen and darted to the rim. Pierce, guarding the inbounds, slid over to help. Ellis gave the touch pass back to Harris. Garnett tried to rotate over, but it was too late. Harris had stepped inbounds, caught the pass, and elevated far too quickly for KG’s presence to matter.
For good measure, Tobias finished a fast break runout, hit his two three-point attempts, and converted a back-door alley-oop layup in the half. He also grabbed five defensive rebounds — a skill he didn’t demonstrate enough during the preseason.
Harris didn’t fare as well in the game against Cleveland. By the time he worked his way through a subpar first half, Mike Dunleavy had already established himself as the hot hand. Skiles was ready to give Dunleavy the lion’s share of minutes in the second half and rightly so. 29 points on 12 shots to go with 12 rebounds — that’s an obscene line that was every bit as good on the court as it looked in the box score. Harris didn’t establish himself in the game. He didn’t really have to.
If the Bucks are going to make the leap to a playoff seed this season, the starters have to play more like they did in Boston. Harris is an integral part of that. Samuel Dalembert can protect the rim and counterbalance the best of the opposition’s rebounders. Ersan Ilyasova will eventually find his outside stroke again after he remembers that he’s allowed to move freely in the offense and take other shots too. Plus, he’ll draw a countless number of charges after a guard trickles past Jennings or Ellis.
Tobias takes a load off of Jennings and Ellis in a way that Dalembert and Ilyasova cannot. In the half court, he can play with his back to the basket and either draw a double team (once teams figure out that he’s going to score without one) or elevate for a high-percentage shot. In transition, he can be the finisher that he wasn’t in that first minute against Boston.
Harris looks like he can defend a bit too. In the fourth quarter, Garnett caught an entry pass squarely in the center of the paint. Caught guarding KG in the post after a switch, Tobias leaned on him. Garnett spun and missed a turnaround. The refs bailed him out with a questionable whistle.
Then Harris flashed the closest thing to a emotional outburst since he’s arrived in Milwaukee — a scowl and a disbelieving head jerk. He narrowly missed his chance to return serve on KG individually, but on a team-level, he had already done it.
If Harris struggles at times, Mike Dunleavy will still be able to bail him out on most nights — and the rest of the bench mob (especially Larrykpe Sandoh) will put the Bucks in a position to beat the Clevelands and Detroits and Torontos of the NBA.
If Milwaukee, though, wants to continue to fan the flames that this ridiculous-but-fun little 2-0 start has sparked, they will absolutely need the right side of Tobias Harris.