Tonight, the Bucks host a Brooklyn team reeling from a 17-point Christmas loss to the Boston Celtics, a team Milwaukee has bested two of the three times this season. As the Celtics were taking it to the Nets, the Bucks were in the midst of a three-day rest period. However, wins and losses to common opponents mean little in an 82-game season (the Nets also have two wins over the Celtics), especially when they come against non-divisional opponents, a la the Bucks against either of those teams.
However, head-to-head games count, and the Bucks already hold a 97-88 win over the Nets from earlier this month. Brooklyn had both Andray Blatche and Jerry Stackhouse available for that game, and though both were relatively cold (a combined 6-17 from the field for a total of 20 points, buoyed by Blatche going 5-6 from the foul line). Nearly three weeks later, Stackhouse is out with a knee injury and Blatche is gradually reverting to his usual inconsistent form.
One other factor in the Bucks’ Dec. 9 win is something of a rarity: both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis posted positive +/- ratings, recording +4 and +7, respectively. Both appeared to be willing passers, with Ellis assisting five baskets and Jennings facilitating seven. Jennings also lived up to his reputation as a player who takes advantage of his opponent’s risky plays, using quick hands to grab five steals as Ellis’ followed suit and had three of his own.
Jennings is still top-three in the steals category with 57 and has cracked the top 20 for assists on the season, but he continues to be a high-volume shooter, tossing up 429 shots at a sub-40 percent clip. Worse, he’s tied for 13th in attempted three-pointers — which he hits at a worse rate. With Beno Udrih back, he should spell Jennings and, in theory, that could decrease the potential number of forced shots from the starting PG.
The combined play of Jennings and Ellis continues to be the Bucks’ tipping point, and will be integral to any amount of success the team has tonight as they face the back court of
Deron Williams C.J. Watson or the mercurial Tyshawn Taylor and Joe Johnson, who will tower over Ellis. A repeat performance is not out of the question, as Ellis could utilize his speed advantage to force turnovers.
A wider scope shows that seven of the nine Bucks who saw playing time that night also had positive ratings, led by Ersan Ilyasova’s +17 and 50 percent shooting. He’s still been streaky, failing to regain a starting spot even approaching the Jan. 15 deadline after which the Bucks can trade him. Luckily, Larry Sanders has anchored the front court, blocking and rebounding at high percentages and forcing his name in between those of elite big men on the defensive end.
Sanders had a dud against the Cavaliers and will impact this game with his play against a front court missing Kris Humphries, but complete with Brook Lopez, who finds way to score in the paint and has steadily improved his defensive play. Sanders cannot overlook the fact that, while Lopez posts above average block and rebound numbers each game, he also turns the ball over at a high rate.
Turnovers, guard play and the center match-up. Those are the aspects that will characterize this game, and if some of those keys sound similar to what happened last time the Bucks and Nets met, maybe it’s more than coincidence.