It has been a while since the Bucks were healthy. Perhaps coincidentally, it has also been a while since they last added a win to their record against the Miami Heat on Dec. 29. Nursing a four-game losing streak, with Beno Udrih still rebounding from a re-aggravated ankle sprain and Ersan Ilyasova listed as probable to play — and, oh yeah, fresh off Scott Skiles being relieved of head coaching duties and Jim Boylan’s appointment as interim HC — a game against the traveling Phoenix Suns could not have come at a better time.
The Bucks’ 16-16 record is the definition of average, putting them at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture with a 2.5 game lead ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers that may not look so comfortable after the events of the past week. Their home court record (9-8) is only slightly better. As for the Suns? Their two road wins came at Charlotte and Cleveland in November, and they are coming off two weekend losses in the desert, to the Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies, respectively.
Essentially, this should be a much needed tune-up game for the Bucks; a chance to exorcise the young demons and pent-up frustrations of 2013 against a lottery-bound team. Milwaukee is much better at rebounding (No. 11 in the league to the Suns’ No. 27) and, despite recent struggles, a defensive stronghold when compared to tonight’s opponent (allowing 97.2 points per game to Phoenix’s 100.4, creating an 11-place ranking differential for points allowed).
The continued growth of Larry Sanders is key in both those categories and he will get a workout tonight against a respectable center in Marcin Gortat, who hits the defensive glass enough to warrant a top-15 rating and blocks 1.9 shots per contest. Gortat is not the scoring threat he once was now that Goran Dragic is the Suns’ primary ballhandler, as he thrived in the pick-and-roll game with Steve Nash last season.
What the Suns lose here, the Bucks gain. Though Nash has never been considered an elite or even reliable defender and the point guard was already on the latter half of his career before leaving Phoenix, he gave Brandon Jennings trouble in the two-game series between these teams last season. Jennings scored a combined eight points on 26.8 percent shooting and showed a lack of enthusiasm all the while. In Dragic, Jennings will face a young player whose game mirrors his more than Nash’s did. Dragic dishes out more assists per game than Jennings, averaging 6.5 each night and facilitating 31.7 percent of Phoenix’s baskets, but he is more athletic and looks to finish at the basket more than his mentor. If it was a mental roadblock that Nash presented to Jennings, that issue should be resolved with Phoenix’s new regime.
Given the middling and wish-we-were-middling situations of these two franchises, it should not be a shock that there are several hundred tickets still available to this game, ranging in price from $2 to $999. What, exactly, is the price of a new start? There is no clear answer at this time, but beginning the post-Skiles era by hosting a bottom-rung team offers the Bucks an opportunity to refresh not only on their underachieving January, but also the team identity that seemed murkier with each new loss.