The first game after not receiving a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team is out of the way for Brandon Jennings. After being denied a distinction he’s chased for two years, Jennings could have let it affect his play. He could have gone cold on the court last night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, or colder, at least. He shot 5-19 from the field, ending with 14 points and 12 assists in 32 minutes before fouling out. Jennings has certainly put up worse lines than that against lesser point guards than Kyrie Irving, whose second-half showing against Jennings’ questionable defense propelled the Cavs to a 113-108 win, just their 12th victory of the season.
His oppositional counterpart for tonight’s game, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, dropped 21 points — nine of them from long range — on 7-18 shooting as the Bulls trampled the Warriors. By the +/- numbers, both Jennings (-13) and Curry (-15) were hindrances to their respective team’s success, though both were obviously integral in their play as a whole, particularly Jennings, whose double-double comes as a relief from a young player who has been tempermental and inconsistent when faced with disheartening off-court news in the past. As for being short of his 1.5 per-game average with just one steal on the night? It’s nothing to sweat. Kyrie Irving is a basketball wizard.
Both Jennings and Curry have played their initial hands after getting snubbed (as some might say) from the All-Star game and neither looks to be hanging their head too much at the exclusion so long as their teams keep competing.
Projected Starting Line-Ups
Bucks: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders
Warriors: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee, Festus Ezeli
While the show-runners are posting similar stats (Jennings: 18.2 points, 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals, 2.6 turnovers per 36 minutes; Curry: 19.7 points, 6.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.7 turnovers per 36), Curry is a much more efficient shooter. This could be troublesome for Jennings, who tends to gamble a bit on defense and may try going under one or two picks only to see Curry drain a jumper before switching tactics. Of the two, Jennings has more athleticism and his quickness alone will garner some turnovers, even from someone with a basketball IQ as high as Curry’s. But if that’s not the case, Jennings will have to channel last night’s performance and find easier baskets for his teammates, dishing more assists for higher percentage shots in lieu of being able to turn a Warriors offensive possession into a Bucks fast break.
Of course, Monta Ellis could choose to turn this into a see-what-you’re-missing-out-on game, and that could elicit either cheers or tears from the Milwaukee crowd. Directly after being traded last season, Ellis put 18 points, going 6-6 from the free throw line, as the Bucks snagged a win in Golden State. That Warriors team wasn’t the same, though. It still had a post-Ellis identity rather than one all it’s own. To wit, it was not the No. 5 team in the West, or a playoff team at all. For the most the part, the Bucks were the same fringe postseason team as they finished ninth in the East, not too far off their current seventh place position.
Ellis will take his shots tonight as he does every night. If Good Monta shows up, fantastic. If it’s Bad Monta, though — and he has made plenty of appearances this season — the front court will have to make up for his miscues. It is already in an unenviable position of having to defend David Lee, whose 19.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game can be intimidating enough to cast shadows on his 3.7 nightly assists. Passing from the post is crucial when facing an interior presence like Larry Sanders and a lockdown defender like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Lee will find the open man if the Bucks fail to play good help defense and disrupt passing lanes.
This is where, like it or not, the world may rest of Ersan Ilyasova’s shoulders. He has been excellent since being reinserted into the starting line-up by interim head coach Jim Boylan, and what would have been a game-ball worthy performance last night (30 points on 11-21 shooting, 5-6 from three, seven rebounds) was tainted by five turnovers and laid waste to by Irving’s will to win. A big contract extension rattled Ilyasova and caused poor play as the season began; a lack of confidence after begin demoted to reserve status made his play streaky, although there were sporadic rays of hope; now, Ersan is the scoring threat he was expected to be after receiving a big payday. He recorded two assists, a steal and a block last night, too. If Ilyasova can translate those numbers and produce them against better teams, the Bucks are in business.
Both Milwaukee and Golden State were riding three-game winning streaks going into their losses last night. The Warriors bring their top-12 offense to Wisconsin tonight to face the Bucks’ eighth-rated defense. Whether the storyline is immovable object versus unstoppable force, player-versus-former-team, the reaction to a slight or the return of a once-vaunted figure, tonight’s game has it. But basketball is not dependent on stories. It relies on the very tangible play of the game and the Bucks must frustrate Curry, lockout Lee and bring some of their best defense to this point in the season in order to win tonight.