Having clinched a playoff spot (the eighth seed, naturally), now is the time the Bucks can relax. They’re too far behind Boston to climb into the seventh spot and avoid a first round series against the Miami Heat. Add the fact that two of their primary playmakers, Larry Sanders and Brandon Jennings, are ailing and tonight’s regular season home finale against the Denver Nuggets is when Milwaukee can inflate minutes for back-ups and hypothetically be content no matter the outcome. Or at least that should be the case.
The Bucks managed to botch every contest during a four-game road trip, dropping games to Miami and Atlanta in addition to teams with less respectable records, the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats. What should have been a 50/50 split spun into four consecutive losses, leaving the Bucks hungry for one more victory before the postseason begins. Tonight offers them their best chance to snag one. It is their last game in Milwaukee and, even if it is against one of the Western Conference’s best teams, the odds of winning in Oklahoma City for the Thunder’s final home game are drastically worse than nabbing a ‘W’ over a Nuggets team featuring a less-than-100 percent Ty Lawson and missing Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari.
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Evan Fournier, Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos
Bucks: Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, John Henson
This is not the Bucks’ last stand, but it is their best. Jennings is doubtful for Monday’s game and will probably rest his sore left Achilles. That is less of a worry than it would have been earlier in the season, before Monta Ellis, point guard, re-emerged from a post-Golden State fog over the weekend. Either has speed to match up well against Lawson, although Ellis may be the better candidate. Lawson forced Jennings into seven turnovers and held the sometimes-mercurial PG to 33 percent shooting when the two teams met on Feb. 5. It must be noted, Ellis had an awful game (6-21, 0-5 from three) that night, too. That happens against Andre Iguodala, though. It’s no secret.
The absence of Gallinari and Faried — who will likely rest until the playoffs — is fortunate for the Bucks, as Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova both compiled five fouls. Along with John Henson (power forwards! Thanks, John Hammond!), those two will have to execute their roles perfectly: Mbah a Moute has to lock down on defense and force a draw with Iggy while Ilyasova has to be efficient from the field. Henson has been spotty throughout the season, but has the potential to be a mini-Sanders in the paint due to his length. If nothing else, tonight will be good practice in game-time situations for Henson, something that could be valuable if nagging injuries force Sanders to miss any time during the playoffs.
As favorable a match-up as the depleted Nuggets are for the Bucks, Milwaukee must play as well as possible to stop its skid. That means minimizing fast break points (easier than usual, with Lawson’s heel still on the mend) and getting solid production from players used to playing off the bench (hard, if Redick can’t fully shake the funk he’s been experiencing).
Oklahoma City will want to put on a show Wednesday to close the regular season. The Heat awaits in the playoffs and there is a chance LeBron James and Co. sweep the Bucks regardless of tonight’s outcome versus Denver. Tonight may be “do or die.” It could be win now or win in the fall. Can Ellis guide the Bucks to a victory? Let us know in the comments.