The Milwaukee Bucks will look to regroup on Saturday after a buzzer-beating loss to division-rival Chicago on Friday night.
The Bucks (5-18) will travel to Dallas to take on the Mavericks (13-10) for the second and final meeting of the season between the two teams.
Larry Sanders remains out with a thumb injury, although he has resumed basketball activity. Some fans looked forward to a Sanders/Ellis showdown this year, since the two almost came to blows last season.
O.J. Mayo makes his return to American Airlines Center, but the real intrigue that will cloud American Airlines Center prior to tipoff, is the uncertain status of Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle and star forward Dirk Nowitzki, who are both questionable due to illness.
The two teams last met on Saturday, Nov. 9, resulting in a 91-83 win for the Mavericks. The loss was the first of an 11-game losing streak for the Bucks.
Here are five things to watch for in tonight’s game.
1. Feed the post
Tonight should be a game where the Mavericks sees plenty of big man John Henson in the paint. While Dallas has former Buck and shot-blocker Samuel Dalembert at center, Nowitzki possibly missing the game and Henson’s sharp play to start the season means that the Bucks might be able to exploit a match up in the post.
Despite Henson’s surge on offense this season (up to 54.7 true shooting percentage from 49.7 last year and almost doubling his assist ratio from 6.7 in ’12-’13 to 12.9 this year) his usage rate has taken a hit from 20.6 to 19.1. This is especially vexing since the likes of quick-shooting guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have departed. The Bucks simply need to get Henson the ball more: he is averaging 17.3 ppg 8.5 rpg and 2.6 bpg this month.
2. Stop Ellis
Brandon Knight played just 15 minutes when the two teams met last time, but he still wasn’t 100 percent recovered from his hamstring injury. Knight will likely be tasked with defending Ellis, which will be even more important of a task if Nowitzki is out.
However, rookie point guard Nate Wolters’ surge of late has earned him more minutes. While Knight might be a better on-ball defender, Wolters runs the offense better and has the ability to make plays. Knight might have better foot-speed than Wolters, but Bucks head coach Larry Drew will be forced to decide if he wants a smoother flowing offense or a slower-moving Ellis.
I’m of the philosophy that every time you mention the Milwaukee Bucks this season, you have to talk about the exciting play of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Let’s be honest, the Bucks are in the midst of a tough year (see: worst team in the league) and while many want them to lose, it is still hard on fans when the product on the floor is so poor. Antetokounmpo, along with other young players such as Henson, Khris Middleton and Wolters, have been the bright spots.
Antetokounmpo once again had two highlight-reel dunks last night and turned in another strong rebounding performance with nine. He has 17 rebounds in his last two games. If you’re watching this game tonight, it’s likely in large part because of this kid—who looks more ready with every game he plays. If he continues to improve at this rate, he’ll be quite the sight to see in March and April.
4. J. Mayo
Although he asks to be named O.J. (short for Ovinton J’Anthony), many are wondering where the “O” has gone for the shooting guard. While he scored 28 against his former team earlier in the season, Mayo has looked disengaged and lackadaisical on his way to pedestrian numbers. He’s averaging 14.3 points per game this year, which is not enough on a team that needs a go-to scorer. But it’s his average December performance that has looked the worst: Mayo is shooting just 29 percent from 3-point range and 38 percent overall on his way to 12.7 points per contest in December.
Shooting slumps are one thing, but fans who watch the games see a slow-moving, if not disinterested, Mayo on the court. Drew sees it too, as he has played Mayo fewer than 30 minutes three times this month already. Mayo’s November was average, but December has been a whole new level of mediocre scoring. If Mayo wants the “O” back in O.J., he’ll need to snap out of it for the worst-scoring team in the league.
5. Ersan, where art thou?
Speaking of under-performing players, Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova is off to one of his classic starts where message boards, Twitter users and barber shop patrons discuss whether he was just a flash in the pan the season before. He usually snaps out of this kind of a slump by mid-January and it’s important to remember he was suffering a severely sprained ankle early in the year. After shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc last year, Ilyasova is shooting just 24 percent.
One unique part of Ilyasova’s game is he is more than just a stretch-four three-point shooter. His activity helps him draw charges on defense and be, at-times, a tenacious rebounder. However, a startling trend is starting to set in: from 2011-2012 he had a rebounding rate of 17.6 and that number fell to 13.9 last year. This season his rebounding rate has fallen to just 9.9. In a little over a season, Ilyasova’s rebounding rate has been sliced almost in half.