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Sanders Returns As Bucks Travel To Brooklyn

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John Henson flies to the basket while Brook Lopez defends during the teams’ first meeting on December 7. Brooklyn will be without Lopez for the rest of the season due to a broken foot.

Coming off of an ugly defeat on their home court at the hands of the Chicago Bulls on Christmas Day, the Brooklyn Nets couldn’t be happier to see who is up next on the schedule: the last-place Milwaukee Bucks.

But while this season has certainly been a mess for 6-22 Milwaukee, the Bucks welcome perhaps their most important piece back to the lineup after a 25-game absence. Larry Sanders, who suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb during an altercation at a night club in early November, is expected to return to the court after nearly two months of watching in (very stylish) street clothes. Larry Drew indicated the big man would come off the bench and play “about 20 minutes.”

Sanders will undoubtedly require some time to get comfortable, but his return couldn’t come at a worse time for a Nets team that learned last week that its own franchise center would be lost for the remainder of the regular season. In the two games since Brook Lopez suffered a fractured foot, Brooklyn has lost to Indiana and Chicago by a combined 34 points. The 25-year-old Lopez, arguably the NBA’s top offensive center, was averaging 20.7 points (on 56.3% shooting), 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks prior to the injury. When Brooklyn came to Milwaukee on Dec. 7, Lopez put up 32 points (11-13 FG) and seven rebounds in a 90-82 Nets victory.

Without the big man, the Nets will rely heavily on the backcourt tandem of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Williams has been solid when healthy, but he’s already missed nearly a dozen games and has been limited throughout the season with recurring ankle injuries. The 29-year-old is averaging his fewest minutes, points, assists, steals and rebounds since his rookie season with Utah in 2005-06.

Johnson has been one of Brooklyn’s lone steady contributors this season. He’s missed just one game – a rarity for a team nearly as banged up as Milwaukee – and averages a team-high (excluding Lopez) 16.4 points per game. Johnson will see his number called even more often, as both Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche – the duo tasked with replacing Lopez – aren’t exactly offensive weapons.

Milwaukee enters the contest well-rested, having last played Monday in Charlotte. Losers of seven of their last eight games, Milwaukee is yet to string together consecutive victories this season. But injuries are much to blame for Milwaukee’s early season woes. Certainly all-around poor play has been a factor as well, but no team has been as thoroughly banged up as the Bucks. For one of only a handful of times this season, Milwaukee will dress 13 healthy players, with only Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia out with injuries.

The rash of injuries have forced Larry Drew to get creative with his lineups, but he’ll have his choice of healthy bodies Friday. Ersan Ilyasova is back from his three-game shut down to rest his ailing ankle and he’ll reprise his role as the starting power forward after coming off the bench for most of December. Drew is yet to announce a starting lineup, but with Sanders on the bench, John Henson or Ekpe Udoh will get the start at center.

What to watch for:

– The Reggie Evans rebounding experience makes its first trip to Milwaukee this season, and fans can expect to be treated to a one-of-a-kind exhibition of board-cleaning domination. Last season, Evans led the NBA in per-48 rebounding at 21.7 per game – over three more than second-place Omer Asik. He’s cooled off a bit this year – likely for safety reasons – and is averaging a paltry 18.1 boards per-48. Unfortunately, prior to the Lopez injury, Evans played sparingly and he’s averaging fewer than 14 minutes per game.

– How will Larry Sanders look after nearly two months off? Regardless of how ineffective he was in the three games he played this season, it’s a fact that Sanders makes this Bucks team better. I’m not expecting conditioning to be a major issue – it was a thumb injury, afterall – but his touch around the basket could take a while to reach the level of mediocrity it achieved last season.

– Rotation, rotation rotation. With nearly a full compliment of options, how will Larry Drew handle a rotation for which he isn’t constantly forced to guys out of position? The return of Sanders and Ilyasova likely means fewer minutes for Henson – hopefully I’m wrong about this one – and it remains to be seen how Drew will use Giannis Antetkounmpo with a healthy backcourt.

Leaders:

Points: Johnson (16.4), Knight (13.9)

Rebounds: Garnett (7.1), Henson (8.0)

Assists: Williams (7.4), Knight (4.5)

Blocks: Garnett (.68), Henson (2.3)

Projected Starters:

Brooklyn:

PG – Deron Williams

SG – Joe Johnson

SF – Alan Anderson

PF – Mirza Teletovic

C – Kevin Garnett

Milwaukee:

PG – Brandon Knight

SG – Giannis Antetkounmpo

SF – Caron Butler

PF – Ersan Ilyasova

C – John Henson

First meeting highlights:

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Tags: Ersan Ilyasova Larry Sanders Milwaukee Bucks Reggie Evans

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