Something Has To Give: Bucks, Jazz Square Off In Salt Lake City


When the season began two months ago, both Milwaukee and Utah had playoff aspirations. Finally parting ways with the Paul Millsap-Al Jefferson frontcourt, the Jazz were ready to usher in the future. Building around Gordon Hayward and the young duo of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, Utah figured to be one of the NBA’s most entertaining young teams.

Utah fell to Oklahoma City on opening night 101-98. It was an encouraging loss, if there is such a thing, considering OKC’s status as one of the league’s top three teams.

But things headed south in a hurry.

Utah dropped its next seven games and limped out to a dreadful 1-14 start before the calendar had even turned to December. Favors didn’t make the leap into stardom many expected, Kanter found himself coming off the bench and an injury to rookie point guard Trey Burke forced Utah to dig deep to find a temporary replacement (Jamaal Tinsley, come on down!). Before long, the Jazz found themselves all but out of the playoff race just a third of the way through the season. Now sitting at 10-24, the Jazz trail Dallas, the current holder of the West’s eighth seed, by a full 10 games.

Milwaukee finds itself in a very similar situation. A close loss to the Knicks, in which the Bucks nearly overcame a 20+ point deficit, would come to set the tone for a frustrating first month. After starting 2-2, Milwaukee lost 11 straight before beating the Celtics to close out November.  Now 7-24, the Bucks, like Utah, remain far from the playoff picture. Though just six games out of the eighth seed, the Bucks – holders of the NBA’s worst record – have lacked any semblance of consistency.

Certainly, injuries played a major role in the team’s early season freefall. Almost every player on the roster – no exaggeration – missed at least one game, while Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Knight have all missed extended time. But even with a nearly full squad, now that Sanders is back in the picture, Milwaukee is clearly still a cut below even the NBA’s most mediocre clubs.

Since Sanders’ return on Dec. 27,  Milwaukee is 1-2, with its lone win coming Tuesday night in Los Angeles. The Lakers have been equally underwhelming (and banged up) this season, but a win is a win at this point for Milwaukee. Brandon Knight scored a season-high 37 points (15-25 FG) to go with eight rebounds, while Sanders contributed a very Sanders-like 11 rebounds and four blocks. What was perhaps most encouraging, though, is the willingness Larry Drew showed in keeping a tight rotation. With all the injuries and inconsistent play this season, Drew has shuffled minutes around on a nightly basis, which often led to only a player or two seeing more than 30 minutes. Against Los Angeles, all five starters played at least 33 minutes, while only three bench players saw at least 10 minutes. Depth is never a bad thing, but when nine or ten players are seeing double-digit minutes – as was the case earlier in the season – it’s difficult to establish continuity.

Utah is coming off of an 83-80 victory over the Bobcats on Monday night. The Jazz have alternated wins and losses over the past eight contests, winning as many games over a 12-day span (Dec. 18-30) as they did in the first 34 days of the season.

The Jazz are led by former Butler star Gordon Hayward, who is averaging 16.2 points, 4.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Trey Burke ranks second on the team in scoring at 13.8 per game, while also leading in assists (5.1). The rookie missed the first 12 games of the year after suffering a broken finger during the preseason.

The Favors-Kanter frontcourt has not worked out as anticipated thus far. Both have shown flashes of their immense potential, but Favors is limited offensively, and Kanter’s defense can be mess at times. Favors has started all 32 games in which he’s played, while Kanter has alternated between a starting and bench role. The duo pales in comparison to what Jefferson and Millsap provide last season:

Jefferson/Millsap: 32.4 points, 16.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 15.5 avg. PER

Kanter/Favors: 24.1 points, 15.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists. 20.5 avg. PER

Despite sitting in last place, the future is bright for a Utah team loaded with young talent and expiring contracts. Favors and Kanter still have plenty of time to reach their ceilings, and the Burks-Burke backcourt should be solid for years to come. Gordon Hayward is expected to be a hot commodity as a free agent this offseason, and the Jazz will have a great chance to re-tool in a draft loaded with gifted wings should they lose him.

Injuries

Zaza Pachulia (foot) and Carlos Delfino (foot) both continue to sit out, while leading rebounder John Henson is expected to miss another week with a lower left leg injury.

What to watch for:

- These are two of the NBA’s most dreadful scoring teams, with both averaging 92.7 points per game. Utah shoots a slightly better percentage (43% compared to 42%), but don’t expect to see any nets catching fire at EnergySolutions Arena.

- Both starting point guards – Brandon Knight and Trey Burke – have played well of late. Though turnovers have been an issue for the Burke, he’s scored in double-figures in each of his last five games, while averaging more than assists over that span. Over his last five, Knight is averaging 22.6 points 6.4 assists and 7.6 rebounds. He’s also shooting over 48 percent from the floor.

- Milwaukee-native Diante Garrett will face his hometown team for just the third time in his NBA career. He came to Milwaukee as a member of the Suns last season but did not see any game action. His minutes have been sporadic again this season, though he’s played a combined 21 minutes over the past two games. A 2007 graduate of Vincent High School, where he starred alongside future UWGB recruit Bryquis Perine, Garrett played four years at Iowa State before spending 2011 and part of 2012 overseas. His father, Dick Garrett, played 15 years in the NBA, including his final season with Milwaukee in 1973-74.

Projected starters

Utah

PG – Trey Burke

SG – Gordon Hayward

SF – Richard Jefferson

PF – Marvin Williams

C – Derrick Favors

Milwaukee

PG – Brandon Knight

SG – Giannis Antetokounmpo

SF – Khris Middleton

PF – Ersan Ilyasova

C – Larry Sanders

Leaders

Points: Hayward (16.2), Knight (15.0)

Rebounds: Favors (9.0), Henson (8.0)

Assists: Burke (5.1), Knight (4.4)

Blocks: Favors (1.4), Henson (2.3)

Team rankings (per game)

Utah

Points: 28th (92.7)

Rebounds: 26th (41.4)

Assists: 25th (20.0)

Points Allowed: 17th (100.9)

Milwaukee

Points: 27th (92.7)

Rebounds 24th (41.6)

Assists: 19th (20.6)

Points Allowed: 14th (100.2)

Full player statistics

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Tags: Brandon Knight Giannis Antetokounmpo John Henson Larry Sanders Milwaukee Bucks Trey Burke