NBA Today: Bucking Up
After missing the playoffs the last two seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks currently hold down the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Other than a vastly improved defense, the big difference this season for the Bucks has been their ability to defend their home court. With six wins in the last seven games at the Bradley Center, Milwaukee has upped its home mark to an impressive 9-5 – a great improvement for a team that finished under .500 at home last season.
Monday night, Milwaukee gets a suddenly revitalized Raptor team in to visit for what is shaping up as a very important game with Toronto breathing down the Bucks’ backs for the final playoff spot in the East. A win would put the Raptors just a half game out of eighth place in the conference.
Milwaukee actually dropped its home opener to the Raptors, but has gone a scorching 9-4 since. The Bucks certainly haven’t had a hiccup at home to anything resembling a weak team, losing only to the Suns, Celtics, Cavs and Pistons. When playing at home, good teams eat bad teams for breakfast. Now if Milwaukee could just learn to win a bit more often on the road, it might actually make a run at a winning record for the first time in five years. Thank Pink Floyd the Bucks are in the East, where a sub-.500 record will still bag you a playoff spot.
With Scott Skiles now running the show in Milwaukee, this team is far more focused on defense, as evidenced by limiting opponents to 96.1 PPG after yielding 103.9 per game last season. At home, the Bucks have been even stingier on D – especially lately. They’ve gone 6-1 at home since the beginning of December, thanks mostly to the fact that opponents are averaging under 90 PPG. Impressive.
Michael Redd still hasn’t fully gotten untracked after missing 14 games with an ankle injury. Last week, it appeared he was getting his scoring touch back, averaging over 25 PPG during a hot three-game stretch. Unfortunately, he was just 6-for-14 from the field and an uncharacteristically bad 4-for-8 from the line on Saturday, managing just 17 points. The weird thing is, Redd came out like a house on fire, nailing 5-of-8 for 11 points in the first quarter. But then he disappeared, sinking just 1-for-6 for six points over the next three quarters combined. And even though Redd pulled his best Shaq imitation from the line, the fact that he made that many trips to the line was a great sign. In fact, in his last two games, he’s earned 18 trips to the charity stripe, and given that a significant decline in FT attempts per game is a key reason why his scoring is down, this is a great sign for Redd owners. It may also be a trend worth watching over the next few games if you’re considering buying low on him.
Andrew Bogut had to sit on Saturday because of his back, a nasty surprise for his owners. But it was pretty clear given his lackluster performance Friday that he was labouring, so let’s hope a game off will do wonders. Bogut averaged one rebound per game less in December than November, but he made up for that by increasing his offensive output. I was really expecting a serious breakout this season from the former No. 1 overall pick, but so far he’s been a bit of a disappointment. He’s also already missed as many games because of injury as he did all last season. While the Aussie’s rebounding totals have been fantastic, he hasn’t been nearly as aggressive offensively, drawing 1.1 less FT attempts per game, and that’s really hurt his offensive output. I still haven’t heard whether Bogut will play tonight, so I guess we’ll just have to pray that his back spasms have eased over the last couple of days.
Richard Jefferson is yet another Buck whose FT attempts are way down, leading to a big disappointment offensively. Sure, he’s been durable the past couple of years and in his last couple of games, RJ has done well (18.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG), but the dude is averaging 5.2 points per game less than he did in his final season in Jersey. We liked him as a top 25 forward heading into the season, but at this point, he’s not even a top 35 forward. Good sign: RJ earned eight trips to the charity stripe on Saturday, and he had a good shooting day from the field (6-for-12).
Speaking of Jefferson, he gets to face his former team for the first time when New Jersey comes to town on Friday. In between that game and tonight’s matchup against the Raptors, the Sixers pay a visit. With three sub-.500 teams coming to the Bradley Center, the Bucks have a very good chance of running the table and squaring their record for the first time since November 14, when they were 5-5. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s heady stuff for a Buck fan. And yes, believe it or not, you can count me among this exclusive group.
On the downside, as mentioned above, Toronto seems to have turned the corner. And the Raps really love sticking it to Milwaukee, having won the past three games in this series. So looking past Toronto could prove fatal. And the Bucks are coming off an embarrassing loss to the Bobcats on Saturday, a loss that snapped a five-game win streak against Charlotte. It’s not as if Milwaukee has plenty of teams it traditionally dominates.
Charlie Villanueva has been another disappointment this season (with all these Bucks disappointing, it sure does tell you how improved defense can work wonders for a team). Yes, his scoring and rebounding is up slightly, but his PT has dropped, he’s clearly had issues with Skiles, and the anticipated breakout we expected with Yi Jianlian out of the way hasn’t happened. Charlie V owners – and they are a declining group – may soon be resembling their fantasy asset because he’s giving them enough headaches to force them to pull all their hair out. Case in point: in 29 minutes of action on Friday, Villanueva sunk 9-of-16 including a pair of treys on his way to a season-best 27 points. Saturday, he hits on just 2-of-6 in 19 minutes for a measly five points. The frustration was clearly showing, which may not be a bad thing for the normally staid Villanueva. He tossed Gerald Wallace to the floor for a flagrant foul, then later got teched up before finally fouling out of the game. Let’s hope he brings that kind of spark Monday against his former team, except this time he uses it to fill up the stat sheet.