Bucks 6th Fan Blogger Finalist - Luke Grant
A well-documented practice of any Milwaukee Bucks fan is learning to temper your enthusiasm. I think that’s why although there were reasons to be optimistic coming into the season, the focus of the fans and the media was largely on why the team would struggle. Admittedly a surplus of loaded questions currently surrounds the franchise. The tenuous contract situations of key players and management, last year’s abysmal interior defense and the lack of a true superstar on the roster are just three of them.
However, if Bucks fans are letting these questions detract from their ability to sit back and enjoy the NBA experience then they are doing themselves a disservice. And that is especially true if the team plays their remaining 80 games like they played the first two, even if it got a little dicey on Saturday.
Coming off their impressive upset of the Boston Celtics on the road, the Bucks found themselves as optimistic coming into Saturday’s home opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before Friday’s game fans would have been content with a 1-1 start to the season, but opening weekend could not have been considered a success if they faltered against the Cavs.
With an enthusiastic crowd ready at the tip, the Bucks opened the game with good energy but were not as crisp as the previous night on either end of the floor. Alonzo Gee torched Tobias Harris in the first five minutes and Ersan Illysova started 0-5 from the field. However, the Bucks bench eliminated early 12 point deficit with exceptional defensive pressure and lead 41-30 with 6:19 left in the half after a 14-0 run to open the second quarter. Beno Udrih sparked the surge with 11 points on 5-6 shooting while Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders controlled the defensive paint. Cleveland closed the gap as Kyrie Irving ran the pick n’ roll offense flawlessly and took advantage of Joel Przybilla who was getting his first playing time of the season. Even though they shot 65% and assisted on 21 of 24 first half field goals, the Bucks only led by 6 at halftime.
Cleveland came storming out of in the second half, opening with a 14-5 run by taking advantage of a Bucks interior defense that is vulnerable when Udoh and Sanders are on the bench. The Cavs maintained the advantage throughout the third quarter and led 79-76 going into the fourth.
Sanders continued to show his development, scoring five 4th quarter baskets; including a 20 foot jump shot that had the crowd holding their breath. The Bucks seemingly had control of the game leading by seven with under two minutes to play, but Irving brought the Cavs back and eventually tied the game with .7 seconds left. Irving had the opportunity to tie the game after a Brandon Jennings jumper was waived off for a shot clock violation on the previous possession when .5 seconds weren’t enough time to get it off…apparently he needed .2 more seconds. Jennings got those extra milliseconds and made them count with a game winning three pointer from the top of key that sent the Bucks home with a 105-102 victory.
The star of the game for the Bucks was Mike Dunleavy who finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists on 10-12 from the field and kept them in it with his long range shooting when the offense struggled. Larry Sanders had arguably his most effective game as a Buck with 17 points and 4 blocks and became a viable offensive weapon running the pick n’ roll with Monta Ellis in the 4th quarter. And although he struggled to contain Irving, Jennings came through with the game winner and also chipped in with 13 assists.
It’s safe to say after the final 20 games last year and first two this year that their offensive mentality is sound. They push the tempo, share the ball and look to score in the paint. The Bucks ended the game with 32 assists on 41 made baskets and shot 52% from the floor. There will be times when the tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis will frustrate sabermetric basketball disciples with long jump shots, but it is clear that their main objective is to attack the rim and put pressure on the defense. Putting preconceived notions and outside issues aside, this unselfish and high octane offense is a highly entertaining and a more satisfying brand of basketball to watch than in the majority of NBA arenas.
What remains in question is whether the defense and rebounding will be consistent enough to elevate the Bucks in the Eastern Conference. Ekpe Udoh often gets overlooked, but his interior defensive was essential to the Bucks 2-0 weekend and Sanders performance on Saturday was the difference against the Cavs. With a concerted effort to prevent opposing guard penetration, the Bucks have looked stronger on their perimeter defense overall but were exposed at times by the Cavs wings. It’s obvious that the effort but there will be struggles during the season.
After this promising 2-0 start I’m not suggesting the Bucks are a threat to Miami in the East and that there are not legitimate questions surrounding this franchise. But it’s prudent and frankly much more enjoyable to forget those questions for the moment and see how it unfolds on the court. I was going to write “enjoy how it unfolds on the court” but then I remembered to temper my enthusiasm. I am a Bucks fan after all.