By Alex Boeder
With all eyes on Jim Boylan on the sideline making his debut as head coach of the Bucks, you may have missed it.
The Bucks had a new team on Tuesday night against the Suns. True, it was the same 15 players they have had all season. But on the court, score tied 0-0, those five Bucks had never before in their lives started a game together as one: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders.
They lost the jump ball. And then they won the game.
Before the game, Jim Boylan did not address reporters in the usual place just outside the team’s locker room. Instead, he answered questions from the media at a press conference. It is not like it was his first day on the job or anything – Boylan had been an assistant coach with the Bucks since May 14, 2008. But it was his first day at a new job. And he was ready to make some changes.
"I'm going to put Ersan back in the starting lineup. I had quite a few individual meetings with the players, not everyone yet because we just didn't have enough time. The guys have been great, very receptive, and when you come into a situation like this you have these great visions in your head about what you want to do and how you want to do it and then you come to realize you don't really have that much time.”
Though he went with a completely new starting five, Boylan did not lock himself into that group.
“We play tonight, we play tomorrow. You have to kind of creep along and make some subtle changes. Hopefully getting Ersan back in there will get us off to a better start. We've been struggling in the first quarter so hopefully we see a better output tonight."
Last season, the Bucks tried 19 different starting lineups in 66 games. That is roughly one every three and a half games, on average. This season, they had already tried eight different starting lineups through 32 games, almost on pace to equal the number they tried last season.
It almost takes you surprise – that this particular group of five players had never started a game together.
With so much depth, there is no obvious starting lineup when glancing at the roster – consider that 11 Bucks have started this season – but it would not be so difficult to argue that these five are the best players on the team at each of their respective positions. Mbah a Moute and Dunleavy make for a pretty close call at small forward. But Dunleavy has fit in well powering the second unit on offense, and it follows that the team can slot the defensive-minded Mbah a Moute at small forward, with Ilyasova to space the floor at power forward.
And then… the Jennings/Ellis/Mbah a Moute/Ilyasova/Sanders lineup actually got off to a slow, slow start.
The Bucks trailed 20-11 before their first substitution against a Suns team that entered the night 2-14 on the road. Was this destined to be yet another lineup that would start just a game or two together? Maybe. Maybe it still is.
But the same five started the third quarter – by far the team’s worst quarter overall throughout the season so far – and they turned it all around. The group quickly turned a four-point halftime deficit into a 69-66 lead, and the Bucks never trailed again. For at least one night their worst quarter was their best quarter, as the Bucks pounded the Suns by a score of 30-20.
Sometimes after games, you are not sure who is going to ask the first question. After the game, Boylan did not wait for reporters to ask questions before he started talking about the game. He went on to praise a number of his players, both starters and reserves.
“I like Ersan out there for his offense, hustle, and rebounding.”
But with Ilyasova in foul trouble late in the game, Boylan turned to rookie John Henson for some important minutes down the stretch of a game that remained within striking distance for the Suns.
“John is still trying to find his scoring in the NBA. But as you can see, he gets the ball in some places, and he’s so long, he really gives people a hard time when he is gathered around the basket with his pump fakes. He is a right-handed player, but when he shoots left-handed, you could swear he is a left-handed player. So he is a pretty tough cover for most defenses.”
Henson completed an alley-oop dunk from Brandon Jennings to give the Bucks a 97-91 lead, and he scored five points in the final four minutes of the game. Of course, this all leads to another question. You can plan starting lineups, but it can be at least as important and even more difficult to have a strong closing lineup.
“I thought he (Henson) had one key play for us down the stretch, with about two minutes to go. He just got a hand on the ball, that came off the offensive glass, and I think Larry ended up with the ball, but it was John’s length that got that ball loose. And there are not many guys in the league that could have put a hand on that ball, like John did.”
Indeed, not many players are getting to the offensive glass like Henson, who ranks among the NBA’s leaders in offensive rebounds per minute.
Boylan did not take over a 0-0 team, but he did take over a team with exactly the same number of wins as losses. Boylan also took over a team that had seemingly tried just about every reasonable starting combination possible, and managed to try something new.
And about the new starting lineup – the sample size is still too small to really know. They are 1-0. They have now played 50 minutes together overall this season, equal to approximately one full NBA game. In that time, they have collectively outscored their opponents by one point.
With all eyes now back on the players, will Boylan keep finding the right lineups?
My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.