Two seasons ago the Milwaukee Bucks were mired in mediocrity and on their way to another disappointing season. With a record of 24-28, it would appear that they would yet again fail to make the playoffs in an Eastern Conference not known for setting a high bar for entrance into the post season. Under coach Scott Skiles they had an elite defense (finished 2nd in the league in defensive efficiency), but the offense was anemic. Then on February 18th they pulled of a trade with the Chicago Bulls which brought wingman John Salmons to Milwaukee. After Salmons' arrival, the Bucks won 12 of their next 13 games, their lone loss coming in overtime in Atlanta. It was at this point that the "Fear the Deer" campaign was born. The Bucks surged to a 22-8 finish and took that same Atlanta team to a seventh game in the opening round of the playoffs.
The next season was supposed to be promising. Their young stud point guard Brandon Jennings would have another year under his belt, they re-signed Salmons to a long term deal, and they acquired Corey Maggette-- who is known for getting to the free throw line – to help the team with the worst free-throw-to-field-goal-attempt ratio in the league. These moves had some experts picking them to win the Central division. But things don’t always turn out as planned. Salmons struggled as his scoring average fell from 20 points per game to 14, Jennings quickly became an inefficient scoring point guard, and Maggette suddenly couldn’t find his way to the free throw line. The Bucks limped to a 35-47 record and missed the playoffs. There was no longer a reason to "Fear the Deer".
This season has been much of the same for the Bucks. Gone are Salmons and Maggette, but they have been replaced by a similarly inefficient Stephen Jackson. The offense is still poor, the elite defense has become merely average, and on Wednesday, center Andrew Bogut went down with a fractured ankle. Bogut is the only 7-footer on the roster and his absence means that 6’10" Drew Gooden is now manning the middle.
Lakers big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have both expressed frustrations with the offense not running through the post more often. Tonight, the Lakers' twin-towers should be Plan A, Plan B, Plan C…. heck even Plan Z. We all enjoy watching Kobe Bryant do the things that only Kobe Bryant can do, but The Black Mamba should have the night off tonight. The Bucks played last night and allowed the Chicago Bulls to grab 20 offensive rebounds, over 40% of their missed field goal attempts. The Bulls won despite making less than 30% of their threes and only 60% of their free throws because they were able to take 90 shots in the game. Tonight won’t be any easier for Milwaukee.
The Lakers finally broke the seal on their three-point shooting when they made 8 of 16 against the Clippers on Wednesday. The Lakers shooters should get plenty of wide open opportunities tonight as the Bucks will have to send double teams to help in the post. It will be especially important for Bynum to read the double team properly and efficiently pass out it, something he has struggled with this year. The wide open threes will be there, so it will come down to the Lakers converting them.
Offensively the Bucks are not a great team. They don’t shoot efficiently (46.5% eFG) and they don’t get to free throw line (28th in FT/FGA). Their two strengths are offensive rebounding and limiting turnovers, both of which they are above average at. Their success comes from maximizing their shot attempts to cover up for their inability to make them efficiently. Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova both crash the offensive glass very effectively. Gooden’s offensive rebound rate (12.2%) is on par with Bynum’s (12.3%), while Ilyasova’s (11.4%) not far behind. The Lakers will have to make a concerted effort to put a body on these two players and avoid taking their size advantage for granted. The Bucks will outwork their opponents if not taken seriously.
The other x-factor for the Bucks is the electrifying Brandon Jennings. He may not be the most efficient player, but he is more than capable of getting on a hot streak and has no fear of taking shots. A prime example is the 55 point outburst he put up in only the 7th game of his young career. If the Lakers can limit Jennings to an average night, the Bucks likely won’t have enough offense to win the game.
The Lakers look to turn a single win against the Clippers into a streak by beating the Bucks tonight. The game plan will be fairly simple. Offensively the Lakers need to feed the post interminably, read the coming double teams, and convert the open shots on the perimeter. Defensively they must put a body on Gooden and Ilyasova and keep Jennings in check. The team needs to hop on the big backs of Bynum and Gasol and ride them tonight. If they do, they will leave the Bradley Center with a two game win streak.
Author’s note: I must send a huge thank you to Steve Cooper for providing me with wonderful tickets to tonight’s game. I will be holding it down for SS&R tonight. Keep an eye out for a guy wearing a gold Lakers beanie, Lakers button-up shooting shirt, and home-white Kobe jersey (old school number 8) sitting next to the tunnel where the players enter. Go Lakers!