It's hard to know what to make of the Bucks. They might be the most desolate, anonymous outpost in the NBA. They wear drab uniforms, they send one reporter on the road to cover their games, and they inspire a great malaise from the teams they play and the crowds they visit. Lest you forget, it was the Bucks, not the laughingstock 76ers, who finished with the worst record in the league last season, a miserable 15-67, and a casual basketball fan may indeed find it hard to name a single Buck, outside of "That one Greek guy with the long name."
The thing is though, the Bucks are the stealth bomber of the NBA. They're hidden, almost camouflaged, but John Hammond, their general manager, and Jason Kidd, the second-year coach already on his second team, are quietly, slowly, building something quite interesting and progressing far ahead of schedule, even though their best laid plans have blown up all around them.
Consider that Jabari Parker, the second overall pick of the draft out of Duke, who was enjoying a fine start to his career, averaging 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds, on 49 percent shooting and a 14.6 PER as a 19-year-old, tore his ACL and is out for the season. And let it sink in that Larry Sanders, their rim-protector extraordinaire, looks to be a complete waste of $44 million, having had repeated injury problems and various other problems on and off the court. He is currently serving a 10-game suspension --meaning he's tested positive at least three times-- and has left the team at times for "personal reasons" or been asked to stay away by Kidd. There were reports that he wanted to quit because he didn't like basketball, which Sanders' camp has denied. Regardless, he doesn't seem long for Milwaukee.
Despite these setbacks, the Bucks have been undaunted, and here they sit, after Sunday's 101-95 loss to the Spurs at the AT&T Center, at .500, 22-22, the same record as the Oklahoma City Thunder and sixth in the Eastern Conference. They're doing it, naturally for a team that doesn't get much attention, with defense, ranking second in defensive rating to the Warriors with 99.2 points allowed-per-100 possessions and fourth in opponents' field goal percentage at 43.5 percent. The Bucks hold foes to just 32.9 percent from downtown (also good for fourth) and force 17.1 turnovers-per-game, the second-most in the league. Yes, they have wunderkind Giannis "The Greek Freak" Antetokounmpo, with limbs that stretch forever like "Dhalsim" from Street Fighter. But they also have a whole squad of solid, if unheralded, defenders in Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Knight, Jared Dudley and John Henson. Their rankings aren't an accident nor a fluke, and in the first half they gave the Spurs absolute fits with their length and aggressiveness, reminiscent of the Thunder but more disciplined (okay, I stole that from this awesome analyst I know).
The Spurs shot just 39.5 percent in the first half, and only 2-of-12 from downtown, and tossed it away ten times. They were extremely fortunate to be down just 55-47, after trailing 24-12 (courtesy of a 20-2 Milwaukee run) early on, because the Bucks themselves were carless with the ball and a bit too foul prone. There was definitely a bit of "home cooking" going on with some of the foul calls, as will happen to teams like the Bucks when they play teams like the Spurs on the road, but the truth is their aggressiveness of their defensive scheme came at a cost as well. However, it didn't help matters a bit for the home side that their four most prolific perimeter players, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green, shot a combined 3-of-24 in the first half, with Green and Parker in particular missing many open looks. Basically, if not for a vintage showing from the ageless Tim Duncan, the Spurs would've been staring at the wrong end of a rout by half.
The game turned, as Spurs games must, thanks mostly to two people who've been fairly anonymous themselves, both of late and in general for their careers. Cory Joseph checked in first for Green and then for Parker in the third quarter, and once he was the lone point guard on the floor, with Ginobili replacing Parker, Gregg Popovich at last found a lineup that clicked on both ends of the court. Joseph didn't show up in the box score, but his defensive tenaciousness helped neutralize Knight and blunt Milwaukee's half-court offense. When it came to actually producing points, it wasn't Parker but rather another slumping Frenchman in Boris Diaw, who managed to find creases in the Bucks rampaging defense, with delayed, slow-motion drives into a wide open lanes, created after bouts of patient ball movement. When it wasn't Diaw doing the damage inside, it was Duncan's understudy Tiago Splitter, and then Leonard, and finally Ginobili, who rallied in the fourth quarter after producing nothing of consequence for the first three.
Diaw admitted he was more aggressive in looking for shot than usual in the second half. "Yeah, a little bit more at times," he conceded. "Sometimes they were trying to play the small-ball game and I tried to use that to an advantage."
After getting back into the game with a 22-12 third quarter, the Spurs closed the door with 32 points in the final period, getting seven apiece from Leonard and Ginobili and nailing 9-of-10 free throws as a whole. Leonard wound up badly outplaying his Greek dopplenganger and finished the evening with 19 and 14, giving him 47 rebounds over his last four games, his most ever for any four-game stretch. Duncan, meanwhile, put the Spurs up four with 1:01 to go, finishing off a wicked spin move with a lay-in and then contesting Jerryd Bayless' floater well enough to force a miss on the next trip down.
"It happens a lot with East teams that we aren't as familiar with," Duncan explained afterward, when asked if the Bucks' style of defense took a half to get used to. "It takes us a while to get used to them, especially when they're young and they've changed their team a bit and their coach and everything else. We hadn't seen them and it took us a half to get used to what they were doing, and once we did we did a much better job of taking care of the ball, moving the ball and luckily making some shots."
Slowly but surely the Bucks will grow to be a whole lot less anonymous, to both the Spurs and the rest of the NBA. There are definitely building blocks already in place and probably another trip to the lottery might be the best thing for them, so that they could get another piece. They don't seem inclined to wait though and may just crash the postseason party, regardless of whether they're invited or not. If the season ended today, they'd draw the Wizards, and while Washington would likely prevail, they'd leave the series with a lot of bumps, bruises and far the worse for wear. You get the feeling somebody in April is going to wind up knowing all about the Bucks, every little nook and cranny of them, even if they had no intention of doing so going in.
Your Three Stars:
3) Kawhi Leonard (61 pts)
2) Boris Diaw (26 pts)
1) Tim Duncan (60 pts)