Bucks Weekend: Free to be Yi and Bobby… Joe vs. Brook Lopez… Bogut returns… Kevin McHale’s T-Wolves

Yi Jianlian soars left to the hoop Wednesday vs. the Memphis Grizzlies. (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

Bucks (18-20) @  Minnesota Timberwolves (10-25), 7pm, FSN Saturday

Al Jefferson - NBA.com photoThe T-Wolves are the Bucks third opponent this week that started off the season firing its coach. T-Wolves GM Kevin McHale took over for Randy Wittman after a 4-15 start and proceeded to lose eight straight games. Since then, however, McHale’s Wolves are 6-2 and beginning to gain some confidence. They aren’t beating good teams just yet, though they did win in Chicago last weekend before wins vs. Memphis and Oklahoma City this week.

T-Wolves big forward/center Al Jefferson (22.6 ppg, 10.5 rpg) will be a tough matchup for the Bucks, who could be without Andrew Bogut for the fifth straight game (back spasms). Bucks coach Scott Skiles has often played forward Charlie Villianueva’s at center in Bogut’s absence, but Jefferson’s a handful. Guard Randy Foye is averaging 20.7 pts per game in the T-Wolves last ten.

The Wolves haven’t played since Wednesday, which could make this one tough for the Bucks coming off an emotional, last-second 104-102 win against the Nets Friday. (What am I saying? Every game is tough for these Bucks, unless they’re playing the Knicks.)

Luke Ridnour was the Net killer last night, saving the Bucks in the final minutes for the 4th time since Dec. 23 (the Jazz game), hitting a driving drop shot in the lane with .5 seconds left that began with a behind-the-back dribble move that floored Net Bobby Simmons. The Bucks had led by 7 after a Redd three with 3:11 to play, then sputtered …

Bombs Away!!! Former Bucks Yi Jianlian and Simmons shot a combined 8-13 from 3-point-land for the Nets, something neither of them had the opportunity to do last season. New Jersey shot 26 three’s in all. The Bucks responded by shooting 23 of their own, making ten. Yi had 16 in the 3rd quarter but then broke a pinkie. No, it wasn’t from having the ball in his hands shooting so much more than he did last season.

The latest on Bogut is that Skiles is bringing him off the bench tonight. With the T-Wolves rested and the Bucks on a back-to-back, they could use his help on Jefferson. On the other hand, if he’s not starting and Skiles is “keeping an eye on him” and being careful “to not overplay him,” then why not leave Bogut in Milwaukee to get a couple more days of rehab for his back? The Bucks play the Wizards in Washington, D.C. Monday. …

Bucks (17-20) vs. New Jersey Nets (18-18), 7:30pm @ Bradley Center

Yi Jianlian, Bobby Simmons, Wauwatosa East High’s Devin Harris and the New Jersey Nets are in  Brewtown for the first Bucks-Nets matchup since the summer trade of Yi and Bobby for Richard Jefferson. Post-trade interest aside, the Bucks are due for a win: they haven’t beaten the Nets in over two years (they won Dec. 23, 2006) and have lost nine of 10 spanning three years.

Yi experienced four of those Bucks defeats in his rookie season, that miasma of sub-mediocrity that led to the firing of the GM who in 2007 drafted him against his will.  And Simmons? Well, Bobby is Bobby and the Bucks lost 151 games the three years he was here. He watched many of them from the bench and the injured list, collecting about $8.6 million/yr thanks to the contract the same fired GM signed him to in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Nets are in 7th place in the Eastern Conference standings, 1.5 games ahead of the 8th place Bucks after the Bucks loss to Philly Wednesday. Given the standings, the big trade and other points of interest, such as the Bucks drafting of Joe Alexander over Brook Lopez last summer, there’s plenty of rub between the Bucks and Nets to call this a budding rivalry.

That former Bucks GM shall remain nameless for the present because the Harris to be concerned about, hometown guy and Wisconsin Badger Devin, may not play tonight due to a hamstring injury. Harris, who’s dribble-driving his way to an All-star season as Nets point guard, is listed as questionable. … The bigger injury news, however, is that Bucks center Andrew Bogut will almost certainly miss his fourth game in a row due to recurring lower back problems. The Bucks are 1-5 this season without Bogut.

Bogut in a familiar pose, nursing a sprained ankle for Australia in the Olympics; this photo from the 2nd half of the Aussies game against the U.S. (AP photo)

Bogut on Thursday told Journal Sentinel’s Tom Enlund that he does not expect to play against the Nets. And he’s now wondering whether the severe back problems he’s suffered this season may be connected to playing for Basketball Australia in the Olympics last summer. Here’s Bogut:

“… it’s probably from playing all summer. I’ve got some injuries that I’ve never had before and that might be part of it. Playing all year around is tough to do.”

Bogut sprained each of his ankles playing in China this summer, and also rolled an ankle during Bucks preseason. Leg injuries can lead to lower back problems, certainly, because if the wheels aren’t right, the body compensates by distributing weight and pressure differently than normal. A person can throw their entire rack out of whack if they’re not careful. (My yoga guru, may she rest in peace, would be proud of me right about now.)

There’s a little more to it than that with Bogut and Basketball Australia, which I detailed last August when I realized that the Aussie coaches’ repeated references to ankle sprains as “3-4 day things” — even the ligament damage suffered by a women’s team star — was a signal that Aussie toughness probably involved something more than grit.

In Bogut’s case the issue isn’t so much that he got hurt in international play (rolled ankles being the most common basketball injuries) as it is how the injury was treated. The Bucks should seriously consider sending a team trainer along the next time their $60 million center heads Down Under to play for his country.

Bogut continues to give fairly regular updates about his injury situation on his blog. He also told JS’s Enlund that he might play Saturday in Minneapolis, but don’t believe him. I wouldn’t expect the Bucks to put Bogut on an airplane until next week when they fly to Sacramento, which means he would miss the the T-Wolves game Saturday and the Wiz game Monday in Washington. Hopefully, Bogues will be fully recovered next Wednesday at the BC for Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. The Bucks need him.

Now, about those New Jersey Nets

Yi Jianlian and the media.Kiki and Yi: One factor in the R.J. trade many Bucks fans underestimate is Nets GM Kiki Vandeweghe‘s pursuit of Yi in the deal. The X factor that made the Bucks and Nets trading partners last summer was Vandeweghe’s belief in Yi as a player — notsomuch Yi as the road to marketing riches from China (not that the Nets can’t use the dough with hopes to build a new arena in Brooklyn) or the need for 2010 salary cap space. Yes, the Nets also made the trade for future salary cap room but they could have found it with a number of teams not the Milwaukee Bucks.

Vandeweghe worked out with Yi in the summer of 2007 while an unemployed GM, ousted from Denver. Vandeweghe was so impressed with Yi’s athleticism and shooting ability that he told Yi he would “try to get him” if he got another chance at a GM post.

True to his word, acquiring Yi was one of Vandeweghe’s first moves as Nets GM; and Yi’s development is very much a Vandeweghe project. When Yi missed the first six days of training camp due to an ankle sprain and fell behind the team, the GM became Yi’s personal coach, working with him after practice on some of the finer points of scoring in the NBA.  (Vandeweghe, a 6′ 8″ scoring machine in his playing days, averaged 29.4 ppg in 1983-84 and ended his 14-year career with just under 16,000 points).

Needless to say, the environment in New Jersey is a bit more fertile for the young Yi than the turmoil he experienced here. It’s almost as if the Nets GM believes all that hype about Yi being the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki.

So how’s Yi doing? He’s started all 36 Nets games and is having a good week, with games of 20 and 22 points against soft competition in Memphis and Sacremento. After the Memphis game Wednesday, netsphobia gave this assessment of Yi at HOOPLAH.. NATION:

“Yi, for the first time this season showing some consistency that had been missing all the long, again in this game, no over-reliance on his jump shot but rather going in and out, playing in the post, and then coming back out for some pick and pops …”

Devin Harris is questionable for the Bucks game tonight with a hamstring injury. The former Dallas Mav says the comparisons of Yi to Dirk Nowitzki are valid. NBA.com photo.Sounds like the concerns Bucks fans had last season about Yi not mixing it up in the paint as well or as much as a 7-footer should. Don’t expect a brand new Yi tonight. Still, in about the same amount of playing time, Yi’s scoring and defensive rebounding are up compared to last season: 10.6 ppg, 6.7 overall rpg as a Net; his offensive rebounding is down a bit, probably a function of Yi playing farther away from the basket in New Jersey than he did here.

Further away from the basket? In New Jersey, Yi shoots the three. In Milwaukee, he shot from downtown about once every three games but now shoots the threeball nine times as often, 2.6 threes per game —and they’re going in at a rate of 38%. That’s the same percentage R.J. is shooting and higher than Michael Redd’s 34%. It seems the Nets have a good handle on how to bring Yi along.

Yi’s defense, btw, still needs a lot of work.

Since he’s here, might as well mention the All-star flap over the possibility of Chinese voters vaulting Yi into a starting spot on the East squad over Kevin Garnett. C’mon folks, just because you can doesn’t mean it’s right. Who am I kidding? Why would Americans expect geo-political basketball to be any different from geo-political politics?

Oh, and let’s not forget Bobby Simmons: He’s starting at small forward for the Nets, playing about 26 mins per game and shooting more than half of his shots from three-point land. He’s hitting 42% of them to lead the Nets, and has climbed up to 16th on the active career 3-point shooters list that I like so much. Bobby Simmons can shoot a basketball and is paid $10.6 million this year to score 8 points per game. ‘Nuff said.

Really dorky photo of Brook Lopez from the Nets websiteWith no Bogut in the paint for the Bucks, look for Nets rookie center Brook Lopez to be a factor tonight. Lopez is averaging 10 pts, 8 rebs and 2 blks since taking over the starting job from Josh Boone (who gives Bogut trouble) when Boone was injured in November. Boone’s back but the starting job is Brook’s. This surfer dude Cali kid was drafted 10th last summer behind Joe Alexander and three other guys who are playing less, nine (including Joe) who are winning less while only Derrick Rose in Chicago and O.J. Mayo in Memphis are being asked to do as much.

Did I mention Lopez is 7-feet tall? Ball Don’t Lie called it before the draft. Brook Lopez seems now like he should have been a no-brainer pick for the Bucks.

The Bob Boozer Jinx has responded to this fit of hindsight by dispatching Bob Boozer Jinx Girl Meghan to get to the bottom of the Bucks draft day puzzle, wrapped as it is in an enigma, cocooned in questions and twisted like a Steely Dan lyric. I’m pleased to report that progress has been made, especially since Meghan has more time on her hands now that she’s no longer dancing with Energee!. But for now, draftday regrets give Bucks fans another reason to pay attention to the Nets.

The Nets are the youngest team in the league, well-position for the 2010 free agent bonanza that includes Lebron.

Nets players think seeing Richard Jefferson in a Bucks uniform will be weird. R.J. happens to be the 2nd-leading scorer in Nets history, which I didn’t realize until I read it on Yahoo. I’ll bet you a New Jersey Nets trash can that you can’t name the leading scorer in Nets history — and no basketball-reference cheating. I guessed right the first time, and so can you.

This Nets garbage can could be yours.

Skiles vs. the Redd-ites: A strange phenomenon has been occurring. I write something after the Raptors game such as: “While it was great to get the win, wasn’t this one eerily similar to the way the Bucks have played in the past few years? A lot of jumpshooting and not a heckuva lot of defense …”

After the Philly loss, coach Scott Skiles said much the same thing:

“It’s basically our fifth game in a row where we’re lacking any sort of will to defend. We got away with it a couple games. This is reminiscent of the past couple years – Bucks basketball – go out and play no defense, don’t give much of an effort and try to outscore people. We were fortunate the other night (against Toronto) we got away with it. Tonight we didn’t.”

Just thought I’d mention it. The Scott Skiles Bucks need to show up soon with some defense and ball movement. The Redd-ite approach doesn’t produce wins, how quickly some forget, and it seems like it’s starting to settle in like it did in seasons past. This, and not Bogut’s injury, is the issue of the weekend for the Bucks.

Skiles went on to say that he thought the Bucks played a total of 37 minutes of solid defense in the last five games (most of it against Houston) and is hoping things will tighten up after a day of practice Thursday.

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Note: That’s a real trash can, dear readers, available on the China trade network. Don’t be so sure, however, about this alleged contest.

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