The first time the Bucks played the “Big Three” Miami Heat, in Milwaukee Dec. 6, Brandon Jennings, John Salmons and Keyon Dooling threw a 28.6% brickfest at the rim on 35 “shots” and the Bucks lost by ten in a game that was closer than the 88-78 final score. That clunking percentage actually includes the adjustment for the 6 of 8 free throws made by the three Bucks guards. Really.
I was at that game, sipping a Riverwest Stein as Jennings BOTched a two-handed 4th quarter dunk right in front of the Bob Boozer Jinx posse, never mind the lady in the Dwyane Wade jersey shreeaking every time he scored. She looked a bit too old to have been at Marquette with Wade, but was having far too much fun in the one-woman cheering section of hers for it to have been anything but personal. Maybe she was Wade’s favorite Milwaukee bartender?
In losing that night, the Bucks wasted 48 minutes of tenacious end-to-end defense, right out of the Scott Skiles textbook. Funny, Lebron James looks awfully human with Luc Mbah a Moute in his grill, as he was held to 17 points (on 16 shots), with six assists — not bad for most NBA players, but certainly not the sort of normalcy one expects from Lebron. And Lebron just let it happen, allowing the game come to him, refusing to force anything offensively, moving the ball to his more open teammates.
James’ willingness to share the ball and take a back seat to Wade (25 pts), to Chris Bosh, even to Carlos Arroyo (18 pts), exemplified the team ethic the Heat built during their 12-game winning streak. This, more than the individual talent of the Heat stars, is the biggest problem tonight for the Bucks in Miami tonight, in the first of two Bucks-Heat games this week. That and the Heat D, one of four defenses (the Celtics, Bulls and Magic the others) rated higher than the Bucks’ 101.9 pts allowed per 100 possessions.
The Bucks schedule: While I’m on the 2010-11 NBA Season Summary page at Basketball-reference.com, now’s a good time to mention that, as of this week, the 13 wins, 18 losses Bucks have officially played the toughest schedule in the NBA (scroll down to the “Miscellaneous stats” table in the SOS column). The Bucks are the lone team with a plus-1.00 SOS; the Lakers, who’ve played the softest schedule in the NBA, are the only team below minus-1.00 number. The Bucks SOS can only increase tonight and over the next ten days when they play the Heat again (Friday), a game tomorrow in Orlando and the Spurs next week.
The Spurs game all-but closes the Bucks out against the upper tier of the West this season, leaving only a road game at Oklahoma City and a home game against Denver left to play. The remaining ten Western conference games are against the bottom seven, though it’d be foolish to underestimate the (14-18) Suns, whose tough schedule so far is 2nd only to the Bucks schedule.
Beasts of the East: The Bucks still have three Bulls games to look forward to, but after Friday’s Heat game, six of the Bucks 11 games against the Heat, Celtics and Magic will be behind them at the 34 game mark. That’s a lot of tough competition in your back pocket if you’re the Bucks and looking up at the Hawks (3rd-softest schedule), Knicks (4th softest) and Pacers.
Throw in the point differential (Simple Rating System) and the Bucks are one mean 13-18 team that’s got no business being under .500.
Hawks: 3rd softest schedule (-.84); point differential (SRS) of +1.09 — distant 12th in NBA behind the Thunder. The Hawks are no contender or top 10 team, which Bucks showed by blowing them out in Atlanta Nov. 10. And we already knew that after last year
Knicks: 4th softest schedule (-.82); SRS of +.06 — 16th in NBA). The Knicks have played well lately but don’t believe the hype, they’re an average team that has played a weak schedule. The Bucks walked all over them in Milwaukee Nov. 9, and the point differential system says the Grizzlies and Rockets have played tougher against stronger schedules.
Bucks: Strongest schedule (+1.0); SRS of -.84 — right behind the Knicks at #17, just ahead of the Pacers. Despite their record, the Bucks are not a team to be taken lightly, unless you’re the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Oklahoma City Thunder playing without Kevin Durant, the league’s leading scorer. The Bucks play the tough teams tough but have had the frustrating problem of thinking that they’re better than they actually are, which is what happens when you add scorers used to losing (Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden) to a defensive-minded Scott Skiles team. Yeah, it sounds harsh, but there’s no other culprit. Injuries? Every team has them. The good teams (like Oklahoma City at the Bradley Center) manage to win even without their best players.
The Pacers: Average schedule (-.13), SRS of -.85 — 18th behind the Bucks. Losing twice to the Bucks hurt, and it’ll make it very difficult for the Pacers to stay with the Bucks in the standings once the schedule strength begins to even out. The Bucks schedule has been so loaded that, for all practical purposes, the 7th spot might as well be theirs, barring injury to Andrew Bogut.
But there’s that preseason “Bucks-should-win-the-Central” thinking again. They’re too far behind the Bulls to even think about winning the Central now, and it would be disgraceful at this point if the Bucks don’t treat every team as if they’re the Celtics or the Heat or the Magic. And while they’re at it, they might want to think about their old nemesis, the Philadelphia 76ers.