Tag Archives: Kobe Bryant

The Bruce Bowen File, 10 years later: The incredible hypocrisy of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was “not a happy camper” Monday morning, having lost Kawhi Leonard, a 23-point 3rd quarter lead and Game 1 to the Golden State Warriors and center Zaza Puchulia, whose close-out defense on a Leonard 3-pointer caused Leonard to re-injure his bad ankle. So on Monday Popovich attacked Pachulia in the media, calling the play “unsportsmanlike”, “dangerous”, “unnatural” and leveled charges that Zaza has a history of dirty play.

“Follow-up questions?” Popovich asked, after his rant.  Apparently, none of the assembled with ipods and other recording devices thought to mention Popovich’s old defensive “specialist”, Bruce Bowen, the subject of controversy a decade ago about exactly the same type of illegal “step under” or “slide under” defense Pachulia used against Leonard.

Popovich had this to say back in 2006 when the NBA warned Bowen about Bowen’s crowding close-outs and the sprained jump shooter ankles that he sometimes caused.

“The people who cry about it are just frustrated about having to go against Bruce,” Popovich said in 2006, and complained that league officials were “trying to change the way my best defender plays.”

There was a reason for that. Bowen was as dirty as they come, and made it all too obvious that the shifting or “sliding” of his lead foot into a shooter’s landing space was an intentional defensive move meant to wreak an ankle or few, as you’ll see in this video.

Popovich went even further defending Bowen, and took a defiant stance toward the league directive on Bowen (from VP of NBA basketball operations Stu Jackson) and the efforts to clean up the game.

“The league is just trying to cover its ass,” Popovich said. “I told Bruce, ‘You be Bruce Bowen. You’re the best (expletive) defender in this league. You will NOT change the way you play defense.'” Bowen, when asked, said he was going to ignore what Stu Jackson and the league had told him, and do what his coach told him: “I’ve been given a command, so I’m going to keep playing hard.”

“Pop” and Bowen basically told the league to (expletive) off, a shame considering the bigger picture. The era in which Popovich and his Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio won their first three NBA championships (2003-07) was an ugly era for the NBA — no Michael Jordan (for the most part); bigger, stronger players lacking in fundamental skills; the “Malice in the Palace” in Detroit; a feuding Shaq and Kobe; a referee betting scandal; slow, “dead-ball” pacing; one-on-one isolation offenses and low offensive ratings; and even lower TV ratings — the lowest since the league was young, if not the lowest in NBA history. The defense that Bowen played was part of the ugliness, and Popovich’s defense of it was just one of the league’s many problems.

It would culminate in the months following the Spurs’ rebuke of the league, in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Suns and reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash. Bowen kneed Nash in the groin early in the series and was not suspended. Suns players accused both Bowen and Manu Ginobili of being dirty players. And — ten years ago the day of Leonard’s injury in Game 1 — Spurs’ forward Robert Horry hockey-checked Nash hard into the scorers table in the final seconds of Game 4, igniting a good scuffle on the court.

Defying all common sense and with the series tied 2-2, the NBA suspended Horry for two games, and two Suns for Game 5 — All-Pro big man Amar’e Stoudemire and forward Boris Diaw. Stoudemire and Diaw were not in the fray but had “left the immediate bench area” during the pushing and shoving on the court.

Popovich was less than contrite in 2007 about the dirty play of his team. “It was an end of the game foul,” he shrugged, pausing for effect. “And Steve fell down. I didn’t think it was such a big deal.”

Ten Years Ago to the Day

The historical symmetry here is too good, and if you made this stuff up, nobody would believe it. Ten years ago on this day, May 16, ESPN and other media were spinning about the wrongheaded suspensions of the Suns players and wondering that commissioner David Stern’s league had failed yet again, and now seemed incapable of levying even a simple suspension. The Spurs went on to win the Suns series and championship No. 4 in the Popovich era, sweeping a 22-year-old Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavs in the finals, a series watched by few. The 2007 NBA Finals was a an unqualified ratings dud, the first time since nearly every household in America had a television that fewer than 10 million people watched the finals. Dark times toward the end of a Dark Age for the NBA.

The league has come a long way since then, led first by the renewal of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry and then Lebron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant; and now by James, Steph Curry and other players — Kawhi Leonard — along with a change of style and a new commissioner, Adam Silver. The pace has picked up, the ball moves more quickly on offense, sometimes with astounding precision, and the game has opened up. It’s not all for the better, but much of the strong-arm play of the 1990s and 2000s is a thing of the past — though Popovich and Pachulia and the Celtics-Wizards series have taken us back there for a visit. Zaza may not be able to help it — it’s when and where he’s from as a pro basketball player.

Zaza Pachulia is a down and dirty tough guy in the NBA, a squarish, slow-footed big man who passes well, doesn’t shoot much and makes up for his lack of athleticism by using his strength and low center of gravity to advantage; by making the right cuts without the ball; and by playing hard-nosed basketball, including the occasional nastiness. “You don’t mess with Zaza,” is a rule of thumb his fans and teammates in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Dallas and Golden State have enjoyed and opponents hated.

Pachulia was drafted as a 19-year-old in 2003, and is very much a product of that ugly era of NBA basketball, including the inherent dirty defense. He would have fit in well on the Spurs of the mid-2000s.

If one comes away with any conclusions watching video of Bruce Bowen stepping under jump shooters, note that there is a technique to it, in Bowen’s case more of a step than a “slide” of the right foot forward as the shooter descends from his shot. ESPN TV and radio analyst Jalen Rose, who played in the NBA 1995-2007, fully admitted on “SportCenter” after the Spurs-Warriors Game 1 broadcast that he had used the step-under on Kobe Bryant in the 2000 Finals, when Rose was starting for the Pacers and tasked with guarding the Lakers star. “If [Kobe] sprains his ankle, we win the championship,” Rose said.

There’s no question it’s a dirty play, despised by shooters and employed by the worst hacks on any team at any level of basketball (sorry, Jalen), guys like Bowen who don’t possess great skill but work hard and do the dirty work coaches like Popovich love and encourage.

Zaza Pachulia steps to Kevin Garnett in the 2008 playoffs. License: Standard noncommercial use.

Pachulia was a young, developing player of limited offensive abilities in the mid-2000s, and would certainly have put the Bowen “step under” technique in his defensive toolbox, knowing that dirty work and the occasional dirty play could lead to more playing time in a league where playing time is hard to come by. Zaza had been on three different teams by the time he was 21 and found a home in Atlanta, where he played for eight seasons.

Judging by the play that caused Leonard’s injury, Zaza’s technique is as good or better than than Bowen’s was, as Zaza did a very convincing job of selling his footwork as accidental, a little clumsy even. Try that on any playground or gym in America and you better be ready for a fight, or, in the very least, to defend yourself aggressively.

So do we take Popovich and Pachulia seriously?  Of course not.  Popovich is a win by any means necessary coach, a quality revered by fawning sports media types. By attacking Zaza in the press, Popovich is trying to gain an edge, any edge he can against the Warriors, the better team over the last three years and big favorites to win the series before Leonard went down (Leonard will miss Game 2 of the Series and is questionable for Game 3). He’s doing his job in the aftermath of Leonard’s injury, whether or not his hypocrisy flies in the face of the great basketball the Warriors usually play. Call it a “Popocrisy”.

As for Pachulia, It’s not the first time anybody accused him of being dirty; it comes with the dirty work role he’s occupied in his career. Ask Nikola Mirotic of the Bulls, who got into it with Zaza in the 2015 playoffs. Mirotic was largely absent from that 1st Round series against the Bucks following this incident:

For fans and players alike, for the NBA itself, we’ve all come full circle in ten years, back to a season (2006-07) when the “slide under” was hotly debated and Popovich’s dirty work defender was being fairly singled out. Popovich isn’t apologizing for the three championships he won with Bowen as his starting small forward, nor has he loaned his 2007 ring to Nash for walk-around purposes.

The league was and is a willing accomplice. The NBA might have outlawed the “slide under” ten years ago by invoking harsher penalties, but that didn’t happen. It’s considered a shooting foul, no more no less. As Sports Illustrated pointed out above a May 15 column by Ben Golliver, “blame the NBA, not the Warriors” for Leonard’s injury.

The Warriors may not be to blame, but Puchulia certainly is. Blame him. Better still, blame Popovich, too, and know that there are some Phoenix Suns fans out there getting a pretty big kick out of all this. #popocrisy

Source list:

  • Washington Post, 5/15/15, “Greg Popovich lights into Zaza”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2017/05/15/gregg-popovich-lights-into-zaza-pachulia-for-play-that-injured-kawhi-leonard/?utm_term=.118e51bdf697
  • MySA.com, “Spurs Popovich says league crossed line with Bowen” 11/18/2006: https://web.archive.org/web/20080612112118/http://www.mysanantonio.com/sports/basketball/nba/spurs/stories/MYSA111806.05C.BKNspurs.notebook.38e2352.html
  • TV By the Numbers, “NBA Finals ratings”: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/sports/nba-finals-tv-ratings-1974-2008/
  • NBA Finals TV Ratings wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NBA_Finals_television_ratings
  • NBA on Television, wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Basketball_Association_on_television
  • The New York Times, “Suspensions Have Suns Crying Foul”, 5/16/07: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/16/sports/basketball/16suns.html
  • Sports Illustrated column 5/15/2017: https://www.si.com/nba/2017/05/15/nba-playoffs-warriors-spurs-kawhi-leonard-zaza-pachulia-slide-under
  • NBA Official, “Making the Call”, 5/14/2017: http://official.nba.com/
  • NBA.com News, “Leonard to sit out Game 2”, other updates.

Scott Skiles’ starting rotation shooting the Bucks in the foot

Coming off a big overtime win in Boston and facing the 5-23 Cavaliers at the Bradley Center BMO Harris BMO Harris Bradley Center, a 15-11 record heading into the three-day X-mas break looked pretty good for the Bucks.   But not after the starters shot less than 38% and repeatedly dumped the Bucks into a 10-then-20 point hole that the bench couldn’t dig out of.

If the opening tip five against Cleveland are to be coach Scott Skiles’ starters the rest of the way, get used to nights like Saturday.   As a group they are one of the worst — if not the worst — shooting group currently starting in the NBA.

Skiles’ current starting lineup — Brandon Jennings and Monte Ellis, with forwards Marquis Daniels and Luc Mbah a Moute, and center Larry Sanders — would be dead last in the NBA in shooting, were the 7 wins-20 losses Charlotte Bobcats not shooting worse.  (See NBA season summary).

The Bucks starters combined are shooting an effective 45.3% on the season (587.5 out of 1297), adjusting up for three-pointers made.  (The Bucks by the way are 28th in the league from downtown, hitting just 31.9%.)

The rest of the team is misfiring too, though not so much since Ersan Ilyasova has resurrected to find his jumper.  They’re at 47.4% effectively, slightly better than the team % of the Memphis Grizzlies.  Ilyasova’s percentage has climbed out of the 25% range and is heading toward 50%.

The dud Saturday against Cleveland was actually accomplished with cold-shooting Monta Ellis on a good night, going 15 of 27 and shooting an effective 59.3% – only the second time this season Ellis has hit that mark.

Ellis shoots more than anybody in the league with the exception of Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook, while posting career-lows in field goal and 3-point-%.   Monta’s never been good from 3-point-land, but the 20.9% he’s shooting this season is horrific. And those latest stats include two good shooting games by Ellis against the Celtics and Cavs.

There is no “shooting guard” in the NBA playing more than 30 mins per game who shoots worse than Monta  (See HoopData sorted stats by position).

Point guard shooting percentages being what they are (generally lower), only the Knicks J.R. Smith joins Ellis as a “shooting guard” in the bottom ten.  And remember, Ellis is firing away at a rate topped only Kobe and Russell Westbrook.

But this isn’t all about Monta Ellis or Jennings.   Compounding matters is that Skiles starts Ellis with forwards Luc Mbah a Moute and Marquis Daniels, two defensive minded players not known for sticking shots.  Moute and Daniels are both below 48% career eFG%, under the league average of 48.8% this year.

Skiles has done this, he says, because he wants to start games with stronger D — defying the expectations of Bucks fans that Ilyasova and Moute would finally get a chance to start together and bring some chemistry to Skiles’ ever-changing rotations — and  it’s not as though Ilyasova’s a slouch on defense.

One could argue — I suppose — that with good-shooting Beno Udrih still out with a right ankle injury, Skiles is looking for some balance off the bench, where Mike Dunleavy could use Ersan’s scoring help.

But if this is an attempt at balance by Skiles, it’s being lost brick by brick with a starting lineup that isn’t supposed to shoot well because they never have.   The  tip-off five needs a shooter, and Ilyasova’s shot is coming back around to where it was last season.

So the obvious answer is to move Ilyasova back into the starting lineup and see if the Bucks can ween themselves off their dependency on Ellis, who shoots too much for the team’s good — but will keep on shooting unless there is a reliable alternative on the court.   Right now, there’s just no such alternative in the Bucks starting 5, and the Bucks might as well make some effort to get a payoff out of the $7.9 million a year investment they made in Ersan.

A Bucks-Celtics note:  Skiles has played Ilyasova starters’ minutes (29.4 per game) in the four games against the Celtics, three of them victories.  Good matchups for Ersan?  Or a trend?  We shall see.  

Thieves:  Brandon Jennings trails only Chris Paul and Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley in steals per game.  The Bucks continue to be a Top 5 team in forcing turnovers while being 6th in the league at not turning the ball over.  They’re getting two more possessions per game than their opponents.

Larry!  Larry!:  Larry Sanders is leading the NBA in blocked shots per game (3.1) and is No. 1 in defensive rating, a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions that a player is on the floor.   Larry’s 93.4 points allowed per 100 is one point better than Tim Duncan’s and 1.3 better than Pacers center Roy Hibbert.

Ray in Miami:  There’s still mucho love for Ray Allen in Milwaukee, but they surely like him more in Miami these days.   Ray’s staking his claim to “The Best Shooter in Basketball” crown, leading all guards and forwards in Effective Shooting percentage (eFG%).  Ray’s  a 61 percent shooter, behind only Knicks center Tyson Chandler.   Ray’s the only non- center in the top 5.

Lebron James, meanwhile, is a surprising 6th in the NBA with a 58.1% effective shooting, as the MVP is having a career shooting year inside and outside the 3-point arc.   The extra room and better spacing James gets with Ray on the floor is certainly partly responsible for this — as are the added offensive smarts a team gets with Ray — but most of the credit goes to James himself.  He’s playing more post-up than in the past, he’s hitting his threes and his shot selection is the best its ever been.

James is also having a career rebounding year, grabbing 8.5 boards per game.

More ridiculous video of Stephen Jackson

In this installment, featuring the Golden State Warriors of the short-lived Jackson-Corey Maggette era, Jackson is kicked out of a 2009 Suns game for, what else?   Being himself.

Only this time Warriors coach Don Nelson one-ups Jackson a few plays later with his own ridiculous ejection from the game.  That’s our Nellie.

Drew Gooden, apparently, really did deserve a break today.  Gooden is suspended for tonight’s T-Wolves game, punishment for thwacking Bobcats guard Gerald Henderson in the head as Henderson drove for a layup.  Read all about it.

The John Salmons watch.  I was one who thought Salmons was going to bounce back and have a solid season, reminding Bucks fans of the Fish who led us into the playoffs 2010.   Alas, somebody had to go to move the above-mentioned Maggette out of Milwaukee and Salmons (and a Kings draft pick) was the bait that got it done.

Salmons and the Tyreke Evans-led Sacramento Kings beat the Lakers last night, 100-91.  Fish had 13 and more importantly, clocked in 30 minutes guarding a relatively inefficient Kobe Bryant (14 missed shots), Metta World Peace and … Devin Ebanks.

Devin Ebanks?

Shaq retires … for now, and with him goes the good humor he brought to the humorless, post-Jordan days of the NBA

It’s really true, and as a part-time Celtics fan I can’t help but be disappointed.  Shaquille O’Neal, when healthy (which wasn’t often this season) made the Celtics better, more formidable in the paint.

The Celtics were surprised by Shaq’s Twitter announcement and maybe we should be, too.

More than anything, Shaq changed the C’s demeanor.  No more were they the team of Kendrick Perkins‘ scowl and Kevin Garnett‘s gesticulations.  They were big as a Diesel, no doubt about it, and the Diesel delivered on the court — leading the Celtics in defensive impact (a 2.84 ezPM score) while snatching 4.8 rebs per game and scoring 9.2 points per game in just 20 minutes.

And he may return once the league’s labor dispute is settled, when the race for the 2012 playoffs is on — when we most need an old star to tweak Lebron James’ all-business, all-defense, “all-me”-this-ain’t-funny-even-if-we-win, facade.  Shaq’s got some game in him left, and a little Brett Favre in him, too — evidenced by this Twitter announcement during the NBA Finals, moments that belong to Lebron and Dirk, and that’s not a criticism of Favre or Shaq.  Jordan or Bird or Magic might have done something similar.

Shaq’s NBA in the post-Jordan dark days was not as competitive as the current league, and the Lakers three-pete (2000-2002) was often controversial and marred by questionable refereeing — yet Shaq was the face that managed to win over new converts even as so many fouled on it all.

No, Shaq’s era was not filled with the league’s finer moments, and if there were fine moments, those belonged to Jordan or Hakeem or Duncan and Robinson, even Sam Cassell (with the Rockets, Bucks and T-Wolves).  Through it all, however, the largess of Shaq and his steadily improving post game remained the point of departure for many fans.  Like it, be awed by it, shrug it off as freak of nature performance that made NBA hardwoods less than level, even the casual NBA fan had to consider all that was Shaq as he joked his way through press conferences.

Shaq’s Lakers set the NBA mark for best record in the playoffs (15-1) but, due to one of the most crookedly refereed series’ in NBA history (Sixers-Bucks 2001), they never had to face in the Finals the team they couldn’t beat that season:  The Sam Cassell, Glen “Big Dog” Robinson, Ray Allen “Big Three” Bucks coached by George Karl.

The following season, the 2002 seven-game Western conference Final between the Lakers and the Sacramento Kings was nearly as crooked as the 2001 Bucks-Sixers series, only more of the public was watching.  The smugness of Kobe Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson emerged as sorry emblems for a league that seemed to have lost its way under the influence of its Emperor Palpatine-like commissioner, David Stern.  They let the big fella down.  So the big fella walked away.

(Edit addition:  In his new book, Shaq Uncut: My Story, Shaq divulges some detail behind his longstanding fued with Kobe. Deadspin has some excerpts.)

Shaq’s rebellion won over many of us NBA fans in flyover midlands country, and as he turned his back on them, he nagged Kobe’s self-centered game, defying Jackson and Stern, foiling the L.A. dynasty.  The  championship he won in 2006 with Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning stands as Shaq’s emphatic signature on a Hall of Fame career — four-time champion, MVP, good teammate, joker, prankster, plentiful tipper of bellhops, barmaids, waitresses and food delivery workers all over America

We the people liked him for it in the end, a difficult and unlikely achievement considering the general bad mood of the casual NBA fan.

********************

For Bucks fans, Shaq and his Lakers will primarily be a “what if” — an opportunity and great NBA Finals series denied in 2001.  But there is another connection (which was the original intent of this post about a thousand words ago) that involves one of Shaq’s favorite teammates and longtime friend, Bucks coach Scott Skiles; and Skiles’ longtime friend, former Orlando Magic teammate and former Bucks head coach Larry Krystkowiak.

Yes, this is the fight documentary, one of the better NBA practice brawl stories you’ll ever hear, involving two scrappy old-school player wanna-bes and their young superstar.  Yes, the best Shaq stories were told before Twitter and Youtube and Facebook …

The year: 1994

The stage: Magic practice floor on the road in Los Angeles.

Our narrator: Larry Krystkowiak, Magic reserve power forward.

The combatants: A young Shaquille O’Neal, Magic center; Krsytkowiak; Scott Skiles, Magic point guard.

The action: “Haymakers” thrown, Skiles “sorta” in a headlock, wrapped around Shaq, mayhem.

The instigator: Scott Skiles, of course.

The result: One of the wildest NBA practice fights on record, and mutual admiration society between Skiles and Shaq.  Continued friendship between Skiles and Krystkowiak. Shaq and Krystkowiak?  No hard feelings, respect. The Magic went on to win 50 games that season, Shaq’s second in the NBA.

Krystkowiak tells it far better than anybody. Here’s the LINK to Krystkowiak’s account, by ESPN writer Chris Sheridan.

Imagine Krystkowiak’s surprise when, in the 2007-08 season, Bucks power forward Charlie Villanueva backed down from a fight challenge — from Krystkowiak — during a Bucks practice.  The NBA had changed.  Yet it’s a better game today because players like Shaq and Skiles and Krystkowiak simply never bothered to.

Celebrating Ray Allen as the generally uninteresting Jerry Sloan era ends

NBA-TV has been reporting all day (Thursday) that coach Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz have scheduled a press conference for 5 PM (EST) and it is expected that Sloan will resign as Jazz coach after 23 years.

The Jazz have, in fact, accepted the resignations of Sloan and his top assistant, Phil Johnson, ending an era of stability in Utah that went on and on longer than any coaching run in North American “big four” professional sports; it was an era in which nothing terribly exciting or interesting ever really happened for the sports team from Utah.

There was “the shot” drained by Michael Jordan in game six of the 1998 NBA Finals to finish off the Jazz, but even that moment — a moment that belongs to Jordan and the Bulls — seemed less exciting and interesting than it might have been had the Jazz been elsewhere at the time.

It was a shot had been shot before, heard previously around the world against the Jazz in another game six of the NBA Finals, in 1997, with Steve Kerr doing the honors for the Bulls off a routine draw and kick from Jordan.

Yes, Jerry Sloan’s Jazz teams ran steadily like clockwork, played good defense, were consistently good and remarkably efficient — but they were never interesting or great.  Point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone were likewise consistently good, remarkably efficient, an offensive clock ticking off the Stockton-Malone pick-and-roll — but there was nothing dynamic about the duo, and they never achieved greatness.

So the Jerry Sloan era — defined as it was by Jordan even as it failed to push to Jordan to further greatness or a game seven (Patrick Ewing‘s Knicks were the more worthy foils) — is over.  It’s about time, one might say, if only the timing had been better.

Tonight was expected to be a night to celebrate the greatness of Ray Allen, who needs to make just two high arching expressions of basketball beauty from Downtown to become the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history.  That may happen tonight in Boston when the Celtics meet the Lakers.  It may even happen over the outstretched hand of Kobe Bryant, Allen’s longtime nemesis.

If the basketball gods are watching — and they surely will be — they might marvel at Allen’s longevity as the game’s most dangerous shooter.  They might wonder at the perfection of his shot, or pass a comment or two on Kobe’s competitiveness, reflect on the panicked despair that fell upon the faces of the Celtics last June when they realized they were on the brink of losing game seven.

Reggie Miller, the current career three-point shot record holder, will be on hand in Boston, in the TNT broadcast chair, fittingly, appropriately.  This was to be Ray and Reggie’s night, a night to celebrate the art of shooting a basketball and the poetry of the game’s finest point. It even offered the possibility that two of the game’s great shooting guards might, for a change, take the spotlight from Kobe.

This was not a night to attempt to define the Jerry Sloan era, 23 years in which so many of the things taking place in the NBA were much more interesting than whatever it was that was happening with the team from Utah.

Bucks vs. Bulls: Best of times, worst of times for Andrew Bogut and the beleaguered Bucks

After getting all up in the Lakers business by blowing the champs out by 19 last week in Los Angeles, they’ve followed it up with a disappointing stinker at home against a playoff rival their fans hold no love — and now head down I-94 to play their actual rivals, the Central Division leading Chicago Bulls, without injured point guard Brandon Jennings.

These are the worst of times for the Milwaukee Bucks.  Yet there may be no better times for the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that — despite never suiting up a full squad — has not yet backed down from a challenge when it realizes they’re facing one.  Ask the Lakers, the Mavs, the Celtics, the Spurs, the Jazz and the Heat.

Unfortunately, the Bucks haven’t been good when they don’t necessarily feel like they’ve got a challenge on their hands.  They don’t respect the Hawks, so it seems, not when they’re playing them with center Andrew Bogut.  After humbling the Hawks by taking them to seven games without Bogut last April in the playoffs, the Bucks stuffed the Hawks and their new coach, Larry Drew, in Atlanta in November.

Same old mentally challenged Hawks, not used to adversity, bad on the road, flinching when the Bucks flexed their muscles.   The worst opponent for the Bucks playing at home before a Bulls game.  The 15-point loss was almost predictable — almost.  Predictability yet eludes the Bucks.

The Bulls have problems of their own — center Joakim Noah‘s broken right hand will be in a cast for at least another month.  Bogut is healthy, generally playing his best basketball since his season-ending injury last season and will be guarded by the Kurt Thomas, Bogut’s backup last season.  The Bucks will have an interesting time chasing Derrick Rose without Brandon Jennings’ rare ability to stay in front of the Bulls point guard, but these are the best of times for the Bucks in the paint against the Bulls, despite new Bull Carlos Boozer.

Bucks 6th man Corey Maggette looked more out-of-sync than his out-of-sync teammates did against the Hawks, a sign that the Bucks on-court chemistry with its new additions is still a work in progress.  The worst of times.

But Maggette’s hasn’t been the “bad porn” player for the Bucks that he’s was with the Warriors and the Clippers, when he went through the motions, selfishly got his points and didn’t seem to care who was winning the game.  He’s been determined to make this 6th man thing work in Milwaukee, he’s a tough matchup for the Bulls and he’s due for a big game.  The best of times.

Diddo for Bogut, forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and Chris Douglas-Roberts, minus the chemistry question and the bad porn.

Diddo for Bogut, forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and Chris Douglas-Roberts, minus the chemistry question and the bad porn.

Only the Dallas Mavs and the Denver Nuggets have played a tougher schedule than the Bucks, according to today’s Strength of Schedule rankings.  The best of times for now that it’s behind them.

Over the next ten days the Bucks schedule gets tougher with the Mavs, two against Lebron, D-Wade and the Heat, and the the Magic, the Hawks again and the Spurs.  The worst of times.

The Bucks are playing the Bulls, coach Scott Skiles’ old team, against whom they won three games from last season and let the fourth slip away.  The best of times.

****************************

Hawks power forward Al Horford had an efficient and workman-like 18 pts and 12 rebs Monday against the Bucks, possibly solidifying an All-Star vote from Bucks coach Scott Skiles.  Yes, power forward Al Horford — he didn’t start the game on Bogut, who spent much of his 40+ minutes on the court guarded by 7-foot center Jason Collins.

Yet this was a startling development for Bucks broadcasters Jim Paschke and Jon McGlocklin, repeatedly hyped the Bogut-Horford matchup as a battle for the East’s backup center slot behind Dwight Howard.  When Bogut opened the game by taking Collins baseline for a layup, Paschke identified Collins as “[pause as he was about to say Horford then noticed that Horford wasn’t gaurding Bogut] um … the big man guarding [Bogut].”  The charade continued for the rest of the game, with neither Paschke or McGlocklin — who work for the Bucks — bothering to correct the “Al Horford – center” misperception.

It’s not as though an inefficient 14 points on 7-19 shots is going to get Bogut to Los Angeles in February, but is it any wonder that events in the East conspired last season to deny Bogut his first All-Star appearance?  Is anybody working in the Bucks P.R. department?

At least TNT analysts Kevin McHale and Charles Barkley (“he’s undersized;” “I still don’t think he’s a center;” “his midrange jumper has made Horford one of the better power forwards;” etc.) this season (and last) have paid attention to what position Horford actually plays.  So does Atlanta coach Drew, obviously.  One has to assume that the rest of the East coaches are doing the same.

***********************************

“The scary thing is, maybe they were trying.”

There, somebody finally said it.  “They” are the Los Angeles Lakers, losers at home to first the Bucks (by 19) on Tuesday and the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.  The scary realization from the Lakers perspective is that there was very little difference in their energy, focus and commitment last week against the Bucks and Heat.

Of course, you had to be watching the Lakers’ games against both the Bucks and the Heat to realize it.  L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke did, and wrote it. The Lakers were playing hard last week.  They were trying.  All-Star center-forward Pau Gasol was simply outplayed by Bogut and Chris Bosh.  Andrew Bynum isn’t anywhere close to 100%.  Some of the other Lakers (Derrick Fisher, Ron Artest, Steve Blake) don’t look like they’re up for a third championship run.

F.U. too, Kobe

Upon being ejected with 2:07 to play in the Bucks’ 98-79 blowout of the Lakers in L.A. Tuesday, Kobe Bryant issued the following statement:

Because there was nobody else but the Bucks Earl Boykins in the general vicinity (90 degrees to the left) toward which Kobe hurled his only post-game statement, it is believed that the statement was aimed at Boykins.  What did the 5′-5″, 135-lbs Boykins say to elicit such a succinct post-game analysis from the Lakers star?

Boykins led all scorers in the game with 22 pts, shooting 4 of 5 from 3-point-land.  That’s saying plenty.

****************************

The Bucks (11-16) get set for the 3rd and final game of their pre-Xmas West Coast trip tonight in Sacramento against Tyreke Evans and the Kings (5-21),  the team worst record in the NBA.  With the Bucks trying to hang in there while Brandon Jennings recuperates from foot surgery, the Bucks cannot afford a let down or a loss, considering what the mean ol’ NBA schedule makers have in store for the Bucks over the next three weeks.

They Bucks have played the toughest schedule in the league this season, yet it gets even tougher between X-Mas and Jan. 12 — two games against the Heat and the Hawks; one each against the Bulls, Magic, Spurs and Mavs.  The Kings and Nets are the only bottom-feeders in the upcoming 10 games, both on the road.

The Bucks in this 10-game stretch need to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, a problem in November when nearly every Buck not named Brandon Jennings was dealing with an injury of one sort or another, physical or mental.  If they don’t, what they do head-to-head against the Bulls and Hawks may not matter.

***************************

The KINGS: Rookie big man DeMarcus Cousins lost his starting job earlier this week when he pissed off coach Paul Westphal … etc.  Does anybody really care?  We’re talking about the 5-win Kings … and Cousins will at least play.  Bogut should dominate in this game and … wait — who’s that on the Kings roster?  It’s none other than Bogut’s old nemesis from Philly, long-armed center  Sam Dalembert.  Bogut has had some of the worst games of his career against Dalembert, worse (though not recently) even than the Monday night embarrassment in Portland.  The injury report says Sam’s in, and Westphal would be a fool not treat the Sac fans to Bogut vs. Dalembert.

Another player of interest is Donte Green, starting at small forward for the Kings.  At least Green ought to be starting at the three — he’s got one of the worst rebounding averages I’ve seen for a guy who goes almost 6’10”.   The Bucks took a good look at Donte before the 2008 draft, working him out with their top 2 choices, forwards Joe Alexander and Anthony Randolph.  Green wasn’t considered a lottery pick by anybody in 2008 (and neither was Alexander until the Bucks decided he was) mainly because, like White Thunder, Green was a ‘tweener — a lot of leaping ability but not rugged enough to play power forward or skilled enough to play the wing.

Teams basically had the same questions to varying degrees about Alexander, Green and Randolph, with the Bucks choosing Alexander because he was a lot stronger than Green or Randolph, which seemed to offer the possibility that Alexander could play some power forward.  Looks and strength tests can be deceiving, John Hammond.  For 2008 draft hindsight’s sake, it’ll be interesting to see how well Green has developed with the Kings.

And there’s Darnell Jackson to check in with, too.  The Bucks picked Jackson up off waivers from the Cavs late last season, played him in one game and left him off the 12-man playoff roster.  Hammond didn’t offer Jackson a contract in the offseason, traded Jackson and the Bucks 2011 2nd-round pick for big forward Jon Brockman.  Then Hammond opted to use the Bucks MLE on free agent big forward Drew Gooden  — a signing that’s shaping up to be a sore spot for Hammond for, well, as long as it takes to figure out how to use the good in Gooden’s game or find a team willing to take his five-year contract.   Jackson is the Kings starting power forward.  Brockman’s had his moments — but those have been few and far between.

Steve Blake should write this Earl Boykins headline

I’m pouring over my ponderous analyses into what the Bucks can and won’t and might possibly do over the next 4-6 weeks to fill the void created by Brandon Jennings‘ fractured left foot — in hopes of finding some sliver of foresight into the great and mystical Lakers-destroying powers of the Bucks’ 5-foot-5, 135-pound, 3rd-string point guard, EARL BOYKINS.

Boykins scored 22 pts in 26 mins, hitting 4 of 5 three-pointers (8-for-12 shooting overall) as the Bucks shocked the Lakers in Los Angeles 98-79, holding the defending champs to 13 points in the 4th quarter while Earl bombed away from 3-point-land.

Boykins was the difference, a game changing advantage off the Bucks bench that not Kobe, Gasol nor Artest and could overcome, much less Steve Blake, the Lakers backup point guard, who happens to be the only player ever traded for Boykins in Earl’s 12-season, 10-team NBA career.

Nope.  I’ve hardly mentioned Boykins this week in the wake of the Bucks’ announcement that Jennings would miss a month or more.  I wrote that Boykins was “too, too short to guard anybody in the NBA,” grumbled about the point guards Bucks GM John Hammond let slip away and then spilled about 500 words mulling over the Bucks point-forward possibilities. “For the most part, it’s incumbent on Keyon Dooling to step up” in the absence of Jennings, I wrote.  Brilliant stuff, wasn’t it?

In my defense, I did describe Boykins as “electrifying” — but failed to even mention in that context that the Bucks had once traded Blake to Denver for Boykins (and Julius Hodge) for Earl’s electrifying entertainment value.  The Bucks were tanking in 2007;  Blake was set to become a free agent at the end of the season and had very little interest in playing for Milwaukee.   Michael Redd wasn’t going to play, coach Terry Stotts was about to be fired and then-GM Larry Harris figured he might as well give Bucks fans a mighty mite scoring machine to watch the rest of the season.  Blake was shipped to Denver; Boykins to Milwaukee.  Harris didn’t offer Boykins a new contract in the summer.  Blake signed with the Trailblazers, the team the Bucks had acquired him from (in a 2006 off-season trade for Jamal Magliore).

When the Bucks picked the 34-year-old Boykins up off the NBA scrap heap this summer, Andrew Bogut and Ersan Ilyasova were all that was left of the 2007 Bucks, effectively making the Scott Skiles Bucks the 10th NBA team Boykins has played for in 12 seasons.

It was all too fitting last night that Blake — again, the only player ever traded for Boykins — was the Laker most often found chasing Boykins around the Staples Center.  Blake — who didn’t score in the game — didn’t fare so well, obviously, and by the time the Lakers subbed Derrick Fisher back in for the stretch, Boykins was  was on fire, shooting guard John Salmons was in a groove and the Bucks were out-strong-arming the Lakers amid a game-clinching 22-7 run.

*********************************

YAHOO’S BUCKS-LAKERS PHOTO GALLERY (from AP).  You’ll want to hit that link before yahoo moves it or zaps me for licensing no-nos.  — AP photographer Jeff Gross reveals with 44 photos the tale of a gritty, determined Bucks team refusing to back down from the Lakers, finally breaking the will of the champs in an 4th quarter.  Gross’ camera zooms in on Andrew Bogut‘s scowling matchup with Lakers’ center Pau Gasol and gives a shot-by-shot narrative of Kobe Bryan’t ejection from the game.  Content Warning: Graphic grimacing, ugly defense, sweat.

Here’s a sample — feel free to insert your own captions below.  Please.

Bogut and Gasol waged a titanic battle, the first half going to Bogut (11 points) as the Bucks successfully established AB’s post game.  Gasol struggled all night to score against the NBA’s 3rd-rated defender as Bogut effectively shut down Gasol as a Lakers first option.  But Bogut repeatedly left Gasol to help on Laker drives and Pau cleaned 7 off the offensive glass to finish with 15 pts and 11 rebs.  Bogut matched his 15  and grabbed 8 rebs, also blocking two shots and taking a late charge on Kobe Bryant that led to Kobe’s ejection.

Dancing big men: In a play that was typical of Gasol’s struggles against AB (the photo at left) Gasol dribbled into Bogut, found his path impeded, stopped, carried the ball as he kept his dribble and tried to force is way around Bogut.  No call was made and the Lakers ended the possession turning it over anyway — but it got coach Skiles off the bench barking at the officials for not whistling Gasol for the carry.

Not surprisingly, the Bucks 98-79 blowout of the Lakers’this week has been largely attributed to the Lakers lack of energy and focus, especially with ESPN pointing all eyes to the Lakers’ marquee Christmas Day showdown with the Heat.  That’s too bad, because the Lakers reported “lack of interest” wasn’t all that evident watching the game live.  They may have “gone through the motions” but isn’t that what the Lakers do until the 4th quarter?  It usually results in a win (after the requisite Kobe highlights) and it’s what they’ve done all season against the softest schedule in the NBA.

The Lakers opponent Tuesday night, the 10-and-16 Bucks, had played the league’s toughest schedule and battled the elite of the West even tougher.  A week before the Lakers game, the Bucks beat the Mavs in Dallas and came within a traveling-on-Manu no-call at the buzzer of forcing overtime in San Antonio.  There was much going into the Bucks-Lakers matchup that had nothing to do with the Lakers state of mind.  Here’s some of it.

1) The Bucks’ pride had been wounded the night before in Portland (a 106-80 loss).  Even without injured point guard Brandon Jennings, there’s talent in the Bucks core.  Center Andrew Bogut is an All-Pro, shooting guard John Salmons a proven 20-point per game scorer, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute two young, hustling, hard-nosed forwards who’ve won more than they’ve lost for coach Scott Skiles.  These days, the Bucks core is desperate to prove that last season’s 46 wins were no fluke.  They played with urgency, hunger — and it’s not as though Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and Matt Barnes off the bench, didn’t.  Media heard nothing from an angry Bryant postgame, and Gasol and Odom weren’t exactly running to the microphones and tape recorders either.

2) The Bucks D, currently rated 6th in the NBA, was solid all night, as stingy as it’s ever been in the 4th quarter as Skiles relied on his core — Bogut, Ilyasova, Mbah a Moute and Salmons — and Boykins.  Bogut had Lakers center Gasol harnessed most of the game, Ilyasova wore down ailing Lamar Odom, who was less and less a factor in the 2nd half, and Mbah a Moute and Salmons’ defense on Kobe was about as good as it gets.  Mbah a Moute, who lives in L.A. and is an off-season friend of Bryant, put on a defensive clinic against his mentor on five or six consecutive possessions in the 4th — and the refs set new Bucks-Lakers precedent by letting them play.  Unfortunately, the clinic didn’t make the highlight reel.  Derrick Fisher and Ron Artest were offensive non-factors — negatives, in fact; and  nobody on the Lakers bench cut loose for a big scoring night, as Shannon Brown did Nov. 16 in Milwaukee.

3) The foul story. The refs whistled more fouls on the Lakers (19) than on the Bucks (18).  That’s unheard of — indeed new precedent for the Skiles Bucks and Phil Jackson-Kobe-Gasol Lakers.  Not coincidentally, Skiles recorded his first win as Bucks coach against Jackson and the Lakers.

4) Bogut, Salmons and Ilyasova. Bogut was a better center than Gasol last night, no big surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention to the Bucks and Bogut since last season. His post-up offense in the first half (11 pts) set the tone — and the stage — for the Bucks upset, and while Gasol scored 15 the Lakers’ offense bogged down repeatedly when the ball went to Gasol posting up against Bogut.

Ilyasova is a rising young power forward in the league who — despite a rough start and an early-season benching by Skiles — has successfully locked horns with the likes of Paul Millsap, Kevin Garnett and now Odom, who’s off to one of his best starts in years.  Odom took it right at the Ilyasova eary in the game for six driving points but forgot to guard Ilyasova’s jumper or block Ersan off the boards.  By halftime, Ilyasova had 13 pts.  By the 4th quarter, Ersan was beating Odom to the glass.  By the final minutes, Odom was resorting to cheap shot fouls on the last of Ilyasova’s 11 rebounds.  Odom finished with 12 pts, 10 rebs. Ersan had 17 and 11.

It can’t be said that Salmons outplayed Kobe, and he had defensive help from Mbah a Moute — but Salmons won the offensive efficiency battle.  Salmons had 20 pts, 6 assists and 2 turnovers.  Kobe had 21 pts on 9-16 shooting but turned it over 4 times and dished for only 2 assists, less than half his play-making average.

At the end of the game, the box score read:  52 pts, 22 rebs, 11 assists and 9 turnovers for Bogut, Ilyasova and Salmons;  to 48 pts, 24 rebs, 10 assists and 9 tos for Gasol, Odom and Kobe.   It looks nearly dead even until you look at the shots taken board — 48 shots for the Lakers to 42 for the Bucks, adjusted for free throw attempts, of course.  That’s a ten-point advantage to Bogut, Ilyasova and Salmons even if the Bucks were shooting 35% — which they weren’t.

With Boykins (4-for-5) and starting point guard Keyon Dooling (2-for-4) shooting a combined 6-of-9 from the Land of Ray and Reggie, the Lakers needed either a Christmas stocking full of big shots from the supporting cast or help from the refs to stay in this game. They got neither.

5) The supporting casts. The Lakers bench, playing against a shorthanded Bucks crew, kept them in the game until early in the 4th quarter, then faltered when the Bucks reserves found a higher energy and intensity gear.  Blake didn’t score in the game.  Shannon Brown disappeared in the 2nd half.   Ron Artest and Derrick Fisher shot a combined 3-for-13 and basically killed the Lakers chances.   Boykins looked ten years younger dribbling circles around 36-year-old Fisher, and Fisher’s strong arm tactics, which might have deterred a younger Earl Boykins, couldn’t slow the 34-year-old Boykins.  Fisher’s usefulness to this Lakers team has got to be nearing its expiration date.

Salmons and Mbah a Moute weren’t about to be physically intimidated by Artest, though Chris Douglas-Roberts was relegated to a quiet 20 mins.  A quiet game for Ron-Ron — but not so out of the ordinary.  He’s had a lot of those in his career.  Both Fisher and Artest generally suffered from the lack of ball movement created by Kobe and Gasol.

6) John Salmons. Fish has found water.  As stupid as that metaphor sounds, it’s a huge relief for the Bucks to have Salmons back to  last season’s 20-pts-per-game form, when the Bucks finished the season 22-8.  Salmons’ shooting woes have helped sink the Bucks to their 11-16 record, and they’re still dead last in NBA shooting percentage.  Yet Salmons lit the Blazers up for 23 pts in the 2nd half Monday and scored an active 20 on 14 shots in LA Tuesday.  The Bucks 40% shooting can’t possibly endure statistical probability, and neither could Salmons’ prolonged slump.

7) The absence of Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden. Maggette, who suffered a concussion last week against the Spurs, was in street clothes on the Bucks bench, hopefully taking notes on the good ball movement and offensive flow that the Bucks had going against the Lakers.  Gooden was in Milwaukee, still suffering from plantar fasciitis in his left foot.  Chemistry has been an issue with the Bucks this season.  As harsh as it sounds, one has to wonder whether the Bucks fourth quarter would have been possible with either of the new acquisitions on the court.

Skiles has been loathe to play Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova together — yet doing so in LA helped lock the Bucks into an aggressive, attacking defense that not even Kobe Bryant could solve.  Chances are that fourth quarter defense would not have happened had Skiles had Gooden or Maggette at his disposal.  And it’s doubtful the Bucks would have exploited Boykins’ hot hand as well as they did given how much Maggette and Gooden demand the ball, sometimes for reasons apparent only to them.  Ersan and Luc played a combined 60:30 — possibly unprecedented — and the Bucks don’t win without them.

8.) The Ersanity Factor. The 11-16 Bucks are now 7-6 when Skiles plays Ersan Ilyasova half the game (24 mins) or more.  Ilyasova played 33 mins in LA.

9) The Lakers. It’s useful to remember that the Lakers were seriously challenged by the Suns in the Western Conference Finals last season, and were more than a little lucky that Artest played the game of his life in Game 7 to beat the Celtics in the Finals (Kendrick Perkins’ injury in Game 6 also duly noted).  Kobe’s Lakers are far from invincible, and never were as good as ESPN — and certainly not Lakers fans — have made them out to be.  Over time — and perhaps as soon as the Christmas Day showdown with the Heat — this loss to the Bucks will look less and less like “a trap game” in which the Lakers “went through the motions,” and more and more like a game in which an up-and-coming young team was tougher — mentally and physically — than a fading champion.

10) The Lakers “deserved to lose.” That’s a post-game quote from Fisher, and I can’t argue with it.  The underrated and shorthanded Bucks, for one night, were the better team.  And 5′-5″ Earl Boykins was better, much better than Derrick Fisher and Steve Blake.

All Star Voting: The four Celtics and Dwight Howard blog

I’ll get back to Ray and D-Wade and the Heat … First …

The beleaguered-yet-determined Bucks — what’s left of them — are out west, headed for Denver where who-does-what-now should decide how the lineup shakes up when Bogut is ready to come back to work.   The early returns suggest that Ersan Ilyasova has taken Drew Gooden’s starting power forward job and John Salmons may end up taking a seat soon so that he and the Bucks can figure out what ails him.

The better-than-expected arrival of Chris Douglas-Roberts Saturday and the pending return of Corey Maggette gives the Bucks some options with the Fish, who’s sluggish game thus far has made me miss Charlie Bell.  CD-R in two games has been just what the Bucks have needed — an NBA guard who can hit a shot.   (15 pts per game on excellent 61.1% eff-shooting.)

Ersan Ilyasova in Utah (18 pts on 10 shots, six tough-to-get-in-Utah rebs and three steals) continued to show that when he gets minutes, he produces.  In the 7 games that Ersan has played 25+ minutes, he’s averaging 14.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg, shooting an e-fg rate of 53.2% — that’ll win a few games for the Bucks if he keeps it up. He’s also managed 13 steals, pretty impressive for a power forward.

And no, Ersan’s not riding a six steal game or getting a bump from a 27 pt break-out — he has consistently scored and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses in each of the seven games that Skiles has given him 25+ the minutes.   All evidence suggests that Ersan has recovered from leading Turkey to a silver medal at the 2010 World Championships, and has likewise recovered from the early season benching-by-Skiles that his Turkish heroics earned him back in Milwaukee.

ALL STAR VOTING: This apparent rebooting of the Bucks has given me time to think about the All-Star ballot and mull over what’s been what in the first one-fifth of the season.  Have Lebron and D-Wade really earned a trip to the All-Star game?   Why do the Spurs and Lakers refuse to allow their centers to be listed as centers?   And who’s to stop me from voting four Celtics as the East starters?

On this last question: Nobody.  So I did.  And I probably will again until Lebron James does something truly impressive, like listen to his coach, Erik Spoelstra.  Rajon Rondo is an obvious choice to be the east starter at point guard.  I’ve seen enough Paul Pierce this season to know that he’s still knocking ’em down with clockwork regularity and leading the Celtics in scoring.  Those two selections were easy.

At power forward I would consider voting for Lebron, because the Heat don’t have one now that Udonis Haslem is hurt (note: this wasn’t intended as a knock on Chris Bosh but the word “power” just doesn’t connote the word “Bosh” in my mind.)  And I would consider voting for the Hawks Al Horford if only he were not listed as a center. Anybody who saw Dwight Howard and the Magic pummel the Hawks in four straight in the East semi-finals knows that Al Horford is not a center.  Anybody who watched the Bucks take the Hawks apart earlier this season knows the same — the Hawks don’t let Horford guard Andrew Bogut, instead starting Jason Collins at center against the Bucks.  Horford’s not big enough to tangle with Bogut, Howard, Noah, Lopez, the real centers of the East.

Dwight Howard is the All-Star starter at center, and it’s too bad Bogut hasn’t given Bucks fans a reason to vote for him … yet.  Let’s hope that changes.  Right now, Joakim Noah has the edge to be the backup center to Howard.

That leaves me with Kevin Garnett at power forward.  Sure, he backs away when confronted by guys like Bogut, but he’s still KG — love him, loathe him, he’s at least that — and his Celtics are still the team to beat in the East.  Done.  That’s three Celtics and a maybe for Lebron.  Maybe, but not now.  Did I forget Amar’e Stoudemire?  I forgot Amar””e, though he may be listed as a center, which makes him not only forgettable but irrelevant here.  I seem to have forgotten Chris Bosh, too.  Imagine that.  Bosh has not played like an All-Star in 2010, going back to last season.  (If you watched him in Toronto at the end of last season, you’d have wondered who was leading the Raptors in their bid for the playoffs.)

My shooting guard should be Dwyane Wade, shouldn’t it?  This is usually automatic.  But after two losses to the Celtics in which Ray Allen scored 55 points on him and shot 20 for 36 — see highlight reel above — it’s time to reconsider.  On the season, Ray’s shooting better than any long range gunner has a right to — 56.8% effectively, which takes into account his 44% shooting from Downtown.  Ray’s a weapon, pure and simple.  D-Wade is scoring 21.3 pts per game but it’s been a struggle to get those, and with the weapons the Heat have, his assists shouldn’t be down.  In Atlanta, Joe Jonson has also struggled to be the triple-threat that he was last season.  In Boston, Ray just lets the game come to him.  Easy, nothing but net.

One-fifth of the season done, the Celtics and Magic are leading the East at 12-4.  Punch it in: Four Celtics and Dwight to the 2011 All-Star game.

THE WEST: This is much tougher since I don’t watch the West as much as the East.  But these teams/the NBA (whoever makes the call on the ballot) don’t make it easy to pick a forward, do they?  Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan — two big men who mostly play center — are listed as forwards.  Dirk, West, Carmelo Anthony, what’s the voting fan to do?   At this point in the season, I’m punching in Gasol and New Orleans Bucks-assassin David West but that could change.  Dirk, carrying the Mavs and dropping the occasional 4o — deserve a vote.

The West guards: Kobe, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant … After Deron Williams‘ shredding of the Bucks last night, I went with Deron.  This brought to mind CP3’s expert game management in the Hornets two wins over the Bucks, so I gave the nod to Chris Paul, in recognition that the NBA is a better place with CP3 in it.   I then immediately thought of Kobe’s 30-point game in Milwaukee and how Brandon Roy’s Blazers handed the Bucks arses to them, also in Milwaukee.  Good thing Durant missed his game in Brewtown.  I may have to vote again.

Yao doesn’t need my vote at center, but he’s the only center on the ballot for the West.  There’s Haywood in Dallas, but he doesn’t start.  Tyson Chandler anyone?  Didn’t see him on the ballot.  Yao, even in his part time role, is out indefinitely with a bone spur.  Nene Hilario?

C’mon. Don’t make me vote for Chris Kaman.  At last check, Kaman says he doesn’t want “to be a hindrance” to the young Clippers. The West has not All-Star worthy center on the ballot, so I picked Yao, figuring it was the fair thing to do because he won’t play anyway and that’ll open up a spot for a deserving forward who plays center  — which will then open up a forward spot, which will help ensure that somebody like David West isn’t snubbed.  See how this works — or does it?

I’ll probably have to vote again tomorrow to see how all this settles.

Made in Cameroon: Joe Johnson’s new suit

 Twenty minutes into the 2nd half of Hawks-Bucks Game 1 Saturday, and the Hawks just couldn’t find a way to finish off Scott Skiles’ Bucks. The Hawks 22-point halftime lead had been cut down to seven, eight and Brandon Jennings was coming at them fast, leading chance after chance — 7 possessions in all — to pull the Bucks closer. 

On the other end, Joe Johnson, the Hawks leading scorer, an All-Pro who had averaged 27.3 pts on 55% shooting in three regular season games against the Bucks, was clearly frustrated.  The Hawks offense had generated just 5 shots for Johnson in the half.  He made two of those 5 and generated a third bucket for himself on a rebound-miss-and-tip-in.  In 18 minutes of 2nd half court-time, Joe’s offense amounted to six hard fought points and two assists — to go with the misses and two 3rd quarter turnovers.  And the Bucks wouldn’t go away. 

The reason for Joe Johnson’s frustration was Luc Mbah a Moute, Bucks defender-at-large; real honest-to-murgatroid prince in his native Cameroon, Africa; the man Kevin Durant named his toughest defender in the league (with Ron Artest). 

Mbah a Moute, the Bucks starting power forward, lived in Johnson’s jersey in the 2nd half of Game 1.  At a full 6’8″, Mbah a Moute is taller, has longer arms and is quicker than Johnson.  No player that tall and that long with ability to harass a jumpshot is quicker in a defensive crouch, and that’s what Durant was talking about. 

He denied Joe the ball, he crowded him on the perimeter, left hand ever-extended, fingers forming a web in the Hawks star’s face. He challenged what few jumpers Johnson attempted, he bodied his post back-downs, he cut off his drives. His long reach altered post entry passes, he forced turnovers, he hit the glass, he stole the ball.  Except for a 4:00 break while both players took a breather (end of the 3rd-beginning of the 4th) Johnson and Mbah a Moute were an inseparable fact of life for the Hawks stalled offense, and for Johnson the quality of that life was miserable. 

It all came to a head with 3:30 to play as Johnson hit a jumper that seemed to announce an end to the 3 minutes of offensive futility (for both teams) and put the Hawks up by 12.  That should have provided the breathing room the Hawks needed. But after a Bucks miss, Jerry Stackhouse stole the ball from Hawks point guard Mike Bibby and drove for a layup.  

On the next possession, Johnson, calling for the ball at the elbow, cut to Bibby as Bibby dribbled into the key. Mbah a Moute stepped in, tipped Bibby’s jump pass and ran it the other way, flipping it in as Johnson grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him to the floor. No flagrant foul on Johnson, though it looked like there should have been one. The frustration had boiled over, and the Bucks had cut the Hawks lead back down to 8. 

As Mbah a Moute stepped to the line to shoot the and-one, he smiled.

Johnson and the Hawks may have gone on to win the game, but Mbah a Moute was winning an important battle in the war. … He missed the free throw, though, and the Hawks took it and reran the set that Mbah a Moute had disrupted seconds earlier.  This time Johnson dribbled in isolation and, with the shot clock running down and Mbah a Moute all over him, forced up an awkward fallaway 20-footer from the top of the key.  It banked in.  H-O-R-S-E  if Johnson had called it. I don’t think he did. Game 1 to the Hawks. 

Kurt Rambis brings down a tough board, demonstrating the style of play that gave the All-Rambis team its name.Joe’s thumb: At some point during his battle against Mbah a Moute, Johnson banged his thumb, aggravating an injury he suffered March 31 against the Lakers, in an entanglement with — guess who?  Durant’s other “toughest defender,” Ron Artest. 

“It takes a little while for [the feeling] to come back,” Johnson said after the game. “Other than that, I’ve been good. I am just trying to pick my spots out there and get guys involved.” 

Artest and Mbah a Moute’s names come up a lot when it comes to defense and dirty work.  They’re both 2010 All-Defensive honorable mention forwards on the Basketball Prospectus and NBA.Com media project teams. 

ESPN columnist John Hollinger called Mbah a Moute the NBA’s “most underrated defensive player,” and put him on his All-NBA Defensive squad (3rd team). Not sure he’s underrated, though his playing time did drop below half-time in March and April.   

As a rookie in 2009, Mbah a Moute was named Eastern Conference sixth man on USA Today’s first annual “All-Rambis Team,”  honoring grittiness and dirty work in the era of NBA millionaires — in the spirit of Laker’ big forward Kurt Rambis, of course. The Cavs’ Andy Varejao, the Rockets Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem of the Heat were some of the other notables on the team. 

Kobe Bryant on Mbah a Moute: “You don’t see a lot of players who understand the value of playing hard defensively.” 

Playing time:  The job Mbah a Moute did on Johnson wasn’t that surprising — Luc’s been assigned the NBA’s best since he came into league out of UCLA in 2008. The Bucks have been the toughest defense for D-Wade to score on since then. A Bucks-Nuggets game usually results in epic struggles between Mbah a Moute and Carmelo Anthony. Against the Celtics, “the prince” has guarded Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — in a single game. He guards Lebron James.

What has been surprising is his lack of playing time against the Hawks and Johnson this season, despite being the logical cover for both Johnson and Josh Smith. Mbah a Moute was relegated to an avg. of 18.3 minutes vs. the Hawks, playing less vs. only the Jazz, Grizzlies, T-Wolves and Spurs. 

All three Bucks-Hawks games were played after the trading deadline, when John Salmons became a Buck. Skiles often left the 6’6″ Salmons and Johnson to go head-to-head. Mbah a Moute spent more time on Smith than Johnson, much more on the Bucks bench. Skiles did call on Mbah a Moute to guard Johnson during the final minute of the Bucks 98-95 win in Milwaukee March 22.  Joe had been on fire (27 pts, 13-23) but was 0 for 2 to end the game.  

During the season, starting small forward Carlos Delfino played well (15.3 pts) and a lot (39.3 mins) against the Hawks.  Jerry Stackhouse played an avg. of 24 mins (Skiles has obviously liked scorers on the floor against the Hawks’ weak perimeter defenders).  The playing time losers were Mbah a Moute and versatile big forward Ersan Ilyasova (21.3 mins) and the Bucks. They lost 2 of those 3 games. 

The playoff trend is bound to be different for Mbah a Moute after 31 mins — 20 as Johnson’s shadow in the 2nd half. … But what about Delfino, Stackhouse and Ilyasova, who was expected to have a larger role in the absence of Andrew Bogut? 

Stackhouse (27 mins) played more than Delfino (23) and Ilyasova (23) Saturday. The Bucks have now lost 3 of 4 to the Hawks.  Expect some changes here. Skiles can’t become so overly concerned about scoring that he’s leaving his better defenders on the bench. It’s not as though Delfino (11.0) and Ilyasova (10.4 in 23 mins, 15.9 per 36) haven’t averaged double figures in scoring for the Bucks this season.