Tag Archives: Luc Mbah a Moute

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.

Mission “Impossible” – The Milwaukee Bucks evaluation that coach Scott Skiles says can’t be done

Bucks coach Scott Skiles said after Friday’s blowout loss in Dallas that it was “impossible” to evaluate the 2012 Bucks.  They’ve been too hurt, too MIA and too jumbled in disarray in this rush-start, lock-out shortened season; it just can’t be done, not yet after 11 games, not in Skiles’ mind.

At The Bob Boozer Jinx, we’re undeterred by such obstacles, and have already noted that Skiles and Bucks GM John Hammond failed for the second year in a row to put a team on the court ready to start the season.   With that in mind as the Bucks get set to play the Philadelphia 76ers on Martin Luther King Day, here’s your 2012 Milwaukee Bucks evaluation, coach, in order of most playing time to least.

Brandon Jennings: He’s shooting better and has played smarter, attacking to the basket more than settling for that unreliable jumpshot of his, as the Bucks are playing at a faster pace than last season.  BJ3 is among the NBA leaders in minutes played per game, was at one point near the top in free throws per game (he needs to do more of this) and was shooting 44.3% going into Philly, 35.7% from Downtown.  Those are winning numbers for a point guard these days, especially one that keeps his turnover rate as low as Jennings does (10%).   Had a tough game in Philly and couldn’t give the Bucks an edge in the 3rd quarter when they needed it, but make no mistake — Brandon Jennings has improved.  Defense?  That’s improved, too, as BJ3 leads the Bucks in steals.  He wins the Bob Boozer Jinx “2012 Most Ready to Play” award.

Stephen Jackson:  He shoots, he scores.  He shoots, he misses.  A lot.  A 42% career shooter who can’t make a third of his threes is not a good shooter, but that doesn’t deter Captain Jack.  The intangibles?  Showed up out-of-shape and with a sore back but looks close to 100% now, and he seems to be the kind of nasty competitor the Bucks need some nights — and there will be those.  Unfortunately, he shoots so badly in some games — like today’s 3-for-12 against Philly — that the Bucks will often find themselves climbing out of a deficit as Jack rants.  The Bucks can’t win with Jennings and Jackson shooting a combined 6-for-23.  There will be those nights, and days, like these.

Carlos Delfino:  Here’s another guy who wasn’t ready to go, as he missed two games and was useless for three others due to a sprained shooting wrist.  Del is the Bucks best 3-baller (38%), and a capable defender who is again leading the Bucks in steals.  He’s solid all-around and would do well to take it to the hoop more often, and doesn’t help out on the glass as much as he could.  When he’s on, the Bucks can be dangerous.

Shaun Livingston:  One of the reasons the Bucks can look at their schedule, look at their record, and feel like they should be 7-and-5 instead of 4-and-8 even after reading the injury report.  Livingston has helped the Bucks build a few blowout leads, only to see them frittered away aided by offensive droughts, bad rebounding and Skiles’ flawed sense of matchups and rotations.  A player who does everything there is to do on the basketball court well — turnaround jumpers from the post! — and has fit in seamlessly on the Bucks jumbled roster.  He may have found his second NBA life in Milwaukee.

Ersan Ilyasova:  If you followed Ersan this summer with the Turkish national team and with Anadolu Efes in the Euroleague, you knew that Ersan had seemingly lost his jumpshot but wasn’t really bothering to look for it, content to play D, rebound and mix it up inside.  He’s very much a player in transition from “Dirk-lite” scorer to cage-rattling NBA power forward.  Does it look good in the box score or other metrics?   Hell no, with the exception of the rebound column.  Currently making Thaddeus Young‘s MLK day miserable in Philly, and is on the court with Bogut, Delfino, Jennings and Jackson – the Bucks strongest defensive unit today.  That unit “got up on ’em and got  physical,” said Bucks assistant Jim Boylan, noting that this was when the game changed.  They pulled a 13-point deficit down to six in the 2nd quarter.  Bucks trailed by four at the half.

Important note:  Skiles has managed to evaluate Ilyasova, deciding he’s an “off the bench forward” on “a really good, deep club,” and that this seems to be his NBA future.  Ersan would beg to differ, and this will very likely be his last season playing for the Bucks (not a really good, deep club) and certainly his last playing for Skiles.

Jon Leuer:  Ilyasova’s heir apparent and fan fave, currently starting at power forward.  Unlike Ilyasova, Leuer actively looks to shoot, and has been the Bucks most efficient scorer this season.  The downside is that the Bucks defense and rebounding takes a hit when Leuer is on the court, evidenced by the first 4 minutes of the 2nd half in Philly, as the Bucks struggled to keep the Sixers off the glass.  Enter Ilyasova at the 7:50 mark, as Skiles continues to play power forward roulette.  The interior defense and rebounding picks up in the 3rd, but little else.  The Bucks tried to pull back into the game in the 4th without Leuer or Ilyasova.

Andrew Bogut:  Not ready to play this season, missing four of the Bucks first eight games due to a “personal matter” back home in Australia.  Staying on the court is AB’s main problem.  Lesser problems:  As more and more centers step out to the three-point line, pulling Bogut 20 feet or more from the hoop, Bogut will need to learn to adjust — and it is frustrating to watch Spencer Hawes draining threes.  Bogut himself is stepping out a bit this season, encouraged to do so for the first time in his career, and he’s been able to knock down four or five set-jumpers.  Bogut’s game remains close to the basket, of course, where he’s one of the best defenders in the NBA.   He played strong against Hawes, racking up 20 points, 11 boards, four assists and three blocked shots to keep the Bucks within striking distance in the 4th quarter.  His best game of the season, a hopeful sign for Bucks fans everywhere.  Has Godot arrived?

Drew Gooden:  Bogut can’t play 40 minutes a game, certainly, and probably won’t play enough this season to qualify for the NBA leader boards, which makes the 30-year-old Gooden, the Big Zero, a primary NBA backup center for the first time in his NBA career.  Check that – this project was attempted and abandoned in San Antonio and Dallas.  It will have to work in Milwaukee, or Drew becomes a $6 million-a-year big man with no job.  Poor guy.  May end up spending most of his time playing high stakes poker with GM John Hammond.

Larry Sanders:  Drafted in the first round 2011, by 2012 he’s riding the bench behind Gooden, Leuer and Ilyasova – even Jon Brockman at times.   A fantastic shot-blocker and defender in development, now a utility, garbage-time, odd man out.  If Alton Lister was Nellie’s “Big Project,” Sanders is Skiles’ “Really Big Project” — one that the Bucks organization may not ever get around to.

Beno Udrih:  Luke Ridnour is back and he’s taller and left-handed, shoots about the same, too, though not as experienced or sneaky on defense. “Allergic to defense,”  the Kings bloggers said about Udrih when he was traded to the Bucks.  This is true.  Udrih plays about the worst perimeter defense I’ve seen since Michael Redd and Mo Williams.  But he came to Milwaukee ready to play, and, were it not for getting creamed in a collision with Andre Miller in Denver and missing six games, the Bucks might have a road win or two.  A 5-and-7 record would look pretty good right now compared to 4-and-8.  (Udrih returned in Philly and played as the Bucks faded in the 4th.)

Mike Dunleavy, Jr.:  Coming into this season, Dunleavy had missed 110 games from 2009-11, or nearly half of those three seasons.  Now he’s missed eight more with a groin injury.  Yet another guy who wasn’t ready to play this season.  An injury-prone free agent acquisition by GM Hammond.

Tobias Harris:  Strong, good hands, gets to the rim and has good scoring ability around the basket, just as advertized when the Bucks drafted him.  The Bucks rookie had made the most of his 90 minutes to date, and scored 12 against Philly in 21 minutes.  The Bucks don’t have a small forward backup with Dunleavy and Luc Mbah a Moute out with injuries.  The way this season has gone so far, the Bucks may consider taking a development year for Leuer, Harris and Sanders.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Jon Brockman:  The Brockness Monster is still that, and he’s a punishing rebounder.  Problem is he can’t guard anybody and has no offensive game to speak of.  GM Hammond knew this when he signed him in summer of 2010.  It’s still not clear why he did it.

Darington Hobson:   Good floor skills and likes to drive.  6’7″ but plays like he’s 6’5″.  Belongs in the D-League with the Mad Ants of Fort Wayne, Indy.

Luc Mbah a Moute:  Expect some player movement when Mbah a Moute returns to 100%.  He’s signed and committed for four years ($19 million), and Luc will be here as long as Skiles is here.  He was sorely missed against Philly.  There are few things in the NBA better than watching Luc lock down on the likes of Andre Iguodala.

Trends from the armchair:  The strongest defensive unit — Jennings, Jackson, Delfino, Ilyasova and Bogut — was used only a quarter of the game in Philly — not enough.  Skiles abandoned it late in the 3rd quarter in a hale of Jackson and Jennings missed shots.  Livingston might’ve looked good with this group in place of Jennings.   Note that Leuer, Ilyasova, Gooden and Sanders did not play a single minute in the 4th as the Bucks dropped out of the game.  That was curious, though it may have been a function of Skiles wanting to look at Harris with the game (sorta) on the line.  It never felt like the Bucks were ever in it, not with the perimeter defense playing so poorly. …

…. And Skiles said this couldn’t be done.

Bucks giftwrap Bobcats home opener in Charlotte

After pounding the Charlotte Bobcats for one half and taking an 11 point lead at the break and going up 14, the Bucks apparently thought their season opener was in the bag.  A 30-14 pasting in the 3rd quarter reminded all (yet again) that this Bucks team simply isn’t as good as it apparently thinks it is.

They looked a lot like one of those teams that has forgotten what it’s like to win in the NBA and can’t find the “how-to” manual.

In the fateful 3rd, one long offensive rebound after another bricked out to the Cats over the inside position held by Andrew Bogut and Ersan Ilyasova, and the second and third chance points piled up against a solid Bucks D that had forced the Cats outside.

Charlotte held a 52-39 rebounding advantage and grabbed 15 offensive boards.  Remember when the Bucks hit the floor to seemingly come up with every available loose ball — those “50-50 plays” that coach Scott Skiles, Bogut and Luc Mbah a Moute used to talk about?

Last night, the Bucks didn’t get those, and nobody was talking about them.  (Mbah a Moute, it should be noted, didn’t play due to some minor tendonitis in his right knee.  Do the Bucks miss him that much?  Yeah, they probably do.)

Bobcat guards Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker had a combined 16 boards, just two less than Bogut and Ilyasova.  In 114 combined minutes, Bucks guards Brandon Jennings, Beno Udrih, guard-forward Mike Dunleavy and forward-guard Stephen Jackson had all of 8 rebounds.  That’s one rebound every 14 minutes.

Jackson was particularly awful, fouling out in just 17 minutes, getting a technical on the sixth foul and taking four ugly looking three pointers.  One banked in, unbelievably.  Is this the kind of basketball Skiles is going to allow this season?   One has to wonder.

More importantly, Bogut looked good, better than he has since he mangled his arm in 2010:  17 points, 9 rebounds, a blocked shot and two of the Bucks six steals.

Unfortunately, most of the points came early against Cats PF Boris Diaw.  Bogut had difficulty taking advantage of DeSagana Diop, the ‘Cats behemoth center, in the third quarter — and, you know our Bucks — the guards, led by Brandon Jennings, didn’t seem too interested in constructing offense where Bogut could take Diop in the open court.  More self-inflicted offensive woes from Skiles’ Bucks.

Ilyasova and Gooden couldn’t get anything going offensively (combined 2-8 shooting).  Here’s an insightful note from We’re Bucked because I’m trying really hard not to carp about Gooden:

The backup center issue is still an issue.  When Bogut left for his late third-quarter breather, the Bobcats outscored the Bucks 9-0. Not only that, but before action resumed, Charlotte added two more free throws (plus possession of the ball) on a Drew Gooden flagrant foul that led to his ejection.  So Bogut left with a six-point lead, came back to a five-point deficit, and returned early because Drew got himself tossed.

Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and Jackson shot a combined 4-16, the only makes from downtown.  That’s combined 6-24 shooting from three starters and a key rotation big man.  Ouch.

Carlos Delfino could have done that.  He was out nursing a sprained shooting wrist, apparently suffered when he gunned one too many from 3-point-land.

Home opener tonight at 7:30 PM.  Bucks will try again tonight at home in the Bradley Center against the Timberwolves and Kevin Love — a long night for the Bucks power forwards.  And BJ hasn’t been good against his old backup, Luke Ridnour, never mind Ricky Rubio.

Note to self:  This post is way too damned long.  Must … find … better … way … to write.   Running down recaps of generally forgettable basketball games will draw a fine from the editorial board.   Time to dig around in the video vault for more footage of Stephen Jackson doing things ridiculous.

More Bucks forwards: 2011 NBA Draft signs point to the Bucks adding to a crowded power forward situation

The 2011 seasons of Luc Mbah a Moute (“reliable”) and Drew Gooden (very “unreliable”) failed to provide much in the way of writing material (or so I’ve found) so what’s to keep Bucks GM John Hammond from adding another another power forward type to the roster in the draft?

Nothing of course, and that’s what many draft watchers thought Hammond would do even before he said last week that the Bucks No. 10 pick was one of those kinda-sorta “best player available” kinda picks.

In Hammond speak, that means “We don’t know but I’m probably gonna draft an athletic 6-foot-8 guy and hope he can figure out some NBA offense.”

In 2008 that translated to Joe Alexander in the first round and Mbah a Moute in round No. 2.  In 2010, that was Darington Hobson, “the best player available” whom the Bucks had worked out.   In this draft?

Tristan Thompson, 6-8, 225, Canada by way of the University of Texas.

“The Bucks have two terrific building blocks in Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings – but after that, it’s mostly question marks. They traded last summer for Corey Maggette and signed John Salmons and Drew Gooden as free agents, and none of them really panned out as expected,” according to ESPN Draft Insider Chad Ford.

“They really could use help at the 2, 3 and 4 positions. I have Thompson here because, of the players on the board, he’s the most likely to be a Scott Skiles-type player. He’s tough, aggressive and just a beast on the offensive boards. His skill level isn’t particularly high on the offensive end yet, but he’s a good fit alongside Bogut on the front line.”

Chad Ford pays very little attention to the Bucks, but that probably doesn’t matter with this draft.  Here’s how the thinking goes:

Everybody in and around the NBA knows the Bucks need backcourt help.  Unfortunately, what little backcourt help there is in the draft will likely be gone by the time the Bucks pick (assuming they don’t improve position in the lottery).

The point guards (Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight) are slated to go in the top five.  Forward Derrick Williams (Arizona) will likely go No. 2.

Bismack Biyombo, the 6-9 phenom from the Congo with 7-7 wing span, won’t survive past Detroit’s No. 7 pick.

Three of the international big men who’ve been on NBA radar for two years (Jan Vesely, Enes Kanter and Jonas Valanciunas, in no particular order) will be gone in the top eight.

The rest of the lottery board:  a group of NCAA forwards plus shooting guard Alec Burks and 6-11 scorer Donatas Motiejunas (Lithuania).

Ford thinks Charlotte at No. 9 will take San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard.  Others have a feeling that Jordan isn’t looking for another version of Gerald Wallace and will take Motiejunas, a big forward who’s got a scoring arsenal but a disdain for defense and rebounding. In other words, he’s the least like “Crash,” whom Jordan just traded.

Still others think Jordan will like Burks’ game most of all and will take a chance on the guard developing a reliable jump shot, a la Jordan himself.

The questions about these players are the same ones the Bucks will be asking.  Why bother with Motiejunas if he’s disinterested in defense?   After being dead last in shooting and scoring, can the Bucks afford to play a shooting guard (Burks) who can’t extend past midrange?

Who’s better — Leonard or Thompson or Marcus Morris, a classic 6-9 college power forward with three years at Kansas on his resume?  They’ve all got knocks.  Leonard and Thompson have offensive skill work to do.  Morris’ downside is athleticism and short arms, mid-range shooting.

The best answer for the Bucks is that hard-working Leonard fits the Bucks core personality, if for no other reason than he has a nose for winning 50-50 plays that Skiles can’t resist.  But he’s also a fair bet to be off the board by the nine pick, which would leave the Bucks picking between Thompson, Morris, Burks and Motiejunas.

They’ll likely shy away from Kentucky one-and-doner Terrance Jones, who’s not ready for the pros.

“Best player available” would then be Motiejunas — but Thompson becomes the player the coaches want — a 6-8 defender with scoring potential (Mbah a Moute again) who can play small or big forward.

Thompson would join a crowded stable of versatile Bucks power forward players, in keeping with GM Hammond’s modus operandi:  overload the frontcourt while he figures out who’s staying and who’s going.  The path of least resistance then becomes the trade Hammond backed himself into when he signed Gooden — Ilyasova for whatever veteran backcourt help the Bucks can get back.

Ilyasova wants full time NBA power forward minutes (32-35 per game) but  Skiles and Hammond have thus far been unwilling to entrust him with this.  Meanwhile, Ersan’s already considering offers to play in Europe if there’s an NBA lockout.

Bucks forwards: Injured rookie Darington Hobson plans return, but do the Bucks want him back?

Every so often during this mean season, when Bucks fans would be overcome by one of those perplexed expressions that fans of losing teams know well, someone would ask:

Whatever happened to that Hobson kid from U. of New Mexico the Bucks drafted last summer, the guy who had hip surgery?  (In fact, this happened just last week at The Bob Boozer Jinx. We didn’t have an answer then — but we do now.)

Darington Hobson, 6-7 forward, the 37th pick in the 2010 draft, has had successful surgery on both hips, is off of his crutches and will “seriously consider” resigning with the Bucks (lockout allowing), the Racine Journal Times reported this weekend.

“They have been very good to Darington. And Daring likes it there,” said Hobson’s agent, Sid Lash. “We got to do our due diligence and find out if it’s the right fit for the Bucks and for us.”

Well, that’s good news. Two good hips, no bridges burned, no hard feelings. Now what?

I’d like to be able to say the Bucks had high hopes for Hobson, who turns 24 in September, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case.  When he was drafted, Hobson seemed almost an afterthought.

Hobson worked out in Milwaukee with Gordon Hayward, Lazar Hayward, Luke Babbitt, Jordan Crawford and Terrico White.  After the workout, very little about Hobson was said by Bucks scouting director Billy McKinney — the Haywards and Babbitt got most of the attention, with shooting guard Crawford receiving high marks.

The Bucks, of course, drafted shot-blocker Larry Sanders with their No. 15 pick.  The Haywards, Babbitt and Crawford were drafted in the first round.  White went to Detroit one pick before the Bucks selected Hobson with the No. 37 pick.  Hobson, a long armed rebounder, was the last man from the workout standing in the draft.

The Bucks cut Hobson in December to make room for free agent practice big man Brian Skinner.

Then there’s this unpleasant note from Draft Express:

“His shooting percentages from inside the arc leave a lot to be desired at just 43%, a reflection of his struggles finishing around the rim (due to his lack of explosiveness) in traffic, coupled with his often-poor shot-selection. … Hobson loves to pull up off the dribble in the mid-range area, but is not particularly effective when doing so.”

Unfortunately, the last thing the worst shooting team in the NBA needs is a 24-year-old coming off of two hip surgeries who shot worse than the 24-year-old they already have (Luc Mbah a Moute, a restricted free agent) — and has yet to prove he can play the kind of in-your-face defense that Bucks coach Scott Skiles demands.

So while Hobson is seriously considering a return to the Bucks, it isn’t clear why the Bucks would consider offering Hobson a contract and an invite to camp (not much is clear given the abundance of forwards on the roster and the looming lockout).  Maybe Hobson’s agent knows better (the Bucks did it once before, didn’t they?) but something tells me Hobson will probably have to look for work elsewhere in the NBA.

Bucks forwards: The strange case of coach Scott Skiles and the jumpshot of Ersan Ilyasova

Chances are that not too many Wisconsin sports fans were watching the FIBA World Basketball championships the weekend of Sept. 12, when the Badgers hosted San Jose State and the Packers opening their regular season in Philly.

If they had, more of the state’s sports nuts might be questioning Bucks GM John Hammond’s sanity.

After leading his Turkish National team in scoring (14 pts./game) and rebounding (7.5  rpg) during Turkey’s run to a silver medal, Ersan Ilyasova was in summer 2010 a star rising faster than any other international player.

Yet before the FIBA tournament even began, Ilyasova’s GM in Milwaukee had given away a big chunk of the 23-year-old forward’s job and playing time.

Ilyasova returned to the Bucks to find himself all but benched by coach Scott Skiles, watching $32 million free agent acquisition Drew Gooden play the bulk of the Bucks’ power forward minutes.  He was also watching Gooden flounder and the Bucks lose twice as much as they won to start the season.

Much has been made of the 270-plus games that injured Bucks missed, but the truth was that there was never playing time for the five Bucks forwards — Ilyasova, Gooden, Luc Mbah a Moute, Carlos Delfino and Corey Maggette — seven if you include Chris Douglas-Roberts and rookie Larry Sanders.

When the injuries to Douglas-Roberts, Delfino and Gooden occurred, the healthy players had some idea what their roles and playing time was going to be.  No injuries = limited PT and a management problem for Skiles.

Early on, the best solution Skiles could come up with was to bench Ilyasova, justifying it with talk about the minutia of Ilyasova’s textbook shooting form.  Ilyasova acknowledged that he was fatigued after a long summer with his Turkish team.

But there was always a “what came first?” question about Ersan’s poor shooting and lack of playing time.   Was he struggling with shooting rhythm because of a lack of PT, or was he really, as Skiles suggested, too off his game to deserve the PT?   Whatever the case, there’s no question that Skiles was yanking Ilyasova if he missed his first few shots and that, as a result, Ersan was pressing.  That high-arcing jumper wasn’t falling.  And the Bucks were losing.

Ilyasova started the season 1-for-5 against New Orleans and 0-for-4 in an 8-minute stint in Minnesota.  In game three, the Bucks home opener, Ilyasova played all of 58 seconds and didn’t shoot.

What was wrong with Ilyasova? Absolutely nothing, those who watched the World Championships could attest.  Excuses aside, Skiles was simply opting to play Gooden, the GM’s free agent investment.  The Bucks, also working newcomers Corey Maggette and Keyon Dooling into the rotation, looked lost on defense, confused on offense and worse — they looked like a bad team with a bad coach.

The fifth game of the season, in Boston, still stands emblematic of the Bucks frustrating season.  Against a respected opponent, the 2010 Bucks showed up and outplayed the Celtics until the game’s final minutes when the C’s were able to force overtime.  Gooden was benched after two quick fouls in the first quarter, Andrew Bogut got 20 looks and 21 points, and Ilyasova played 35 minutes, scoring 15 points, grabbing seven rebounds and battling Kevin Garnett to a sub-KG game.  But in what would become an all-too-familiar story, the Bucks couldn’t close the game and lost in a parade of Paul Pierce free throws in overtime.

The following game in Indiana — with Bogut out — Ilyasova played 27 minutes, including some at center guading Roy Hibbert, and was a defensive wrecking crew (2 steals, 2 charges taken) while scoring an efficient nine points on eight looks, hitting two threes.  The Bucks won, offering every indication that nothing short of disaster could land the Bucks behind the Pacers in the standings.

Problem solved, right?  Nope.  Skiles went right back to limiting Ilyasova’s minutes against David West and the Hornets, another loss,and the Bucks were 2-and-5.  Skiles had yanked Ilyasova in five games, four of them Bucks losses.  This would continue through game 14, a loss to the lowly Cavs in Cleveland.  In Philadelphia, Ilyasova snared six rebounds in eight minutes yet found himself benched and watching the Bucks lose by 11.

After 14 games the Bucks record was a pitiful 5-9, despite leading the league in defense.  Ilyasova wasn’t the only Buck struggling to put the ball in the basket, yet he was apparently the only Buck who had lost the trust of his coach over it.

In ten of the Bucks first 14 games (seven losses), Ilyasova played 21 minutes or fewer and shot a feeble 25.5 percent (13-51) from the field, just 3-for-18 (16.7 percent) from behind the arc.

Clearly, Skiles’ handling of the situation wasn’t helping the shooter.  Something had to give.  In the end, it was Gooden’s left foot and plantar fasciitis condition that would force him to miss 47 games.

But the ten “Ersan-i-yank” games had done their damage.  The Bucks and Ilyasova’s seasons, obviously, would have looked quite a bit different without them.

Ilyasova 2011(60 games) — fgs: 221 for 507 (43.6%)   3-pts: 36 for 121 (29.8%)   rpg: 6.1   ppg: 9.5

Minus the bad start (50 games) — fgs: 208 for 456 (45.6%)   3-pts: 33 for 103 (32.0%)   rpg: 6.5   ppg: 10.5

That’s better overall shooting in those 50 games — all but four from Nov. 26 on — than he shot last season, though with a slightly lower 3-point shooting mark.

2010 season (81 games):  fgs: 44.3%   3-pts: 33.6%   rpg: 6.4   ppg: 10.4

Remove the 32 percent 3-point shooting from those 50 games, and a 49.6 inside-the-arc shooting percentage is revealed — remarkable for a player who shoots most comfortably 17-21 feet from the basket and has a limited post-up game.  To compare, Bogut in a good year makes just one shot more per 30 shooting almost entirely within ten feet of the rim.

Crunching the shooting stats at 82games.com, Ilyasova on the season made 50.2 percent (125 of 249) of his jump shots inside the 3-point line, a Dirk Nowitzki-like percentage.  In close and into the defense was an adventure (just 43.8 percent) where Ersan’s “finishing” and shot selection could stand to improve.  But the midrange Ilyasova jumper was arguably the most reliable routine offense the 2011 Bucks had.

Taking into account Ersan’s 89.4 percent free throw shooting, the best marksmanship of any NBA forward (0.2 percent better in 2011 than Nowitzki), he emerges as the Bucks best “pure” shooter.  “One of the best in the world for a four,” says Andrew Bogut.  And arguably the best shooter on a 43 percent shooting team.

This was evident in late January when Ilyasova went on a tear to help lift the Bucks to wins against Toronto and New Jersey.  It carried over to a three-game road trip west which fell apart when Bogut was injured against the L.A. Clippers.  Such were the frustrations of the Bucks season.

“There’s no question Ersan has to be more consistent with his shot,” said Skiles at the end of the season.

Coach, you didn’t notice — he already has (no further micro-management required).

Ilyasova’s still only 23 years old (he turns 24 next month) and has potential to become one of the best long range shooters in the NBA.  For now, he’s the best jump-shooter from 22-feet-in that the poor-shooting Bucks have on their roster.

Pure shooter, solid, scrappy, disruptive position defender with a top 20 NBA defensive rating … That’s the kind of player who wins games if he’s on the court.

Ilyasova will be as bright a star as the Milwaukee Bucks want him to be. If they clear the path of capable, but limited guys like Luc Richard Mbah-Moute, Carlos Delfino and Corey Maggette – and empower Ilyasova to look for his shot on the same level as Michael Redd, John Salmons and Andrew Bogut – the Bucks have a budding superstar on their hands.  — Denver Post writer Chris Dempsey, naming Ilyasova “the most fascinating player of the 2010 FIBA World Championships.”

Add Gooden to Dempsey’s list and note that, after another season in Milwaukee, Skiles and GM Hammond seem no closer to clearing a path for Ilyasova than they did last summer when they signed Gooden.  In all likelihood, this path now leads out of Milwaukee.

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Three-point shooting at home: Just because the NBA painted a 3-point line on the court, does not mean that an outside shooter has to set up behind it.  For Ilyasova, the particular line to ignore is the one painted on the hardwood at the Bradley Center.

At home, Ilyasova shot a woeful (shield your eyes, it’s ugly) 19 percent from downtown (11-58).

On the road he shot 39.8 percent, good enough to lead the Bucks.

One can’t necessarily blame ticket-buying Bucks fans if they fail to appreciate Ilyasova the shooter, no matter how well he shot everywhere else.  The shots fell more often on the road last season than at home, too, though the difference was not as pronounced.  If it’s a Bradley Center trend, it dug in this season and grew worse.

Indeed, a change of venue may be what’s best for Ilyasova.  Unfortunately, it’s probably not the best thing for the Bucks.

**** Next up: I’ll continue to look at the Bucks power forwards, focusing on defense (Mbah a Moute’s forte) and rebounding (Gooden’s forte) … and Ilyasova, who played the most PF for the Bucks in 2011 and was the power forward on four of the Bucks five most successful rotations.

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.

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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.

The “Ginobili rules” of the West don’t put the Spurs in title contention

He took the ball on a bounce after a sloppy, tipped inbound.  He held it too long, allowing precious seconds tick away, robbing his team of any chance for an offensive rebound if his final shot missed.  He advanced then toward Luc Mbah a Moute, one of the best defenders — if not the best defender — in basketball.  He drove hard left but Mbah a Moute was there first.  He pushed Luc off with his right arm but not far enough — Mbah a Moute stayed right on him as he planted a pivot foot.  He had no time and no choice but to jump full back, with both feet — traveling — and tossed up a 20-footer that barely lofted over Mbah a Moute’s outstretched hand.

No whistles.  The jumper poured through the hoop at the buzzer, giving the Spurs a 92-90 win over the Bucks.

“He” is Manu Ginobili, Charles Barkley’s second favorite player.  How about Charles’ boy this week?

“You mean that he travelled?” – Sir Charles doth speaketh.  “… That’s a travel. In all 50 states, that’s a travel.”

Not in San Antonio, Texas, on a Wednesday night in December — and not when the 10-13 Milwaukee Bucks were on the verge of pulling off a Texas sweep of the teams with the best records in the West.  Are the Spurs and Mavs truly title contenders?   Maybe.  But no, not if Boston and Miami continue playing the way they’re playing, not really.  Not if they’re struggling — and the Mavs failing — to beat the Bucks in Texas.

It’s been two-plus seasons since Ginobili, Parker and Duncan made the West Finals but the story seems to be that this summer they “banded together” for a title run in 2011. It’s an improbable story when you consider that they haven’t really been close to a title since 2007 when they last won; and it’s not a story everybody’s buying into — the Denver Nuggets certainly didn’t on Thursday night.  FoxSports “In the Paint” NBA analyst Marques Johnson this week qualified  his take on the Spurs and Mavs as “the best in the West” with a telling … “for now.” And he says it twice for emphasis.

Marques (1977-1984) was the greatest forward to ever wear a Bucks uniform, the only Buck not named Kareem or Sidney to be a 1st team All-Pro.   It’s always strange to see Junior Bridgeman‘s #2 up in the BC rafters (though they on the court together for roughly half the game, Bridgeman was Marques’ backup) while Marques’ #8 is still in circulation, worn by rookie Larry Sanders (heck, I’d wear it too if I were a Bucks rookie).  Like Barkley, Marques is more keen on the Mavs chances — probably figuring that Dirk Nowitzki is the one player whom none of his contending Bucks teams would have had a defense for.  The Spurs?  “The Spurs are the Spurs,” Johnson shrugged.

But the thing that’s going unmentioned in the NBA this week by Marques, Barkley or anybody is that neither the Spurs or Mavs looked like championship contenders against the Bucks — a concession perhaps to the idea that the Bucks have the unluckiest 10-14 record in basketball and are so-under-the-radar in terms of contention that you need sonar to track them.  The Bucks haven’t backed away from any challenges since Andrew Bogut came back into the lineup, including the Heat, but that’s not the point — nobody’s going to talk about the Bucks until they start putting the ball in the basket with more regularity, go on a winning streak and actually beat the Heat, which they’ll get two chances to do the first week of January.

The point is, the Bucks were screwed in San Antonio — no other way to put it.  The refs didn’t just eat their whistles on Ginobili’s buzzer beater, they were loathe the entire game to call fouls on the Spurs starting five.  That isn’t going to happen if and when the Spurs meet Kobe, Gasol and the Lakers in the playoffs.

Here’s the foul story: One on Manu, one on Parker, one on DeJuan Blair and three on Tim Duncan, who was guarding Bogut most of the night and basically humped his arm with the score tied 90-90 and the Bucks trying to feed their All-Star center in the post.   No fouls on Richard Jefferson.  That’s six fouls in 150 minutes played by the Spurs starters — or an astounding one foul per 25 minutes played, which means the refs were not about to whistle even 5 fouls on the Spurs starters per 120 mins of available PT in a half.

Brandon Jennings was hacked all night by Tony Parker and battered to a 4-18 shooting night.  Yet the Bucks, with John Salmons and Corey Maggette all but benched for the game and Carlos Delfino still recovering from a head injury, had the ball with the score tied at 90 and 30 seconds to play.

The following night in Denver it was more of the same for the Spurs, playing at full strength against the Chauncey-less Nuggets.  Duncan fouled out two or three times by my count but was only whistled for four, even as his counterpart, Nene Hilario, was fouled out.  Parker — who fouls everybody in sight — was caught for all of one foul playing 37 minutes.  In the end it was Manu twisting for a layup to give the Spurs the lead and then saving the game by leaping into Carmelo Anthony‘s path to draw a charge as time expired — taking the winning points off the Denver scoreboard.

Was Ginobili there, planted in position in time?   It was close, too close not to question — but it was Manu.  Of course the call went his way, whether or not what he did was to jump — leap, literally, both feet in the air from the weakside — under Carmelo as Carmelo (31 pts in the game) was gathering to lift to the rim.

But hey — it was Manu.  Tough luck, Carmelo.  “Bullshit,” said Nuggets coach George Karl.  The Spurs are now 22-3, the best record in basketball and they’re playing at full strength in December. It’s the fastest start in Spurs history.  But I watched the Spurs lose twice this week, and so did you — only to see the refs award them the wins.  No, the Spurs are no title contender — they don’t have the muscle in the paint to help Duncan and truly contend, and no amount of magical refereeing will allow the Manu and Parker and RJ show to carry them to the finals.

Call the Spurs a lucky 22-3, as lucky as the Bucks 10-14 mark has been unlucky and injury riddled.  As lucky as the Bears 9-4 record atop the NFC North (oh, that’s probably stretching it).  The luck of things in the NBA have a tendency to even out over the grueling 82-game schedule — let’s not go ahead and crown their asses yet.   Remember, against the Bucks, the Spurs were posterized in the 4th quarter by, of all people, Drew Gooden.

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“I still don’t think he’s a center” — Kevin McHale on the Hawks Al Horford — who is not a center despite the Hawks insistence (under Mike Woodson anyway) that Horford is a 6’11″center.   In Boston, Horford had just hit an early 18-footer against the Celtics, and McHale noted that Horford’s improving 18-footer was the thing that “separates him from other big forwards.”  Al Horford, power forward.  Too small to start against Andrew Bogut and other centers (that task goes to Hawks big man Jason Collins), and too small at 6’9 to appear on center ranking lists.  Hopefully, commentary like McHale’s is a sign that Bogut will be making his All-Star game debut in Los Angeles in February.

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Bogut since his return against the Magic Dec. 4:  19.8 pts – 14.2 rebs – 4 blks – 1 steal – 2.3 assists per game.  Add in the possessions that he turns over by taking charges and the result is a center playing better now than Dwight Howard.  Overall, Bogut leads the NBA in blocks per game (3.1) and has the 3rd-best defensive rating in the league (96.5 pts allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) behind Kevin Garnett and Howard.  That’s the sort of company AB keeps these days.

If Bogut keeps it up and continues hitting 55% of his shots (50 of 89 since tipping it off against the Magic), the Bucks should weather the current scheduling nightmare (and AB’s horrendous free throw shooting) by earning a few tough road wins in the West — and be right on the Bulls’ tails by late January.

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Speaking of centers and the Bulls, Joakim Noah will be out nursing a broken right thumb until after the All-Star break.  With the Bucks in the middle of the toughest stretch of basketball in the league this season, fate (or Bulls management) has conspired to make sure the Bulls don’t run away with the Central.  The Bulls can’t and won’t keep up their 16-8 pace (and 3rd-ranked defense) without their defensive anchor in the paint having the All-Star season he was having — but the Bucks have a six game hole to climb out of while playing the toughest December-early January schedule in the league.

The Bucks play Dec. 28 and Jan. 24 in Chicago.  Noah will miss both of those, which means the Bucks won’t get a chance to see the Rose-Noah-Boozer Bulls until Feb. 26 in Milwaukee.  That’s too bad, because a Bucks-Bulls game without Joakim Noah is like playing the Celtics without Kevin Garnett — it takes the fun out of the battle for the paint.  I wonder if Bogut will miss him.

I can’t help but wonder, though, given that 2-handed push shot that Noah throws up at the rim,  what he needs his right thumb for?

Their left feet: Jennings leads his Bogut-less Bucks to Utah

Slow news day this Monday in the Bucks camp but yesterday the Bucks did note that Andrew Bogut didn’t travel with the team to Utah, which ought to keep life very interesting for Brandon Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute, who gutted out a much-needed 104-101 win against the Bobcats Saturday, ending the Bucks five-game losing streak.

How a group of NBA players — no matter who they are — can shoot as poorly as the Bucks did in losing those five games is a mystery, one that unfolded with a strange side-effect:  the new guys — Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden — developed sore feet.  Even stranger was that the soreness did not attack just any feet, but has targeted Maggette and Gooden’s left feet.

Whatever the source of this strange left foot malady, Maggette didn’t suit up Saturday and coach Scott Skiles took the opportunity to do what many Bucks fans have been calling on him to do since the first games of the seasom:  move Gooden to the bench, where he sat all game registering a DNP.  Ilyasova took the starting power forward duties and, from the opening tap the Bucks seemed to recognize each other — and themselves —  and jumped out to a double digit lead that they held until the ‘Cats made a gritty run at them in the fourth quarter.

Ilyasova played 40+ minutes and finished with 17 pts, 9 rebs and six assists — showing again that if Skiles gives him minutes, he doesn’t play as though he has two left feet.  Mbah a Moute played all but 40 seconds of the game and posted 12 pts, 10 boards battling with Gerald Wallace and harassing Stephen Jackson into two technical fouls and an ejection early in the first quarter.

Larry Sanders started at center and had his best game as a pro, while the generally terrible Jon Brockman backed Sanders up in the first half and was benched in the 2nd.  John Salmons was good for three quarters before running out of gas in the 4th.

Jennings, as prescribed, was great, leading the Bucks with 32 pts and 6 assists.  Maybe it was the absence of Gooden clogging the post and demanding the ball — maybe it was Jennings simply taking over — but the ball moved, the Bucks shooters got well for one night and the losing streak ended.  They’ll need Jennings to assert and maintain control of the Bucks offense this week in Utah and Denver.

Their left feet: Maggette limped off the court in Detroit Friday, and Skiles mentioned that he was aware Maggette was having problems before the game.  He didn’t suit up.  While Maggette had foot problems in training camp, much less has been reported about Gooden’s left foot.  Gooden has been healthy all year and the decision to sit him down came right up to game time, the reports suggested, though no mention is made of Gooden ailment.

So, what gives? Is Gooden hurt or — given the lack of ball movement when he’s in the game — has he been  benched?   Whatever the situation — and Gooden did seem to hit a wall while playing far too many minutes during the five game losing streak — Jennings didn’t miss him as an option, and had no problem keeping the entire starting five involved in the offense.

This just in: Gooden is out with plantar fasciitis in his left foot left ankle injury, Jennings’ starting line-up stays with Ilyasova and Sanders on the frontline.  Maggette is listed as a game time decision.

Appreciating Ersan Ilyasova

Maybe all it took was the Boston Celtics to remind the Bucks who they were supposed to be this season, and to remind coach Scott Skiles who some of last season’s Bucks are.

Today, the Bucks-o-sphere is hailing the return of “the ‘real’ Ilyasova.” It was a different story on Monday, on the same Journal Sentinel blog, as Bucks writer Tom Enlund asked Skiles the question on many Bucks fans minds:  Why isn’t Ersan Ilyasova playing?

Judging by some of the comments under Enlund’s story, a lot of Bucks fans don’t appreciate Ilyasova’s game — the hustle, the knack for being in the right place at the right time on the offensive glass and in the fight for loose balls (those 50-50 plays that Skiles, Andrew Bogut and Luc Mbah a Moute talk about), the hard-nosed defense (hello, KG), the smart passing and, yes, the good and often timely shooting.

Today may be a different story.  Skiles played Ilyasova 35 minutes against the Celtics, mostly on Kevin Garnett, holding the C’s leader to 13 points and 8 boards in 38 minutes. Though Garnett made a couple of clutch shots in the final minutes of regulation, that’s as “in check” as Skiles could have asked for after Drew Gooden (again) fell into foul trouble and clearly wasn’t up to the Celtics challenge.

On the offensive end, Ersan hit both of his threes, turning a decent scoring night into the kind of highly efficient scoring game that the Bucks needed to have a chance for the win. 15 points on ten shots (and three free throws) will get it done, and almost did in Boston. Last night was no aberration — Ilyasova averaged 15.9 pts and 9.8 rebs per 36 minutes last season.

From the Boston point of view, the Bucks were the same tenacious, hustling team that they faced last year.

… dealing with a back-to-back of their own, the Bucks were as much of a nuisance to the Celtics as they were last season, when they became the team Boston was trying to avoid meeting in the playoffs. Bogut finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Ersan Ilyasova added 15 points off the bench. — Boston Globe.

You wouldn’t know that Ilyasova had missed a beat (and a few jumpers) since his stunning playoffs against the Hawks last season and his run to the silver medal at the 2010 World Championships, leading his Turkish team in scoring (14 pts per game) and rebounding (7.5 rpg).  The Worlds didn’t get much coverage in Milwaukee due to the start of the NFL season in football-hungry Packerland, but Ersan’s performance didn’t go unnoticed in other NBA media.

Denver Post writer Chris Dempsey tabbed Ilyasova “the most fascinating player in the FIBA 2010 tournament.”

Ilyasova will be as bright a star as the Milwaukee Bucks want him to be. If they clear the path of capable, but limited guys like Luc Richard Mbah-Moute, Carlos Delfino and Corey Maggette – and empower Ilyasova to look for his shot on the same level as Michael Redd, John Salmons and Andrew Bogut – the Bucks have a budding superstar on their hands.

Now, Ilyasova has to do his part. Bucks coach Scott Skiles won’t stand for lackluster effort on defense and the glass, so he’ll have to sharpen his game in those areas. But having seen the explosiveness with which he can play – and showed some in the playoffs last season – I’d say he’s earned a chance to prove he can start and play a major role, giving the Bucks a young perimeter threat to grow with Brandon Jennings and Bogut.

If not, Ilyasova is going to get a chance to seek his big opportunity – and soon.

And there’s the rub — Ersan will be “as bright a star as the Bucks want him to be.”   The 5-year, $32 million contract signed by journeyman power forward Drew Gooden says that the Bucks don’t really want Ilyasova to be a bright star, not that bright and not yet.  Until Gooden proved not-ready-for-Boston, Skiles would hardly let Ersan on the court, apparently yanking him unless he made his first shots.

So if it seems that the standards for Ilyasova are different than the standards for other players, Gooden for example, they probably are. This is a problem, considering that the Bucks mantra since Skiles and Hammond took over has been that double standards do not exist on a Scott Skiles team.

Boston was just one game, but it seems as though the visage of Garnett may have reminded Skiles that Ilyasova’s been sitting on his bench through the first four games, waiting for a chance to be the player that he was last season and still is. I hope Skiles doesn’t forget any time soon.

Now, about those meager ten minutes that Luc Mbah a Moute played against the Celtics …