Tag Archives: Memphis Grizzlies

Before the trip West: Five Bucks appear on NBA leader boards; Bucks re-establish Top 5 team defensive rating

Happy New Year!   And welcome to 2012 on behalf of the editorial board at The Bob Boozer Jinx, most of whom are still sleeping off last night’s hilarity, events made possible by the board’s decision to handcuff me to the steering wheel of an alcohol-detecting cab and make me drive them around all night.  They’re not responsible for any of the gunfire you might have heard at midnight.

The Bucks had this weekend to themselves, getting ready for a five-games-in-seven-days trip west, which begins Monday night with the familiar Mountain-Time, Denver-Utah back-to-back and takes them to Sacramento and L.A. (Clippers) before wrapping up in Phoenix next Sunday.  It probably doesn’t need to be said that, in this lockout-shortened season, the Bucks (2-1) need to gut out at least two wins on this rough road and come home no worse than 4-4.

There’s no time like the outset of this trip to check the NBA leader board and see where our Bucks landed after Week One.  The good news is that the Bucks are again among the league leaders in defense, led by Andrew Bogut; and that they’re rankings on the offensive end aren’t half bad.  (NBA LEADER BOARD and SUMMARY).

Consider this an early touch-point blog of sorts.  I’ll check back to measure progress (or lack thereof) after the trip.

TEAM DEFENSE:  The Bucks — so far — have maintained their 2011 Top 5 defense despite new additions Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and Beno Udrih, guys hardly known for tenacious D.  Entering Sunday’s games, the Bucks ranked 2nd, giving up just 95.2 points per 100 possessions. 

(Find the season summary here – scroll down for the “Miscellaneous Stats” where you’ll find offense and defense ratings, turnover percentages and other pace-adjusted stats).

The Bucks rank 3rd in defensive field goal percentage, holding oppenents below 40% (39.8).  In Week One, they were the 2nd-best “effective field goal percentage” defense behind the Lakers (efg% accounts for the points on made 3-pointers).

The Bucks rank 4th in forcing turnovers, getting one 16.7% of the time, which means the Bobcats, T-wolves and Wizards turned it over once every six possessions.  That’s remarkably sloppy opponent offense, but also a key element to the Skiles constant pressure, in-your-grill, man-to-man defense.  It’s designed to force mistakes, not necessarily steals.

The Bucks defensive rebounding rate is in the toilet (22nd in NBA), as the Bucks are controlling just 71.4% of available opponent misses.  We can thank the T-Wolves and Bobcats for that.  Just a bad start for a strong rebounding team or a sign of things to come?  When in doubt blame Kevin Love.

TEAM OFFENSE:  The Bucks rank 16th in offense, tied with the Raptors, scoring 103.2 points per 100 possessions.  Not half bad and a major improvement over last season when they were dead last.

Shooting:  The Bucks are 14th in shooting percentage (45%) but 19th in 3-point shooting (30.5% – ouch) for an effective field goal ranking of 16th (48.6%).

The biggest change for the Bucks is paceLast season the Bucks were 25th in the league, running less than 90 possessions per game.  After Week One they were 6th, pushing the pace to 95.3 possessions per game. Note that Denver, their next opponent, is leading the league in pace, running and gunning under George Karl.

INDIVIDUALS:  Five Bucks are on the NBA Top 20 lists, four of them for good stuff.   The “bad” is Stephen Jackson, who ranks 16th in fouls.  The four “good” are Andrew Bogut (no surprise there), Brandon Jennings (a bit of a surprise), Ersan Ilyasova (no surprise here at the Jinx) and Carlos Delfino (Del-3-no!).  Lets begin with Bogut.

ANDREW BOGUT:  The Pacers may be leading the league in team defense but the best defensive teams on the planet continue to be the Orlando Magic when Dwight Howard is on the court and the Bucks when Andrew Bogut is in the game.  Howard (84.8 estimated pts per 100 allowed) and Bogut (89.0) rank No. 1 and No. 2 in defensive rating, right where they’ve been since 2009.

Rebounding: Bogut is hauling in 11.0 rebounds per game but not on the leader board because the Bucks have played only three games.  He’s 13th in defensive rebound rate (26% of available rebounds grabbed) and 18th in overall rebounding rate.*   Expect Bogut to stake his claim to the Top 10 in these areas on this road trip.   Bogues is 18th in total rebounds, 13th in defensive rebounds.

*A 26-27% defensive rebounding rate is typically good enough for the NBA Top 10. Bogut’s career bests of over 27% were in 2009 and 2011.  For a relative comparison, Dwight Howard was in the 31% range during those seasons.  The elite rebounders of the NBA are in the 18-22% total rebounding rate (offensive and defensive rebounding rates combined), with Kevin Love somehow posting a 23.6% rate last season.

Blocked shots:  Bogut, the NBA’s leading per game shot-blocker in 2011 has yet to make an appearance on the blocked shot leader board.  His typical blocked shot rate since 2009 has been about 6.0% — it’s half that after Week One.

BRANDON JENNINGS:  The 7th leading scorer in the NBA at 22.7 per game, and doing it fairly efficiently.  My computer froze when I wrote that the first time.  BJ is shooting 46% from the floor and getting to the line in the 4th quarter when the Bucks need him to the most.

Free throws:  Jennings is 17th in made free throws and in the Top 10 in free throws per game, with 6.7.

Minutes:  Jennings is also 17th in minutes played.

ERSAN ILYASOVA:   Tenacious D is his calling card.  Ilyasova ranks 5th in Defensive Rating, leading the Bucks forwards in minutes played (27 per game) and helping Bogut lead the Bucks to their No. 2 D-rating.

CARLOS DELFINO:  Three out of five from Downtown in one game gets Carlos in the 3-point shooting top 10.   Carlos ranks 10th at 60%.

STEPHEN JACKSON:  Fouls, turnovers, wild shots — Jackson’s the wild card for the Bucks, no doubt about that, but he’s also out of shape.  He’s “that guy,” and he even looks like he’s acquired my beer gut.  Jackson’s turning it over three times a game (if not more with wild shots) and would be in the Top 20 there had the Bucks played more than three games.  He’s 16th in total fouls (with 14) and one of the few guys in that bottom 20 who’s played three games.   Here’s hoping Captain Jack finds a groove on the road.

OTHER NOTABLES:

Ray Allen:  A true shooting percentage of 79.9 percent going into Sunday’s game against the Wiz.  Let’s call it 80.   True shooting counts two free throw attempts as one shot, carves up that shot based on percentage of FT makes, and adds the extra point for made 3-pointers to “truly” account for a shooter’s scoring accuracy.  Ray’s 58% from the field, 58% from downtown (14 of 24) and, no, he hasn’t missed a free throw in 16 tries.*

The Celtics may have started 1-3 without Paul Pierce but Ray is on fire and hasn’t taken a bad shot that I’ve seen.  Ray was 11th in Week One scoring with 20.0 per game.

*Ray on Sunday missed his first free throw of the season, always a solemn occasion.

Greg Stiemsma:  The 4-year Wisconsin Badger from tiny Randolph, WI, somewhere up there between Portage and Fon du Lac, made his NBA debut this week with the Celtics, backing up Jermaine O’Neal. Stiemsma blocked seven shots in two games, good enough for No. 2 in the league behind Blake Griffith‘s Clippers running mate DeAndre Jordan (4.7 blocks per game) and ahead of Howard (3.0 blocks).

Dwight Howard:  What trade talk?  Howard hauled in a Superman-like 70 rebounds in four games for the Magic to lead all boardsmen, including a league-leading 52 defensive boards.  Howard entered week two of his season averaging 17.5 boards a game and has cleaned off an astounding 38% of all opponent missed shots.

DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings was leading offensive rebounders with 23 in four games, then demanded to be traded after the Kings were blown out by the Knicks.   That’s 5.75 boards on the offensive glass per game for Cousins.  Somebody block big man out.  Somebody trade him.  Somebody tell him to stay home.  Somebody send him a Drew Gooden headband.

Kevin Love:  Three games, 44 rebounds, 20 against the Bucks.  Love is grabbing 14.7 boards a game, six per on the offensive glass and trails only Howard.  How does he do it?   Maybe hit the glass more, Darko!

Carmelo Anthony:  Forty free throws in four games.  40!  I’ve seen some of those games, and the fouls weren’t of the ticky-tack variety.  Carmelo’s averaging 25.0 per game and is sixth in scoring, a full 2.3 pts ahead of 7th place Jennings. (Note to BJ: Don’t bother trying to keep up with him.)

Lebron James:  Leads the league in scoring (33.0 per game) but the Heat don’t look so invincible.  The Bobcats had ’em in Charlotte but let ’em off the hook with turnovers and missed free throws down the stretch.  They still don’t have a center and are reportedly after ex-Buck-Blazer-Bobcat Joel Przybilla.

The Bulls:   They’re putting the hurt on the Randolph-Gasol Memphis Grizzlies in Chicago tonight, and will probably have the league’s top-rated defense come morning.*  The Grizzlies had all of 28 points at half and finished on the wrong end of a 104-64 score.   The defensive standard has been set in the Eastern Conference.*

*Lo and behold, the Pacers and Bucks remained atop the league in team defense after the weekend.  The Bulls D-rating did drop below 100 pts per 100 possessions (98.3), better than their 2011 league-leading 100.3 pts per 100.

The Hawks, Bulls, Sixers, Magic and Celtics ran Top 10 offense in Week One, something to keep in mind when thinking of contenders for East playoff spots.  Surprised the Knicks weren’t in the Top 10?  Me too.

Halfway Report: Grizzlies loss a microcosm of season, in miniature

The Bucks stumbled to the halfway point of the NBA schedule with a 16-25 record, losing to the Grizzlies 94-81 Saturday night at the BC in a style Bucks fans have become accustomed to this season.  Analyze the game, and it suffices pretty well as an encapsulation of the season.

1) Andrew Bogut, ailing all season with back issues, a mysterious virus and his recovering right paw, was less than superlative.  He was outplayed by Marc Gasol, who recorded his first 20-10 game of the season (24 points, 16 rebs).  This was the type of performance by Bogut that has made this season a trial for the Bucks, and the type of loss that may keep him off the 2011 All-Star team.  Bogut had 14 pts, 9 rebs, 3 blks, 2 stls but wasn’t the center making competent decisions on the floor. That center was Gasol.

“It was an ugly basketball game for most of the night and they outplayed us. Gasol, he killed me tonight and he had a lot of easy baskets and post moves. Their bigs really played well.”  – Bogut after the game.

“Ugly basketball game” might have been a reference to the terrible refereeing.  The whistle-blowers were bad, even by NBA standards.  An inexplicable 2nd foul call on Bogut three minutes into the game shackled him for most of the first half.   One highly questionable and two “how-much-does-the-zebra-have-on-this-one?” calls against the Bucks in the 3rd quarter changed the game and pushed the Griz out to a 59-46 lead.  But this is supposed to be a microcosm game for the season. No referee beefs allowed, unless it’s to say that the Bucks have, at times, been a hard luck team.

2) Starting guard John Salmons, the Bucks second leading active scorer, missed his 2nd game due to a hip problem.  The Bucks lead the NBA in starter games missed, even if you don’t count Drew Gooden as a legitimate starter.  They played their 17th game without injured Brandon Jennings is recovering from surgery on a bone fracture in his left foot and may return this week.  The Bucks are 6-11 without their point guard.  They need him.  Earl Boykins really likes to dribble around and dribble around and shoot.

3) The Bucks guards shot 12 out of 47 from the floor, 25.5 percent.  Everybody else shot 22 of 43 – 51.2% – and were good enough to beat the Grizzlies.  Is it too late to send Keyon Dooling back to free agency?   Carlos Delfino played too much in his second game back from head injuries, and shot too much. Chris Douglas-Roberts started the game but was benched after the first quarter.

4) Ersan Ilyasova was yanked by Skiles in the third quarter and did not return to the game.  Why?  He was burned twice by shaky officiating on two possessions, one against Gasol after he and Bogut switched; the other on a shoulder-first move by Zach Randolph in the post.  Add this Grizzlies loss to the long line of “Ersanity Factor” games, with this one emphasizing the illogic of Skiles’ yanks and how they hurt his team.

Ilyasova and Randolph were having a good battle, with Ilyasova playing 16 mins in the first half, some of it at center when Bogut got hit with foul trouble.  The halftime score was 43-40 Grizzlies.  The Bucks were behind, not because Randolph was having a game — he wasn’t.  Gasol was.  The Bucks guards were both shot-happy and bad.  Ilyasova and Corey Maggette, along with Bogut, seemed to have matters under control in the 3rd but for the refs dictating the game.  Skiles first pulled Ilyasova, then sat Maggette down.  With his starting forwards on the bench, the Bucks quickly found themselves down by 18, 72-54.

When the Bucks by mid-4th quarter pulled to within four against the Grizzlies bench, it seemed the ideal time for Skiles go back to Bogut and his starting forwards.  Most coaches would have, and trusted them to finish a win at home.  But not Skiles, who left the reserves on the court too long and didn’t call Ilyasova off the bench at all.

Ilyasova’s critics will say that he’s inconsistent (code for “his shots don’t always go in the basket”), and this has justified Skiles’ short leash. Earlier in the season, Skiles was pulling Ersan after consecutive misses.   Now it seems the coach will yank him even when he isn’t taking shots.  Ersan on Saturday was three for five from the floor, six points, and had locked into his matchup against Randolph, which — if nothing else, was adding drama to the game that Skiles didn’t seem to appreciate.

Ersan, after the Grizzlies game, was tied for 18th with Dwyane Wade and David West in NBA defensive rating at 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions played.  They’re in a group of five Top 20 defenders rated between 100 to 1oo.9 that also includes Tyson Chandler (100.5) and Lebron James (1oo.8).

With the loss, the Bucks record fell to 6-16 in games where Skiles has played Ilyasova fewer than 24 minutes.  Prior to Saturday’s loss, the most previous example of Skiles not playing Ilyasova in the 4th quarter was the Bucks’ lethargic loss in Houston.  The Bucks are 10-9 when Ilyasova plays 24+ minutes.

5. The Packers kick it off against the Bears at 2 pm this afternoon, and NBA league pass is free this weekend.  Time for me to stop worrying about the Bucks and Scott Skiles for at least a few hours.

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The Atlanta Hawks bounced back in Charlotte from their 100-59 humiliation to CP3 and the Hornets Friday.  Mike Bibby sparked the 3rd quarter offensive bust-out that made the difference in the game.  Joe Johnson was sharp (32 points) after shooting 1 for 16 against N’Awlins.  It was all very unspectacular and surprisingly ho-hum.  With Al Horford out nursing an ankle sprain, the grind-out, Eastern Conference style of the game went more the way of the Hawks, and  Charlotte didn’t put up much resistance after Bibby and Johnson’s offensive burst in the 3rd.  A team can’t let the Hawks feel good about themselves for any length of time, or their jumpers begin to fall like rain from all over the gym.  The ‘Cats understand this defensively, knowing both sides of the schizophrenic Hawks, and usually give the Hawks more trouble than they can handle in Carolina.  If only the ‘Cats offense would cooperate.

Stephen Jackson was horrible for the fifth game in a row, digging a steep production crater on the Bobcats’ wing.  It seems that ESPN’s Jackson to Dallas or Chicago trade campaigns are out to kill perceptions of Jackson as a reliable scorer.  It’s not that the extra attention and interest in Jackson has caused a slump — these slumps of his are natural.  The seven for 17 shooting guard who makes 2 of 6 threes looks good on paper, but he doesn’t shoot seven for 17 every game — the bad streaks are horrendous, as Jackson and the Bobcats know well.

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The Knicks want two All-Stars, Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton.  Saturday in Oklahoma City, Felton played like he wanted it, too, and was out to create the highlight plays that could help get him to Los Angeles next month.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t good for Felton’s teammates, who received all of one dime from their point guard in the second half.  The highlight play never materialized as Felton, possession after possession late in the 4th and went one on one against Russell Westbrook.  He hit one shot — a tough step-back, fallaway jumper with Westbrook in his face. The rest rimmed out, one drive drawing nothing but air.  The Thunder inched closer until they had the ball and a tie, with six seconds left on the clock after the Felton’s final exercise in one-on-one futility.  Kevin Durant calmly dropped a three-pointer from the far wing at the buzzer to win 101-98.

Kevin Durant (30 pts in the game) is an All-Star.  Raymond Felton?  Ten points, 5-for-16 shooting, seven assists … not an All-Star.  Ray’s not doing anything differently this season except shooting more, making a lower percentage and playing in New York.  If his assists are up (and they are with the Knicks), remember that last season he was a Bobcat.  Felton’s 2011 teammates, Amar’e Stoudemire for example, know a thing or two about scoring off a pass.

The Knicks loss dropped their record to 22-21, just five games ahead of the 10th place Bucks in the Eastern Conference.  The Knicks are in 6th and would play the Bulls if the playoffs started today.  … There’s nothing odd or controversial about the Knicks fall to the .500 zone of NBA mediocrity. The Knicks schedule has begun to even out after they feasted on NBA patsies like the Raptors and Wizards.  While the Bucks are 1-0 against the Wiz and haven’t played the Raptors, the Knicks are 5-0 against those Eastern Conference powerhouses.

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QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“It’s not fun playing aggressive and really trying to apply some energy, and get penalized for it. A lot of guys are playing very, very physical toward me. I’m starting to get injured a lot. My shoulders, arms, hands are starting to get banged up a lot. It’s a little frustrating.”

Amar’e Stoudemire, after the Spurs beat him up on their way to a 101-92 win in San Antonio Friday.  Typical Amar’e.  Sounds like what he said after Andrew Bogut and the Bucks blew the Knicks out in Milwaukee earlier this season.  He accused Bogut of cracking him with an elbow under instructions from Scott Skiles to “retaliate” against him for pushing Bogut in the back on a breakaway last March and causing the momentum that caused the fall that mangled Bogut’s arm and finished his 2011 season.  “What play is he talking about” Bogut wondered.

The Knicks loss to the Thunder the next night was their 6th straight.

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Pacers vs. Nuggets: What a brawl a game against the Denver Nuggets is.  The Pacers and Tyler Hansbrough — who shot a lot for a guy who’s averaging 7.2 pts a game — weren’t quite ready for it, though they worked hard to keep it relatively close even as Carmelo Anthony was raining six three pointers on them in the 3rd quarter

Ty-bro, by the way, had a career high 27 in this one, which they needed to keep the score close because Danny Granger didn’t show up, then left the game with a sprained ankle. I don’t think Danny’s going to the All-Star game this year.  … The Ty-Bro show was by design, obviously.  The Nuggets frontline is about the same 6’8″- 6’9″, same limited wingspan, and, like Ty-bro, they’re strong, only wider and closer to the floor.  “Get that shit outta here,” Keyon Martin shouted as he blocked a Ty-bro post move in the 3rd quarter.  But Ty-Bro kept coming at the Nuggets and had his midrange game on target.

Martin’s lost a few steps in recent years but he’s still full of intimidation and noise, if not much else. 25 mins — 4 pts, 4 rebs would have Bucks fans demanding that Skiles yank the power forward.

There wasn’t much the Pacers, who played the night before in Portland, could do in this Sunday night game but collect the ball out of the net while Carmelo and friends were having far too much fun on their home court.  But down 15 at the end of the 3rd, the Pacers were still D-ing up with intensity, trying to stay in the game.  But they couldn’t get any closer against J.R. Smith, Al Harrington and the Nuggets bench.

The Pacers are now 16-25, tied with the Bucks, who’ve beat their Central Division rivals twice this season. In many statistical measures, the Pacers and the Bucks come out fairly even — they’ve both been a bit unlucky, based on what they’re scoring and giving up.  The Pacers defense is in the Top 10, while they play a pace quicker than the Bucks, but they’re still look like a team growing.  The Bucks 16-25 comes with a roster-full of injury problems against the toughest schedule of any Eastern Conference team.

Only the Mavs have played a slightly tougher schedule than the Bucks, based on opponent record.

Bucks brutal remaining schedule scares fan into rooting for Raptors

With 7:38 to play in the 4th quarter Sunday and the Memphis Grizzlies threatening to pull away from the seemingly exhausted, flat-shooting Bucks, Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings stalked onto the court from the sidelines with such determination and focus that anyone who saw it might have declared the game over right then and there.

Kurt Thomas, who had just turned the ball over by committing an offensive foul, headed for the bench, and Jerry Stackhouse, mired in an 11-game shooting funk (1-6 Sunday) that looks too business-as-usual to be called a slump, headed for the bench. Not to put the blame on those two reserves, both of them nearly old enough to be Brandon Jennings’ paw. The Bucks slide began late in the 3rd quarter with BJ and AB in the game and the Bucks in the process of making an 8-point lead vanish.  They were down 5 went Bogut and Jennings returned to the game. A 17-footer by Rudy Gay on the ensuing possession made it 85-78.  Coach Scott Skiles called time.  Enough was enough, time to see if Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Ridnour and John Salmons were into the game or not. They didn’t have much choice in the matter.

A rejuvinated Jennings quicked double-time into the pace of the Bucks offense, driving twice for layups. Luke Ridnour drove for one of his own. Salmons shot wasn’t flat anymore, Jennings was flying in for third layup and Ilyasova made the crowd forget about the airballs he had earlier tossed in zombie-like fashion from 3-point land.

Meanwhile Bogut challenged Memphis shots, took a charge on Gay, tapped back an offensive rebound, ate space in the paint and the Bucks found themselves clinging to a 94-92 lead in the final seconds.

The refs were apparently enjoying this spirited test of wills by the NBA’s new and interesting so much they didn’t want it to end. A phantom foul called on Jennings sent Mike Conley to the foul line to tie the game, which he did, and it went into OT tied at 94.   Check it out:

Didn’t touch him, did he? 

The Bucks, dog-tired in the 3rd quarter, seemed like the younger team in overtime (which they’re not, Jennings excepted).  They also made sure to get Bogut involved in the offense, and he delivered a running hook that served to collapse the Griz defense for the next few possessions, and that’s all it took.  The Bucks had open looks all over the court and wide open lanes to the hoop. They might have pulled away earlier than they eventually did but for a Gasol block of yet another layup by Jennings and a fluke step-out turnover by Ilyasova (refereeing at any level’s not supposed to be that good — it happened so fast it was difficult to see Ersan step out of bounds even in slo-mo replay, right though the ref was. Crazy.)

The Griz finally cracked, Zach Randolph got hit with a couple of dumb fouls trying to crash the boards, and the Bucks shot free throws to the 108-03 final. This turned into one of the better games of the season, and not because the Bucks schedule is so brutal the rest of the way that it was almost a must-win game. I said it when the Bucks stole the game in Sacramento and I’ll write it again — this was not a game the Bucks would have won 3 months ago.  

Bogut and Jennings willed this game into the win column. The knowledge that they can do this makes being a Bucks fan a hopeful fan to be with their first playoff together fast approaching. Jennings led the Bucks with a near triple double: 29 pts, 7 rebs and 8 assists. Bogut added 18 pts, 11 boards. And Salmons shot his way to 25. Ridnour refound his hyper-efficient groove and added 14 pts, 6 assists off the Bucks bench.

The Grizzlies starting five is fun to watch. Third-year-pro Conley, from the 2007 Final Four Ohio State team (Greg Oden) is at point; last season’s ROY runner-up Mayo is the shooter; UConn star Rudy Gay (2006 draft) is averaging 20 pts per game at small forward; there’s beastly 28-year-old Randolph (Michigan State) at big forward (31 pts, 15 rebs Sunday) and, at center, Marc Gasol, 25, younger brother of Laker Pau, but tougher and not complaining about Kobe’s refusals to pass the ball.

The Griz are 38-35 in Lionel Hollins’ first full season as the coach, as opposed to the interim/acting stints he’s served for the team in the past. Hollins was an assistant on Scott Skiles’ staff last season before returning to the Griz. That half-season in Milwaukee was the only NBA job outside the Grizzlies’ organization Hollins has held since the franchise came into the league as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995. Up until 2008, Hollins had coached in one capacity or another ever single game in Grizzlies franchise history, beginning as an assistant to Brian Winters at the dawn of Grizzlie time in the NBA. (Winters’ retired #32 Bucks jersey is hanging from the Bradley Center rafters).  There’s a post way back in the BBJ archives about Hollins, written when Skiles hired him in May of 2008, and you should click here to read more about it.  Hollins is a great coach and if yesterday’s game was any indication, he’s got the Grizzlies moving in the right direction. The Bucks were lucky to have him here for the time that they did.

“I have no problems or worries about how we are going to finish the season,” Hollins said after the game. “But I told them if you have this kind of focus and effort, you are going to win a lot of games and we are going to have a good finish.”

Yeah they are. And it looks as though they’re going to be tough to beat for years to come. 

Are the Chicago Bulls serious about getting into the playoffs or is Detroit really this bad?  The Bulls have nothing to lose — GM John Paxson agreed to swap picks with the Bucks as part of the Salmons trade, providing that the Bucks finish with a better record than the Bulls. That will happen. There’s no sense in the Bulls tanking so the Bucks can have the extra pings, so they play on.  While pondering this and other things, reading the Bulls-Pistons game recap at yahoo.com/nba, my eyes fell upon this little factoid in the “Notes” section:

Detroit is 2-14 against the Central Division, with both wins coming against Milwaukee. Besides being swept by the Bulls for the first time in 14 years, they were swept by Indiana for the first time in franchise history. The Bulls have beaten the Pistons 7 straight times.

Yes, the Pistons are that bad. Earlier today I saw a headline on the Journal Sentinel website about “Villanueva” and a possible “demotion.” I hit the link, curious to find out the latest bunk on Charlie Villanueva only to find that it was only Brewers pitcher Carlos Villanueva trying to convince a reporter that the possibility of being sent down to the minors doesn’t bother him. For a second there, I thought the Pistons were considering sending Charlie V to the D-League for some shot selection boot camp. How did the Bucks lose twice to those guys?

In MIAMI —  A big comeback by the Heat in the 4th quarter commandeers a game the Raptors had well in hand. Chris Bosh and team appear lost as Dwyane Wade makes play after play, asserting the inevitable.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that the 35-37 Raptors were the only team remaining on the Heat schedule that had any chance at a playoff spot. All that’s left now are 8 teams fighting for pings, and the Heat have a scaaaaaaary 3-game road trip coming up that takes them to Detroit, Indiana and Minnesota, their only departure from the dregs of the East. The Heat have won five in a row and are 40-34, just two games behind the Bucks (40-32) on the loss side. The Bucks hold the tie-breaker but D-Wade wants the #5 playoff seed.

The Bucks, meanwhile, hope Carlos Delfino recovers nicely from the neck and jaw injuries he suffered agains the Heat Friday and are battling a flu bug (Ersan took IV treatment a couple of days ago and now Charlie Bell is sick). Bogut seems OK after missing Friday’s game with a muscle problem in his upper back, and he’s just in time for a rematch Tuesday against Clippers center Chris Kaman, who had 20 against the Bucks in L.A. without his feet ever leaving the floor. 

After that, six of the Bucks last nine games are against teams fighting for playoff spots or position.  Team # 7  is the Lebrons on Wednesday in Cleveland, not fighting for anything really but wouldn’t mind mathematically eliminating the Lakers from contention for home court advantage throughout the playoffs, the sooner the better.  Zydrunas “Big Z” Ilgauskas, made his big return from 30-day buyout exile last night against Sacramento.

Game 8 is at Philly, where the Revenge of the Airball seems a vendetta without end.

Game 9, April 7, features the hopeless crusade of the 2010 New Jersey Nets. But it happens to be the second game of one of four back-to-backs coming up for the Bucks and has “weird things are going to happen in this game written all over it.”  

For the moment, the Bucks play four games in five days, are tasked with winning the tie breaker against 7th place Charlotte Bobcats (38-34) in Charlotte on Friday, a game certain to be a nasty defensive struggle against Larry Brown’s team. It always is. The Bucks then jet home to face Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudamire (got the apostrophe this time) and the red-hot Phoenix Suns Saturday. It’ll be the Suns 5th game this week, too, and they’re fighting for home court advantage in Round 1 of the West playoffs.

Given the Heat’s pushover schedule, it’s looking more and more probable that the Bucks are destined for the 6th seed — if they can hold off Charlotte in 7th. The Cats have won 7 of their last 10 games, have a much easier schedule than the Bucks and tonight host Chris Bosh’s Raptors, fresh off their 4th quarter stinker yesterday in Miami. The Bucks need to go at least 5-5 through this ten game gautlet, with one of the wins seizing the season series and the tie-breaker from Charlotte.*

For the first time in the history of the Raptors franchise, I find myself rooting for them. Let’s see if it does any good.

*In the event the Bucks lose and the Charlotte season series knots at 2-2, the next tiebreaker is conference  division record.

After a whole bunch of nonsense that I just deleted, the bottom line is that the Bobcats are very much in striking range of the Bucks, especially if the Bucks crap out and lose six games to East opponents the rest of the way — a possibility considering that the Bobcats, Hawks, Celtics (twice), Cavs, Bulls (in Chicago) and a trip to Philly are on the schedule. The Bucks’ conference record is 27-17. The Bobcats are at 22-23.  The Bucks need 3 wins against East competition to claim the tie-breaker IF they lose Friday in Charlotte.

If this sounds like one too many scenarios springing from the art of losing, it probably is. Let’s just beat the Bobcats Friday and grab the tiebreaker.

Bucks Weekend: Ugly, uglier, ugliest… East playoff peek

Friday: Heat 87, Bucks 84 – MASH unit on standby.

Sunday, 2:00 p.m.: Memphis Grizzlies @ Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks-Heat game at the BC Friday night was injury marred before it started, as the Bucks played without center Andrew Bogut (strained upper back muscle) and the Turkish clutch, Ersan Ilyasova (bad case of the flu). It started ugly, with the Bucks seemingly confused off the opening tap about who was guarding Dwyane Wade. It got uglier in the 2nd quarter when Heat center Jermaine O’Neal hyperextended his right knee driving around Primoz Brezec

Then it got real ugly. Carlos Delfino was knocked to the floor on a drive and then jumped on and stepped on — hard — by Heat forward Udonis Haslem as Haslem rebounded the miss. Delfino’s neck absorbed most of the impact of the off-balance Haslem’s weight, and he lay motionless for nearly 8 minutes before being carted off the floor on a stretcher and taken to the hospital for X-rays. The lowlight reel looks like an episode of M*A*S*H. Or Rollerball meets M*A*S*H.

The preliminary prognosis for Delfino sounds OK, as he has full movement in all of his extremities. The X-rays are still pending (UPDATE: The X-rays were negative). … It’s just too improbable and rare to see a player lie on a basketball court unmoving for as long as Delfino did, then be wheeled out of the arena on a gurney. I’m kind of freaked out writing about it, and could care less that the Heat won a game that the Bucks would have preferred to end at halftime.  As of early Saturday, the Bucks injury report looks like this:

Carlos Delfino: At St. Luke’s Hospital with pain in his neck and jaw, undergoing X-rays. Should be resting for at least a couple of days.

Andrew Bogut: The muscle strain in his back “doesn’t have anything to do with what happened last year,” says Bucks coach Scott Skiles. “This is in his upper, mid-back. It’s just a strain. I can’t imagine it being very long. It’s more or less just back spasms, and normally those things don’t last very long. I’m hoping he’ll be able to play Sunday (against Memphis).”

Ersan Ilyasova:  Received IV fluids in an attempt to clear out a bad flu bug and play against Miami but had to sit out the game. Delfino received IV treatments about a week ago for the same, so the bug is apparently making its way around the Bucks locker room. This may or may not explain some of the Bucks sluggishness of late (I’m remembering the 3-9 start on the Bucks last 50-game winner, 2001; a team-wide flu bug may have calmed coach George Karl’s ire, maybe a little).  Better now than in the playoffs.

Jerry Stackhouse: No, there’s nothing wrong with his shooting arm, it’s just Stack being Stack. Against the Heat, Stackhouse shot 2-10 from the floor, sinking his shooting  % over his last 10 games to 31.1%. He missed all three of his attempts from downtown, dropping his 3-ball success rate in his last 10 to 22.5%.  The so-called “spark” is gone, GM John Hammond, but that’s nothing that Dallas Mavs fans couldn’t have told you about 35-year-old Stack before you signed him. The Bucks as a team are shooting poorly from 3-point-land and shooting too many of them in these last two losses. It’s too easy to create the obvious nicknames out of Stack’s name to highlight the problem, so let’s just say that Jerry’s not helping.

Why isn’t my blog as good as Ball Don’t Lie? I try guys, I really do. Sometimes not as hard as I could, but check this out: Highlights of Charles Barkley broadcasting the Heat blowout of the Bulls Thursday. I was watching Tennessee-Ohio State that night, sorry to admit.

A lineup change for Memphis on Sunday?: Here’s hoping that Skiles puts Charlie Bell back in the starting lineup while Delfino is recuperating. Although Bell bottled up Wade twice in three days Jan. 30 – Feb. 1 — prompting Brandon Jennings to say that it looked like the Bucks had “a D-Wade stopper” — Charlie started the game on the bench and didn’t play until Delfino went down. Bell had another “stopper” game in Nov. against the Grizzlies’ O.J. Mayo, harrassing last year’s ROY runner-up into a 6-18 shooting night (15 pts) while scoring 19 himself in the Bucks win. The Bucks won in Memphis without Bogut and Luc Mbah a Moute, who stayed in Milwaukee recovering from early season injuries (Michael Redd joined the team on its 4-game road trip after the Memphis game).

Skiles may have signalled some regret about not starting Charlie on Wade, finding it kinda remarkable that his starting defenders couldn’t keep track of one of the game’s best players on the opening tip possession, a reverse layup by Wade. “We had two guys with their backs to the play, and another guy just standing there watching,” Skiles griped in post-game interviews.  

Not having Bogut in the paint to anchor the defense didn’t help matters Friday, but if nothing else, CB would have clung to Wade like a cop short on a ticket quota (hey, it’s better than the first simile I came up with). And he’s a better 3-point shooter than the Bucks who’ve been bricking it up from the Land of Ray and Reggie as if their career shooting percentages say it’s a good idea (note that John Salmons‘ shooting numbers say that it is a good idea for him to be shooting from downtown).

East Playoff positioning: The Heat’s (39-34) win in Milwaukee pulled them within two games of the Bucks (39-32) on the loss side, and the Bobcats (38-34) beat the Wiz in Charlotte to keep pace. While the Bucks have the tie-breaker against the Heat (3-1) and a 2-1 edge on the ‘Cats, they also have the toughest remaining schedule, not a bad thing considering that the prize for finishing in 5th place in the East could be a first round matchup with the Celtics. The first round opponent could well be the Hawks, too, but winning 5th does come with one certainty — it puts the lucky winner in the Cavs’ bracket for the semifinals. Optimal for the Bucks (and for the Cats and Heat) is 6th place, a first round matchup with the Hawks at #3, with the Orlando Magic to look forward to in the semis.

Let’s take a look around the East to see where the still-positioning teams are at, something I used to do regularly in these Bucks Weekends but got away from for one reason or another, probably not good ones.

Boston Celtics: Beat the Kings easily Friday in Boston but the rest of their 5-game homestand looks like a made-for-TV ratings push by the NBA. In fact, that’s what it is: the Spurs, Kevin Durant and the Thunder, the Rockets (who’ll be watching on Final Four night, anyway?) and a Sunday marquee vs. the Lebrons. The Celtics are healthy and playing well, casting aside a lot of premature speculation that they’re finished. Not these guys. The Bucks can’t play much better than they did in beating the C’s in Milwaukee March 9, and it still took some good defense by Bogut (on Paul Pierce) on the last possession to secure the win. The Celtics have become more focused since then.

But it seems many NBA observers, and Bucks fans too, are mistaking the Celtics more lax, health conscious 2010 regular season approach as a sign of weakness. Maybe it is. They know they’re not Dwight Howard’s age anymore. But even without KG, Ray and Rondo and a tired Pierce were a tougher out for the Magic in 2009 than the Cavs.

The C’s have a two game cushion on the Hawks but a schedule tough enough to make things interesting, including two games vs. the Bucks. The Celtics could drop to 4th and the Bucks could be the team that puts them there and sets up a Milwaukee-Boston matchup in Round 1. Although Andrew Bogut plays inspired ball against the Celtics big men, trust me — the Bucks match up much better against the Hawks. 

Atlanta Hawks: Lost in Philly to the Sixers, who apparently don’t realize that they’re sacrificing lottery pings with every win. The Hawks fell to 17-19 on the road, as big a reason as there is for the Bucks, Heat and ‘Cats to prefer the Hawks over the Celtics in Round 1. Reason #2 is the Hawks mediocre, 13th-ranked defense. Number 3 is point guard Mike Bibby, a good-shooting veteran, but no Rajon Rondo, whose rabid intensity gets old quick. The Bucks get away with playing a lot of Luke Ridnour against the Hawks, something Skiles does to keep Lucky Luke’s shooting on the floor. That doesn’t fly against the Celtics, who tend to treat Ridnour like a pinball. That’s right, I’m calling the Hawks soft, apologies to Josh Smith.

Three of the Hawks’ remaining 10 games are as tough as they get: home and home against the Cavs, and a game in Atlanta vs. the Lakers. The Hawks best chance at 3rd is to win on the road in Milwaukee and Charlotte, and hope the Bucks can help them out in two games vs. KG, Ray, Pierce and Rondo. The Hawks are a game behind the Celtics on the loss side and the Celtics own the tie-breaker as Atlantic Division champs.

Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade missed a few games last month but is back with a vengeance, determined to make his teammates better on this playoff run. “I’m just trying to be a team player,” he said in Milwaukee, as if to say his Heat don’t have a chance of winning a playoff series if his young teammates don’t learn to share the burden. Michael Beasley, he’s talking about you becoming a star. And Wade is right — he’s largely responsible for Beasley’s development and success, for now. (It’s a good thing for the rest of the NBA that Kobe Bryant doesn’t share those sentiments about his Lakers.) Looming on the horizon are free agent possibilities that say this could be Wade’s last season in Miami, though right now that’s not nearly as important as center Jermaine O’Neal’s hyperextended right knee (a Bucks-Heat casualty Friday). Wade and Miami have nine games left and the 8th place Raptors are the only opponent on it not bound for the lottery. The Heat just might win out and box the Bucks down to 6th.

Charlotte Bobcats: Larry Brown‘s team is currently 2nd in NBA defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), and did I mention this is a Larry Brown team? The ‘Cats are in the middle of a five-game homestand filled with lottery opponents until game 5 next Friday vs. the Bucks, when the season tie-breaker is on the line. Shooting guard Stephen Jackson‘s been red hot lately, All-Star Gerald Wallace continues to play like one and has become one of the more efficient scorers and best defenders in the East. Center Tyson Chandler is finally back from injury for the playoff run but Brown continues to start ex-Sixer Theo Ratliff, which is weird like all things related to the Sixers. 

I still can’t believe Brown traded one of his favorite 2001 Sixer defensive pests, Raja Bell to Golden State for Jackson. But then, Bell was hurt and the Cats are seeking their first playoff appearance in franchise history, something Brown and owner Michael Jordan really, really want. And Nellie would have given them Jackson if NBA trade rules allowed it.  If the ‘Cats lose to the Bucks April 2, it’s a two-game setback and will likely banish Charlotte to the 7th spot and a Round 1 matchup with Howard and the Magic.

Toronto Raptors: Hello Cleveland. Goodbye Chris Bosh.