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.