For a preview of tonight's game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Milwaukee Bucks, I got together one of the best Bucks writers I know, Frank Madden of BrewHoop.
Frank has been writing at Brewhoop since he helped start it back in October of 2007, but his Bucks fandom didn't start there.
Here are his answers to my questions about tonight's game:
1. The Bucks just had a great win over Dallas, which stopped their win streak at 12 games. The Spurs, like the Mavs, also have gotten off to a great start this season. What will the Bucks have to do to sweep Texas?
It always starts with defense for Scott Skiles, but teams that have given the Bucks trouble have generally had attacking guards who can draw defenders and get their teammates easy shots. Generally speaking, the Bucks try to crowd the lane and cut off dribble penetration as much as possible and force teams to beat them with jump-shooting--last time I checked, no team allowed fewer shots inside of ten feet than the Bucks. So preventing guys like Parker and Manu from getting to the rim is generally job one for the Bucks, and hoping the Spurs perimeter shots don't fall is closely related.
Offensively it's been a major struggle all season. Virtually everyone on the team has been well below their career averages in shooting efficiency, and even Jennings is still well below average in that department despite improving on his rookie year. Salmons and Maggette (though he's gotten to the line a ton) have not been able to finish around the hoop with any type of consistency, and that's a big issue given how much the Bucks rely on them to create offense. Jennings has improved from a year ago, but I think he has a way to go in terms of creating easy shots for teammates and managing the offense.
Bogut is the other key guy offensively, and he's been on a real roll since coming back from his back injury (21 ppg, 16 rpg over the last five). While he's a solid post player who needs touches down low to keep the offense balanced, it's also really important that the Bucks get him the ball on the go--off P&R, penetration, screens across the lane, etc. Everyone knows Bogut needs to touch the ball, but it's more difficult to keep him involved since he's not going to score unless he catches the ball within 10 feet of the hoop.
2. What's your early assessment of Larry Sanders so far this season?
The Bucks were a bit spoiled after getting Jennings 10th overall in 2009, but I think everyone has generally been pleased with what we've seen of Larry. He's a nice kid who works hard, has the physical tools to be a disruptive defender at both big positions, and he has a surprisingly nice stroke out to around 18 feet as well. I'm not sure how much longer he'll start at PF given Drew Gooden is getting healthy, but playing him next to Bogut makes the Bucks really hard to score on inside and could very well be the long-term pairing the Bucks use at the big positions.
That said, he has a very long way to go in understanding the NBA game and how to use his tools. He tends to settle for jump shots and has not distinguished himself as a finisher, which explains why his efficiency has been rather unacceptable for an athletic big man. Defensively, he doesn't have the kind of lower body strength to hold post position against really big guys, and that's also limited his effectiveness as a rebounder. He blocks a ton of shots, but he not surprisingly commits a lot of fouls as well and can be prone to biting on pump fakes. Overall, I'm not sure he'll ever develop the offensive game to be a major impact player, but his versatility as a defender should keep him in the league a long time.
3. It's still months away, but has Bogut done enough this season to earn an All-Star spot?
I think he has, but then again it's going to be very difficult at that position with guys like Al Horford and Joakim Noah competing for the same spot (I'll ignore Amare for the moment). Though he's a skilled guy around the hoop, his offensive numbers would be the main thing holding him back from an all-star perception standing point, as he's been playing through pain in his right arm for most of the season, has struggled mightily from the line and hasn't been very consistent in the post either. But Bogut's quietly developed into one of the league's best defenders over the past couple years, and Bucks fans have to be rather ecstatic that his rebounding (12.3 rpg, 2nd in the league) and shot-blocking (league-leading 2.9 bpg) have actually improved since his horrific arm injury last year. Though he doesn't have the pure physical talents of a Dwight Howard, he just reads the game exceptionally well--such as knowing when to take a charge vs. go for the block.
4. Who has been the Bucks' biggest surprise player this season? Douglas-Roberts, Delfino, Gooden or someone else?
Delfino was playing the best ball of his career early in the season, so losing him to another concussion has been a big blow. He's not exceptional at anything, but he's versatile, does all the little things, and could be a useful 25-30 mpg guy on any team in the league in my opinion. The Bucks especially miss his ability to space the floor, particularly now that Mbah a Moute has been starting at SF. Delfino was normally the guy parked in the weak side corner looking for open threes, which helped open the court for guys like Jennings and Salmons, but it's much easier for defenses to crowd the lane with someone like Luc at SF. Other than Delfino, CD-R has shown some nice scoring instincts off the bench since returning from eye injury, and that's been particularly useful given the struggles of Salmons and Maggette.
5. There is definitely potential for some great matchups, including Duncan-Bogut and Parker-Jennings. Which will be the key matchup and why?
I think it starts with Jennings/Parker. As mentioned earlier, the Bucks could be in for a long night if they can't adequately contain dribble penetration, and offensively everything starts with Jennings. The Bucks have been bad all season on that end, and much of their offensive strategy is predicated on high P&R action where they try to get Jennings going toward his preferred left. If the Spurs can show hard or double and force Jennings moving laterally rather than getting going towards the basket then Bucks become pretty easy to defend--they just don't have enough shooters or other shot creators to punish you. Brandon has generally been better about attacking and converting at the rim this season and he's also gotten his three point shot back over the past few weeks, but he's streaky and you never know what you're going to get. Teams are generally well-served trying to force him into mid-range jump shots, and if his shot isn't falling it's important that he find other ways to make the offense work.
Otherwise Salmons is usually the x-factor for the Bucks. Aside from Jennings, he's the other guy who the Bucks rely on to initiate offense, so when he's off--as he has been most of the season--then they have a really difficult time scoring consistently. Against the Mavs they had guys like CD-R, Dooling, and Ilyasova picking up the slack, but that hasn't been typical thus far.
6. What is your prediction for tonight's game?
I'd have a hard time predicting a Bucks win with a straight face, but I'd be surprised if they weren't competitive--after all, this is still a Scott Skiles team and they should be fairly confident after the Mavericks game. The Bucks have somehow been winning close games of late, which is interesting given their lack of a consistent go-to guy, and keeping the game close up until the last two minutes is generally the most you can ask for when playing a team like the Spurs. But I'd certainly favor the Spurs if the game goes down to the wire, simply because Salmons has been miserable late in games and neither Jennings nor Bogut are reliable late-game scoring options either.
Thanks to Frank for taking the time to answer my questions and make sure to look for my answers to his questions over at BrewHoop this afternoon.