Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bucks vs. Bulls - What You Just Watched

The Bucks

While watching a Kings vs. Thunder game on opening night of the 2010 NBA season (this relates to the Bucks, trust me), there was a moment that stuck with me.  This was the Thunder's breakout season, so it was no surprise that the Thunder jumped out early and led wire-to-wire.  But late in the game, the Kings had an outside shot of closing the final score to within twelve points, which would have been, ahem, of interest to certain people.  The Kings put in hot-shot rookie Tyreke Evans, who was coming off a Summer League that made Sacramento look like geniuses for passing on drafting the scrawny combo guard from Davidson who "could get his shot off in a phone booth".  Anywho, the Kings decided (actually their coach, whose name won't be mentioned here because I don't like talking bad about Trojans, decided) to start running their offense through Tyreke.  Problem was he was guarded by Thabo Sefalosha, who is taller and more athletic than Tyreke.  The Thunder's TV analyst couldn't believe that Evans was trying to take Thabo on the block, and he was proven prophetic.  The Kings' offense sputtered and all of those people who were hoping for the Kings to lose by twelve points or less had their hopes dashed.

I bring up this obscure moment in NBA history because it begs the question, WHY WERE THE BUCKS LETTING MONROE TRY TO TAKE PAU ON THE BLOCK?!?!

I didn't bet on the Bucks to stay within eight points of the Bulls last night, but I really feel bad for those who did.  Just as 2010 Kings coach [name redatacted to protect a Trojan] inexplicably tried to "
exploit" a Tyreke vs. Thabo matchup, so too did Coach Joe inexplicably go to Monroe against Pau.  Only in this case, it made even less sense.  The 2010 Kings were down 17 points to the Thunder, so coach [name redacted to protect a Trojan] at least had the excuse of "we were out of it so we wanted to see what the rookie can do".  Monroe is a sixth year veteran!  This is (was?) supposed to be a Playoff team!  Milwaukee was only down six with eight-and-a-half minutes to play!  Whyyyyyy?

Of course, I'm probably making too much of this.  One could make the argument that the Bucks' defense cost them this game (and, in fact, that's an argument I'll make below).

But the fact is that the Bucks scored only ten points during the crucial seven minute stretch in the 4th where the game when from "competitive" to "over".  That seven minutes was from the time Monroe checked in to the point when the Bucks waved the white flag (after Middleton missed a three that would've made the margin eight with 1:47 to play).

Milwaukee's best player on the night was Michael-Cartier, again.  He played less-than-stellar defense in spots, but he wasn't the main defensive problem and he was by far the Bucks' most effective offensive catalyst.

The Opponent

What really made this game frustrating was WHICH Bulls were beating us.  Yes, Derrick Rose beat us in the second half and the Bucks never had a chance at Derrick Rose.  But look at the other guys who were beating us: Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis.  And the frustration isn't just that the Bucks had access to to these guys, but moreso that their guys tend to exceed expectations and our guys don't.  (Or, "haven't yet".)

Also, while I was at the bar watching the game a friend and I got into a "who'd you rather" discussion.  The LSU basketball game was on, so the subject was Ben Simmons.  I said that I'd rather have Jimmy Butler than the rights to Ben Simmons, and that wasn't the margarita talking.  Butler is a special player.

The Takeaway

The Bulls are the better team.  We know this.

Can this year's Bucks team become better than this year's Bulls team?  Probably not.  But Coach Kidd is a better coach than Fred Hoiberg, so maybe we have a chance.

The Outlook

Much of the discussion about these last two losses has revolved around the Bucks' defense.  They gave up 117 points last night after giving up 123 points the night before.

Coach Joe said something about the Bucks' defensive problems last night.  From the Journal-Sentinel:
Some of it is basic fundamentals in terms of being in a stance or getting back in transition.  Some of it is assignments; knowing tendencies, what guys want to do.  Some of it is getting in the right scheme.  Some of it is communication.  But look, it's on all of us.
That sounds like bad defense all around, and it was.

What worries me more is the attitude of Coach Joe.  I'm a big believer that things should be kept simple for a young team.

The Bucks may have problems with every part of NBA defense: stances, getting back, assignments, preparation, understanding scheme and communication.  That's what Coach Joe said.  But why mention it all?  There's no chance that the Bucks are going to walk into the Bradley Center on Friday night and get all of these things right.  Why not focus on just one?

My only coaching experience was coaching 3rd and 4th graders in an informal park department summer league.  We lost our first game 2-0 and everything was bad.  Instead of trying to fix everything, we just worked on ground ball defense until our next game.  We won that game and then worked on fly ball defense.  Then we worked on baserunning and then hitting and you get the picture.  The bottom line is that we won every game after that 2-0 loss and finished with the best record of any park in West Allis.  (For the record, it wasn't my coaching.  We had stud pitchers.)

Coaching NBA players may be marginally different than coaching little kids, but I think the same principle applies here.  I hope that Coach Joe focuses on fixing one or two things right now.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bucks vs. Spurs - What You Just Watched (Plus a short Bucks vs. Bulls - What To Watch For)

The Bucks

For a stretch in late December the Bucks did a great job of making fair-to-middlin' bucket-getters look like All-Stars.  Hollis Thompson, Terrence Ross and Cameron Payne -- to name three -- were all given windows to do damage and they did.  Last night the Bucks gave Jonathon Simmons space to do damage, and he did.

It's not like there's a single reason why the Bucks let so many mid-grade guards go off.  The Bucks are an unathletic team, at least when it comes to the things that tend to be present in star defensive guards -- lateral quickness and upper body strength, for example.  They're also a young team and a team stocked with guys who tend to lose focus on occasion.  I also wonder if the Bucks communicate well on defense.

When the Bucks give up 123 points at home there isn't much reason to talk about the offense.  I ended up missing part of the game, but during the parts I saw the offense was the same as I've been seeing recently.  When Michael-Cartier got into the lane, good things tended to happen.  When the ball moved side-to-side, good shots were few and far between.

Milwaukee had a bad performance last night.  So be it.  Bad performances happen during the NBA grind.

The Opponent

The Spurs are a ruthless machine.  Few people will be surprised if they win the NBA Championship.

The aforementioned Jonathan Simmons was a surprise to the Bucks announcers and longtime Racine Journal-Times NBA/Bucks writer Gery Woelfel, but he's been good for a while.  This season he's been a find as an athletic, active bucket-getter, and he basically played his normal game last night.  The difference was that the Bucks gave him opportunities and the Spurs kept finding him.

The Takeaway

The primary takeaway is that the Spurs are a lot better than the Bucks and the gap seems to be getting wider, not narrower.

The secondary takeaway is that this game could be the wakeup call that leads to some serious trade deadline activity.  Anytime a highly-touted team underperforms, there an expectation that they'll try to make a splashy move at the trade deadline.  (Though I suppose last year it was the exact opposite, as the Bucks were a lowly-touted team that was overperforming.)  The thought was that the Bucks had a great young group in Michael-Cartier, Middleton, Henson, Greek, Jabari and Monroe.  Not only is that group not working, but they appear to be inherently flawed.

Could the Bucks' uneven play lead to a big trade?  Possibly.  The Jabari trade rumors are already flying, but I think he's safe.  GM Kidd invested too much in Parker (including passing on presently-studly-looking big man Bobby Portis in the Draft so that Jabari's spot wouldn't be threatened) for him to give up so soon.  Michael-Cartier and Monroe should also be safe, as they've been the team's two best players.  Henson is untradeable this season because he signed a rookie extension over the summer.  That leaves Greek and Middleton, and I could see either guy being dealt if the right deal came along.

The Outlook

Bucks vs. Bulls in Chicago tonight!  That was fast!

(I was debating whether to do a "What To Watch For" or a "What You Just Watched" today.  I'll try to do separate posts more often for future back-to-backs.)

Jabari plays in his home city for the first time since becoming an NBA pro.  (I'm sure he was getting money from many an Iron Duke while in college, hence the need for the "NBA" qualifier.)  That should be fun.  It also should be fun to see Michael-Cartier wreak havoc on the Bulls' newly-average perimeter defense.  (Unless Jimmy Butler guards him, in which case Middleton will have to be relied upon to get some buckets from the block.)

Monroe, Greek and the rest of the bigs will have a tough challenge tonight.  The challenge would be a whole lot less-tough if the Bucks hadn't gifted Bobby Portis to a division rival at the Draft, but that's water under the bridge.  Hopefully the Coach Joe will get back to that Johnny O/Plumlee bench big man combo that has done good things from time to time.  They may be able to ease Monroe's burden.

The unpublicized story of Bucks vs. Bulls is that the Bucks may have the better bench.  The Bulls have had some injuries, and there's a possibility that OJ, Henson and the rest of the bench will counter whatever advantage the Bulls stars might have.

One last interesting note is that the Bulls (-8.5) are favored by less points tonight than the Spurs (-10) were last night.  My keen gambling eye tells me that bookies are expecting the Bucks to keep it relatively close, and thus have created a line low enough to draw Bulls betting action.  I think I agree with the bookies, as I think that a victory tonight is more likely than a victory over the red-hot Spurs would've been last night.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Bucks vs. Spurs - What to Watch For

The Bucks 

Milwaukee returns home from a successful four game roadie.  At least, I would call it successful.  They beat the Pacers, who are good, and the Timberwolves, who Timberwolves fans thought might be getting good.  The Bucks lost to the Mavs and Thunder, who are both very good.

Returning home from a successful road trip is trouble in the NBA.  Betting against teams that are returning home from successful roadies is a longstanding betting angle in the NBA.  And with the Bucks standing as ten point underdogs, I can't give you the old, "well they could miss covering the spread and still win the game," line.

Normally I am skeptical of betting "trends", but betting against an NBA team in their return from a successful roadie makes sense.  A successful roadie usually means that the partying gets amped up, which can lead to less sleep.  Once home, the players get to sleep.  Sleep is usually a good thing, but when you're not sleeping and you're having success, usually you experience a lull during that initial period of getting sleep.  Maybe we'll get lucky and the Bucks will have stayed up late partying last night because the Packers managed to avoid playing the Seahawks.

The Opponent

What can you say about the Spurs that hasn't been said about Imperial Japan?

Kidding!

Seriously, the Spurs have been the Spurs, but moreso.  They just swept a four-game homestand and they haven't lost a game by more than four points in a month and a half.  They're on a 19-3 run and only four of those wins have been by single digits.  They've lost to a grand total of one team that has a losing record, Kawhi Leonard is in the top three of the MVP race (along with Steph and Durant) and they can play eleven guys without losing steam.  They are a vicious, methodical force of basketball destruction.

There is some good news: San Antonio is only 9-6 on the road and Tony Parker will be out tonight.

The Matchup

Now seems like a good time to mention the elephant in the room: I'm back after two months off!

I was going to ignore my lengthy sabbatical, but I bring it up because during my absence a very unexpected thing has happened to the Bucks' offense: Michael Carter-Williams has become our best option.  I literally just shook my head at what I just typed, but it's true.  There's the odd night where Monroe has a juicy matchup, but overall the Bucks work best when Michael-Cartier (as I've come to call him) pushes the ball in the open court and gets to the lane in the half court.

The Bucks need Michael-Cartier to be at his best tonight.  Monroe's matchup with Aldridge is less-than-likely to be advantageous.  The Greek works best as a helper; not as the main guy.  Middleton has become a solid option on the block, but not against Kawhi.  And Jabari... I'll just stay away from talking about Jabari for a little while longer.

When on defense, Milwaukee loves to trap.  Now, the Spurs are a veteran team and veteran teams adjust better than young teams.  Last season the pre-Michael-Cartier Bucks surprised the Spurs in San Antonio and nearly got the duke.  In the second Bucks/Spurs game last season the Spurs controlled the game, shot 50% and only had eight turnovers.  I'm not much of a stats guy, but those stats happen to tell the story of the game: trapping didn't work too well against the Spurs.

I expect the Bucks to keep the trapping to a minimum and focus on closing out the perimeter instead. Tim Duncan seems to still be recovering from a sore knee, Parker is out and Manu isn't the penetration threat he once was.  The Spurs still have plenty of shooters.  My sense is that Coach Joe & his staff will accept a layup or two if it means keeping those Spurs shooters quiet.

The Verdict

I'll be watching most, if not all, of this game.  The Spurs are a fun team and they usually play attractive basketball (read: not just a bunch of B.S. threes).  It would be a stretch for me to predict a Bucks victory against a great veteran team like this, even at home.  I will, however, be on Twitter tonight using the #Bucks hashtag.  Join the conversation and chat with me @benmiller.