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Tuesday, December 27

Minnesota 95, Milwaukee 98: The Bucks Hang on

A look at the Milwaukee Bucks surviving to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Starting 5s
The Minnesota Timberwolves, led by Kevin Love's 31 points and 20 rebounds, stormed back from twenty down with under two minutes left in the third quarter, making a game of what had been a decidedly one-sided contest.

Starting for the home Bucks were Brandon Jennings, Stephen Jackson, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Ersan Ilysasova and Andrew Bogut, the same from their loss the night before at Charlotte.  Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's knee injury again left him unavailable off the bench for Scott Skiles, and Drew Gooden served a one-game suspension for striking Bobcats' swingman Gerald Henderson, opening minutes in the front court for Jon Leuer, a rookie, and Larry Sanders, a second-year player.

The visiting Timberwolves missed head coach Rick Adelman, who was attending his mother-in-law's funeral.  A former head coach of their opponent, Terry Porter, was the acting head coach, and their starters were unchanged from their opening night: Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love and Darko Milicic.

Projected to finish as the second-best defensive team by Basketball Prospectus, the Bucks allowed an uncharacteristic thirty-point opening quarter from the Timberwolves, with Love scoring 17 in the quarter, 13 of which came from the free-throw line.  After drawing two fouls on the over-matched Ersan Ilyasova on back-to-back possessions, Love drew Bogut's second on the Timberwolves' next possession, leaving the Bucks without their starting frontcourt at the quarter's midpoint.

The Bucks didn't have an answer for Love throughout the night, other than letting him shoot: while Love shot 19-24 from the charity stripe, he also shot 6-18 from the field and 0-4 from beyond the arc, shooting numbers not insignificant in a game ultimately decided by three points.  Love was at his best battling inside: beyond punishing the Milwaukee defenders with the ball in his hands, 9 of Love's 20 rebounds were offensive.  This isn't to say Love shouldn't venture to the perimeter from time to time or that Minnesota is wrong for often starting their offense with him at the elbow but, rather, that the legitimate franchise-building-block had an off night shooting.

Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee's best interior player, didn't fare much better from the field.  After winning the jumpball, the Bucks went right to Bogut in post, and the result foreshadowed his night: a missed hook.  Bogut shot 7-20 from the field and 1-2 from the line: a becoming-common result for Bogut on the offensive end after the gruesome elbow injury which ended both his season and the spirited Fear The Deer run his Bucks were on two years aft.  Bogut also went without a block after leading the league in the category last season, but with Milicic only shooting four times and his focus of forcing Love into bad shots when tasked with guarding him, it wasn't a terrible result.

The teams run similar offenses, featuring ball-screens, hand-offs, pick-and-rolls and back-side movement from their bigs.  Where Minnesota makes use of Love's passing ability to key their offense from the elbow, Milwaukee makes use of Bogut's size and agility to run pick-and-rolls from the outset, looking to get an immediate mismatch to gain advantages at the margins through their possessions.  Both teams also aren't afraid of eschewing traditional substitution patterns, often playing two point guards at once: Ridnour and Ricky Rubio for Minnesota, and two of Jennings, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih for Milwaukee.

The first half saw Minnesota enjoy a 26-to-7 advantage in the free-throw attempt department, with the Timberwolves converting on 21 compared to only 5 for the Bucks.  The Bucks, as they've been wont to do under Skiles, play an aggressive brand of defense bred to create turnovers and poor shots.  While they're more than successful -- and are, in fact, elite -- on the defensive side, this does come with the side-effect of sending the opponent to the line often, favouring fouling the opponent over giving up clean looks at the basket.

But even with the free-throw disparity, the Bucks were up twelve going into intermission due to the thirteen turnovers they generated before the first-half close.  The Bucks did well to break with the ball and, without a shortage of able runners, capitalized on the forced and unforced mistakes from the Timberwolves.

The start of the second half went as well for the Timberwolves as the second quarter did where they were outscored 28-18: turnover after turnover, sloppy play after sloppy play and blown defensive assignments saw Milwaukee take a twenty-point lead with just under seven minutes remaining in the third.  For the next almost-five minutes, however, Milwaukee was unable to capitalize on Minnesota's continued incompetence: more Bogut misses, more of Dunleavy Jr.'s 2-9 night, more of the chaotic, uncertain offense from their previous year.

Milwaukee unable to close out the third how they began it meant Minnesota was free to end the quarter with a 9-0 run, pulling the game to eleven, flipping the script of the game since the first quarter.  Johnson started things with a three, Love drew yet another foul and converted the resultant and-1 and Ridnour, realizing the opportunity for a two-for-one, scored with a long three-pointer with thirty-four seconds remaining, only six seconds after gaining possession.

The Crunch-Time Lineups
The fourth quarter was more of the same.  Perhaps not wanting Bogut to feel alone in mediocrity from the field for Milwaukee, Stephen Jackson shot his own way to a 7-20 performance.  Jackson actually had himself a fairly decent all-around game, managing three steals and offensive rebounds apiece to go with his sixteen points and +10 +/-, but his shot selection and offensive mindset became poor, making his 1-6 performance behind the three-point-line a deserved one.

After a night of solid defense on Bogut, Milicic fouled out with over eight-minutes remaining in the fourth.  Even still, Bogut was unable to play more effective offensive, and Love fouled Bogut out with just over two minutes to play, leaving both teams without their starting centers for crunch time.

Sanders played well enough for Milwaukee throughout, so much so that it wouldn't have been unjust for Skiles to go with him in Bogut's absence.  And, in fact, Sanders was the first big off the bench in the first quarter for Milwaukee, perhaps signifying Skiles' pecking order of his big men.  It was not to be, however, and rookie Jon Leuer, he who finished with 14 points and 8 rebounds, was called upon, joining Milicic's replacement, Anthony Tolliver.

Both teams dropped two of their ineffective and starting wing players -- Johnson for Minnesota, Dunleavy for Milwaukee -- for second point guards, with Rubio and Livingston alternating bringing the ball up the court with Ridnour and Jennings.  A slick jumper from Beasley cut the game to two with 1:45 left, but a Leuer and-1 brought the lead back to five, and Minnesota's only attempt to tie the game came on the last possession of the game, a inbounds-pass set-play designed for a Love three-pointer.

Minnesota righted their ship and charged back admirably, but even with Love's robust play and Rubio's flash and tempo, Jennings' nine in the fourth and Leuer's strong play down the stretch was enough for Milwaukee to hang onto the lead their defense built in the second and third quarters.

[This is what happens when your DVR decides not to work, forcing you to only watch the game live without the benefit of rewinding or pausing, leaving you unable to focus on the parts you originally wanted to.  A thorough telling of a game between teams from Minneapolis and Milwaukee instead of interplay analysis and fast-break diagrams.  An unfortunate labor of love.]

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