It was an incredible Sunday for Bucks guard Monta Ellis. Entering the fourth quarter of his team’s eventual win over the Orlando Magic with just 14 points and nursing a nine-point deficit, Ellis went off for 25 points in the final period to lead Milwaukee to a 115-109 win over the Magic at home. It was a fantastic display, full of long bombs and transition finishes, and the sort of reminder that fans need from time to time about Ellis’ potential as a scorer. The mark represents the most any player has scored in a period this season, and a pace that matched Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game.
Watch Monta’s work:
And here comes the tire screech. First provided by Bucks interim head coach Jim Boylan, who wasn’t happy that Ellis needed a record-matching pace just to beat the Orlando freakin’ Magic at home. From the Associated Press:
''Monta was pretty amazing there in the fourth quarter. I'm happy that we won the game, but I am really concerned with the way we are playing right now,'' Boylan said. ''It's not good enough. We need to play better. Right now we are not a very good team. You can't rely on scoring 45 points in the fourth quarter in order to pull a game out at home.”
The game’s noon start may have played a part; it’s hard to get up for such contests when you’re used to typically amping yourself up for work around 7 or 8 in the evening. Complain all you want about how much NBA players make during the course of a season, but body clocks can’t be bought. When you base a career on getting ready for the big action at 7:30 at night, being asked to show the same intensity at noon can pretty daunting – mentally and physically.
What’s most important to us is the direction the Bucks are taking, and if they’re backing themselves into a corner with this smooth move all of the way to the first round of the playoffs.
The team hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet, but the Bucks are eight games ahead of the Toronto Raptors for the final seed in the East’s bracket with 17 to play, and about as lock-y as locks come to face the Miami Heat in the first round. And while the Bucks aren’t in the Heat’s league at this point – who is? – the Bucks have taken Miami to overtime, beaten the Heat, and played the team quite well on its way to a 1-2 season record against Miami. Somewhat famously, should Miami continue its 22-game winning streak to a point where it can top the all-time NBA mark of 33 wins in a row, it will have to down Milwaukee on April 9 in order to set the record for 34 straight wins.
Should that scenario play out, and Milwaukee play spoilers, the eyes of the nation will turn to Wisconsin. That positive image will carry over further if the Bucks give the Heat a good run during their first round pairing a few weeks later, and all indications point that sort of series. If that happens, will the pressure be on GM John Hammond to keep it all together, at all (possibly un-) reasonable costs?
Perhaps. Guard Brandon Jennings has seemingly been a soon-to-be free agent forever, but he truly is a restricted free agent this summer. And Ellis has a player option for $11 million next season, a contract that to some of us (that aren’t exactly big fans of Monta’s) seems like a no-brainer for him to pick up next season, but one he could very well decide to decline in order to take advantage of some hapless NBA GM. And new addition J.J. Redick is a free agent as well, working at age 28 in his prime. Is this batch, on pace for 42 wins, worth keeping together? I mean, this is a team still three games in back of the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls, a team that can’t seem to walk toward the team bus without spraining an ankle.
Ellis in particular isn’t as great guns as this outburst suggests. He hit 5-6 three-pointers on Sunday, but entered the game hitting less than a quarter of his three-point attempts, despite shooting 3.6 of those things per game. After his 35-point performance on Sunday Monta is up to 19.6 points per contest, no small feat, but it takes 17.7 shots an outing to get there. This is one of the bigger reasons the Bucks are 20th overall in offense, despite featuring a guard and wing rotation (Ellis, Jennings, Redick, and Mike Dunleavy Jr.) that is dedicated to that one side of the ball.
Boylan’s take on the team’s defense is spot on as well, as Milwaukee has fallen down a bit defensively since Scott Skiles left the team 33 games ago. The Bucks have become terrible at guarding the dangerous corner three-point attempt, and more porous at the rim despite the efforts of all-world defender Larry Sanders. After the comeback win over Milwaukee, Boylan’s record as Bucks head coach stands at 17-16, just slightly better than Skiles’ 16-16 mark on the season.
If it’s a dour take, we apologize – it’s Monday and we haven’t had nearly as much caffeine as we should have yet. On the surface, though, it appears as if Milwaukee has absolutely no problem acting as one of those teams that doesn’t mind the NBA’s version of purgatory, mainly because of the squad’s small market stature. The team refuses to blow up and start over, at least so far, and doesn’t appear to be keen on taking chances at acquiring a star – a real superstar – through the draft or via cap space. It keeps chasing those 42 wins, and those few first round games’ worth of playoff revenue. Which can be exciting, I know, but ultimately frustrating for fans watching All-Stars work elsewhere.
Monta Ellis, despite that points per game average, should never be an All-Star. Jennings, despite his age and quickness, clearly doesn’t have the skill or mindset to turn things around significantly and develop into one. J.J. Redick is a very good role player in his prime. In terms of overall impact, Larry Sanders comes closest to the star ranks – but what if some other squad is aware of Sanders’ impact and (rightfully) decides to pay through the teeth to acquire him as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014? Potentially one year after the team decides to bring back Jennings and Redick at a significant cost, and possibly extend Ellis?
And even if the team matches that offer to Sanders, again – they’re keeping a 42-win team together.
John Hammond may have other plans. Jennings’ 40 percent shooting and Ellis’ sometimes-there bombs from 25-feet could be heading elsewhere this summer, as the team looks to rebuild. If that’s the case, then the whole point of the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks could be just to make life a living hell for the Miami Heat.
We’re sort of OK with that.