Top overall pick Anthony Davis spent Saturday night demonstrating why NBA scouts drooled over him last spring. The 6-foot-10 power forward did everything he could to carry his team past the Bucks, finishing with 28 points and 11 rebounds.
But after allowing the Hornets (3-5) to maintain 60% shooting for three quarters, Milwaukee (6-2) clamped down for key blocks when it mattered most and escaped the BMO Harris Bradley Center with a tense 117-113 win.
It certainly was the type of game that made you glad that GM John Hammond and coach Scott Skiles made protecting the basket a top offseason priority. Larry Sanders recorded three blocked shots in the fourth quarter; perhaps the biggest coming with 18.9 seconds left when he stuffed perpetual Bucks’ killer Ryan Anderson’s drive with Milwaukee up four.
Sanders’ three rejections helped the Bucks complete a three-game sweep this week and salvaged some of a poor defensive showing.
We weren’t sharp on the ball; we weren’t sharp with our coverages,” Skiles said. “We weren’t sharp on the weak side. “They just moved freely and executed their stuff.”
Those struggles meant the Bucks trailed for much of the first half. The team’s penchant for steals triggered a spurt late in the second quarter, and Milwaukee led by two at the break.
But Milwaukee could never completely shake New Orleans, which had won 11 of the previous 12 games between the teams. When Davis converted several chances in the paint in the opening minutes of the third, it seemed the trend might continue.
That’s when Monta Ellis awakened. After appearing to intentionally defer to others and being held to two points in the first half, the shooting guard lived up to his position’s name, tallying 20 points after halftime. He and backcourt partner Brandon Jennings each finished with 22 and eight assists.
But strange as it might initially sound, the Bogut trade is also beginning to pay dividends on the defensive end. The deal has allowed young bigs Sanders and Ekpe Udoh to blossom, and Skiles likes to play the duo together. Udoh’s contributions are often subtle and he does need to rebound better, but he is showing why Hammond insisted Golden State package him with Ellis.
Sanders has gone from a ticking time bomb to a reliable hustle and energy guy almost overnight. His foul shooting needs work and he still fouls too much (some calls against him appear motivated by his reputation as a hothead), but no one is affixing the “bust” label to him any longer. A week ago I wrote that Sanders could be the starting center soon; now Samuel Dalembert suddenly looks reborn.
Skiles knows he has plenty of interior options and is comfortable using them, but the fact that he trusted Sanders to shadow Davis down the stretch speaks volumes about the third-year pro’s growth.
I would submit that the Bucks would not have won Saturday without the efforts of any one of the men who took a turn against Davis, who barring injury will coast to Rookie of the Year. There was often the nagging suspicion that Bogut slowed the Bucks down, and not just when his health sidelined him. It’s entirely possible Bogut would not have been able to sufficiently contain Davis’ unusually polished repertoire of jumpers, drives and put-backs, much less run the floor with him, as Dalembert and Sanders did.
Davis arguably was the best player on the floor and looks like the difference-maker the moribund Hornets’ franchise needs to become relevant again. But he would surely trade his stats for the outcome the Bucks’ cadre of bigs helped preserve.
It wasn’t a pretty win for the Bucks, but it did continue a trend of this young season: Youth is being served, and for the first time in awhile, that’s a positive thing.