If one had to subtitle the week thus far for the Milwaukee Bucks, “Opportunity Knocks” would be a good fit.
Milwaukee followed up its key road victory over the Sixers with a stupefyingly easy 99-85 home win over division rival Indiana Wednesday, a result that makes it fair to wonder just how good the Bucks (5-2) could turn out to be this season.
Milwaukee scored the first seven points of the game, held a 16-point edge after one quarter and led by 26 at halftime. The Bucks’ advantage ballooned to as many as 32 before the Pacers (3-6) whittled away their deficit in the garbage time fourth period.
In a game that was the polar opposite of the three won by an average of 12.5 points by Indiana last season, the Bucks were faster, quicker and clearly wanted it more. It was also obvious they now have the size to counter Indiana’s length and neutralize 7-footer Roy Hibbert.
Primary credit goes to Bucks’ center Samuel Dalembert, who held Hibbert to a meager seven points and eight rebounds while notching 14 points and six boards of his own.
“We’ve had games where we’ve had Luc (Mbah a Moute) and Ersan (Ilyasova) on him,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. “There’s no substitute for that type of size.” He (Dalembert) certainly was comfortable tonight.”
Dalembert and his teammates made a believer out of Hibbert, too.
“They’re night and day from last season,” Hibbert said of the Bucks. “They seem like they are clicking right now.”
It’s hard to quibble with Hibbert’s take at the moment. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Bucks were averaging 41.5 bench points and 18.7 fast break points per game, both first in the league. They totaled 37 bench points against the Pacers, which helped maintain the comfortable margin throughout.
The night’s most impressive stat was the scant six turnovers, which minimized the Pacers’ chances to rally with easy baskets. Throw in Indiana’s 37.5% shooting and generally shell shocked body language, and you have the anatomy of a laugher.
It’s certainly dangerous to read too much into any game two weeks into a six-month grind, but these do look like two teams headed in opposite directions. We’ve seen what the Bucks can do when the ball movement is crisp, particularly in the wins over Boston and Philadelphia. The value of protecting the rock was demonstrated Wednesday. The team defense is getting there, and the coach won’t relent until he is satisfied.
Indiana has a host of issues, and the loss of Danny Granger, though significant, appears to be a simplistic explanation for a lackluster start. Hibbert got a max deal in the offseason and is playing like he feels the pressure of justifying it. Paul George hasn’t raised his game in Granger’s absence, proving that “heir apparent” status is earned rather than bestowed. The bench is thin.
Most observers don’t think Granger is a superstar anyway, at least not on an elite level club. The Pacers were the presumptive Central Division favorites while Chicago adjusted to life without Derrick Rose, but they’ve not responded to expectations. Could it be they reached their ceiling last year when they outplayed Miami for most of four games, then wore down? Time will tell.
The Bucks, meanwhile, are beginning to look like last year’s Pacers. They’re not a finished product by any means, but they’ve got size, length, quickness, depth and youth. By all indications, they enjoy playing with each other. They still must learn how to win consistently, and they will face teams with better talent on many nights.
But other than internal goals and the fight to secure the jobs of their coach and general manager beyond this season by getting to the playoffs, they are playing with house money. You get the sense Milwaukee’s improvement may have snuck up on the Pacers and Celtics this season, and that several other teams could also fall prey early.
If they were honest with themselves, perhaps even some Bucks personnel would say that they didn’t expect an opportunity to be 6-2 should they beat New Orleans at home Saturday. But that’s where one of the surprise teams in the NBA finds itself so far.
Opportunity knocks, indeed.