MILWAUKEE — It’s not hard to find the strengths of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Utah Jazz.
Utah is a big, physical frontcourt-based team that’s goal is to beat up opponents inside, while the Bucks are now built around a three-guard rotation.
Monday’s game was going to be decided by the team that limited its opponent’s strength just enough to win.
Outscoring Utah’s starting backcourt 54-0, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis led Milwaukee to a 109-108 overtime victory in yet another wildly exciting game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Ellis — named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week earlier in the day — finished with 34 points and four steals, while Jennings scored 20 points with 17 assists.
It’s the first time the Bucks have played consecutive overtime games and won both since 1991.
“That was a helluva backcourt duo putting on quite a show,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “There was a point I was saying ‘this must be a great game to watch if you are sitting in the stands.’ They were making plays, we were making plays.”
Utah’s frontcourt — minus its best player Al Jefferson — didn’t have a bad night, either. Derrick Favors jumped into the starting lineup for Jefferson and tied his career-high with 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. Paul Millsap had 22 points and 14 rebounds, while Enes Kanter came off the bench for 18 points and 10 rebounds.
The Jazz outrebounded the Bucks 59-42 and had 23 offensive rebounds. On most nights those numbers result in a loss, but that’s how good the guards were.
After racking up a career-high 19 assists on Saturday, Jennings was back in distributor mode against the Jazz. He became the first Bucks player since Sam Cassell in 1999 to have back-to-back games with 15 or more assists.
“Brandon’s play recently is a catalyst for the whole team,” Boylan said. “His willingness to move the ball, become an assist guy. I talked to him about a guy like Chris Paul who night in and night out is a major factor but is stats are a little different each night.
“One night he scores 12 points and has 17 assists. Another night he scores 28 points. Whatever the game says he needs to do, that’s what he does. That’s what we are trying to preach to Brandon.”
It’s a role Jennings has been willing to embrace, at least for the last two games. Asked if the points or assists are more satisfying to him right now, he didn’t hesitate to say the assists.
“Because everybody didn’t think I could pass like this but I’ve always been a pass first point guard since high school,” Jennings said. “Now with a little bit more help with J.J. (Redick) and guys like that, I’m really able to show what I can do.”
When his team needed him the most, Jennings knocked down a big three-pointer for the second straight game. With Utah up 99-96, Jennings hit a 27-foot, three-pointer to tie the game with 8.4 seconds left and eventually force overtime.
In overtime, it was the third member of the three-guard rotation stepping up. Redick scored Milwaukee’s first eight points in the extra session, including a pair of three-pointers. The last one came off a dish from Larry Sanders to put the Bucks up for good at 107-105 with 47.0 seconds left.
“Our offense is tough to guard at times, especially when we move the ball,” Redick said. “Guys can play off Brandon, Monta and myself at times. The biggest thing is just moving the ball. We have enough dynamic players to score points.”
Ellis was sensational for the fourth consecutive game, slashing to the basket and taking good shots. He finished 15 of 21 from the field, including big shots late in regulation and in overtime. Milwaukee needed him to be clutch because it nearly let a 13-point third quarter lead slip away.
The Jazz go to the line 19 times in the fourth quarter and made 16 of them to get back into the game.
“He ran so hard (and) he’s a big shot maker,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said of Ellis. “He’s used to it. He likes big moments, and he made a couple of great plays in big moments of the game.”
There’s a fine line between winning and losing close games in the NBA as the Bucks have proved since the All-Star break. All seven games the Bucks have played since the break have either been decided by five points or fewer, in overtime or both.
After losing the first three, the Bucks have won four straight close games. While the sample size is small, each close victory helps boost confidence whenever the next one comes.
“We’re winning close games, that’s the biggest thing right now,” Redick said. “That’s tough to do in this league . . . It would be nice to win by at least eight in one game. This team has proven it can win close games and hopefully that will continue.”
With Atlanta’s loss to Denver, the Bucks are now 2-1/2 games behind the Hawks for the sixth spot and just three games back of Brooklyn and Chicago for the fourth and fifth slots in the conference standings.
Just one week ago, Milwaukee was in danger of possibly letting a big playoff cushion evaporate. Now the Bucks are seven full games ahead of Philadelphia and looking ahead, at least for the time being.
Though they had to scratch and claw to beat two teams without its best player in Toronto and Utah, the Bucks did what they had to do at home before heading out on a three-game trip to Los Angeles, Golden State and Sacramento.
“We know how hard it is to win on the road,” Jennings said. “We’re going to have to find a way to close out games.”