MILWAUKEE — It took Larry Sanders until his 174th NBA game to score 20 points in a game. Four days was all it took for him to do it a second time.
After scoring a career-high 21 points against the Los Angeles Lakers last Thursday, Sanders set a new career high Monday, scoring 24 points to go along with 13 rebounds in Milwaukee’s 131-102 rout of Charlotte.
The 131 points were a season-high for the Bucks and the most they’ve scored since a 133-99 victory over Dallas on Jan. 21, 2009. Milwaukee’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to three, and with Boston’s 110-101 loss to Minnesota Monday night, the Bucks moved to within 1-1/2 games of the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference.
The leaps and bounds Sanders has grown defensively have been well documented, but his offensive aggressiveness has jumped in the last three weeks. Monday night he set a career-high in field goals made with 11 and tied a career-high with 19 field goal attempts.
“I’m just gaining more confidence in my length and the things I practice every day,” Sanders said. “I’m going out there and trying to capitalize on what whatever the defense is doing out there.
“I’m just trying to stay active. My teammates are doing a great job of finding me down there, trusting me to finish plays and shoot the ball when I’m open. It’s working out pretty well.”
Five of Sanders’ field goals came off passes from Bucks guard Monta Ellis, who set a career-high with 14 assists Monday night.
“When he sets screens for you, I think you’ve always got to reward the big man,” Ellis said. “And when he runs the floor, always keep your big man engaged.
“I try to reward him for all the the things he does for us.”
Bucks coach Jim Boylan has been trying to get Sanders to implement a jump hook to make his offensive game more versatile. He hit a hook shot in the first half against the Bobcats.
“Larry is finding his game offensively,” Boylan said. “He’s starting to make that little jump shot. I’m always trying to get him to dive to the rim because I think that’s where he’ll be most productive but he’s been able to step out and make that little jumper.”
While the results of his efforts have begun to show, Sanders knows it’s going to take a summer of work to become consistent on the offensive end of the floor.
“That’s the name of the game, that’s basketball,” Sanders said. “The harder you work, the more repetition you put in, the better you get. It’s a simple formula and it’s been like that since I started playing basketball. I’m not going to stop.”
Sanders has spent most of the season atop the league in blocked shots, and while Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka recently passed him in blocks per game, Milwaukee’s center is one of the top candidates for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
Though nobody in the league has improved as much as he has from last season, Sanders insists he hasn’t even thought about winning the award.
“I hear it every now and then,” Sanders said. “I’m not really into awards. I think they are good individual gifts but my mind is on the team. I want us to be in the playoffs. I want us to make a good run. I want us to have a successful season and I think everything else will fall into place.”
As the Bucks close in on a playoff berth and try to chase down the Celtics, Sanders is trying to find consistent energy though each night adds to his career-high in minutes played in a season.
“I’m a little tired,” Sanders said. “I haven’t played this many minutes in my life. This time of year everybody is tired. Whoever has the most energy is who is going to capitalize.”