For Milwaukee to take its next step, key cogs like Brandon Jennings must improve defensively.
By RYAN KARTJE FS Wisconsin
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — For a team that wanted to prove itself defensively, two notable question marks stood out on that side of the ball heading into Tuesday's preseason opener with Cleveland.
Could Brandon Jennings improve defensively? And could Tobias Harris do the same?
With Harris getting the nod in the starting lineup and Jennings looking to take the next step in his career this season, the stakes are high for both to improve as soon as possible. And against the Cavs, Bucks coach Scott Skiles said both of them had certainly shown a degree of improvement on that side of the ball.
"I thought Brandon was good defensively. I thought Brandon and Monta (Ellis) both were good defensively," Skiles said. "They know that with most teams kind of where it starts is out in front, and they both have tough covers every single night. I thought both guys were aggressive defensively, smart. We had a lot of deflections and steals but we weren't recklessly gambling all over the place or anything. And we were competitive there so that was good."
And for Harris, although he didn't face his most difficult test of the season on Wednesday, Skiles said the improvement was palpable in his play.
"He's getting better, he's working hard on his defense," Skiles said. "I thought he did a nice job yesterday defensively. It's important for him. You can say it about every position I suppose, but he's got to matchup against some of the better players, and opening night it's Paul Pierce. He's just got to be smart and continue to learn and continue to make it a point of emphasis and work at it. As I said the other day, I've never seen anybody work hard at it and not get better at it. So he's working hard and I thought he was good last night."
Showing results at the rim: With an entire offseason's worth of moves and tweaks to ensure the rim remained more protected this season than last, the Milwaukee Bucks came into their first preseason game on Tuesday with an expectation.
What looked good — or at least better — on paper needed to show up on the court. And in the new-and-improved frontcourt's first opportunity, they took advantage.
The Bucks blocked eight shots and outrebounded the Cavaliers, 40-38. Cleveland's starting big men, Tristian Thompson and Anderson Varejao were held to a combined stat line of six points and 10 rebounds in 20 minutes of action each.
But it was Milwaukee's length, in particular, that was impressive in their first competition of the season.
"Sam (Dalembert) has been a shot blocker," Skiles said on Wednesday. "Ekpe (Udoh) is a shot blocker. Larry (Sanders) is a shot blocker. That's what they do. Hard to imagine a scenario where we're not going to be a pretty good shot blocking team. The scenario I guess would be that we're not giving up much penetration for the guys to even get in there and that would be great too, but the fact of the matter remains that perimeter NBA players get in there. They're good. So we definitely did a nice job protecting the rim last night."
Dalembert, one of the team's newest frontcourt weapons, was at the center of that rim protection improvement, blocking three shots himself and pulling down four rebounds in just 16 minutes of work.
He's gotten comfortable quickly in Milwaukee with the nice mix of young talent and experienced veterans, and with Skiles' system, he says, he's fit right in.
"I think we did a really good job," Dalembert said. "We still, a little bit, have to work on the timings, but overall, it was a real good game defensively. We really clogged up the paint and made sure there were very few baskets coming inside. We started a little block party, me and my teammates. … I do like it (in Milwaukee). I like the group we have."
Udrih injury update: After hitting his head against the knee of teammate Larry Sanders, Bucks guard Beno Udrih left Tuesday's preseason game and didn't return.
But at Wednesday afternoon practice, Skiles confirmed that Udrih was able to practice today and won't miss any time.