ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — The Milwaukee Bucks new-and-improved frontcourt has made it clear on more than one occasion what their goal is this season: Protect the rim at all costs.
“We’re going to start a block party,” new center Sam Dalembert said last week, grinning.
“That’s my vision for the team,” Larry Sanders said Monday. “No matter what combination of bigs, we’d be able to protect that rim.”
And last Saturday against the Pistons, the Bucks looked like they were well on their way to that goal. With 14 blocks to their name in Saturday’s game, Milwaukee held Detroit to shooting just 41 percent from inside the arc, especially locking down the paint to anyone not named Andre Drummond. Sanders had five blocks. Dalembert and rookie John Henson had four. Even Marquis Daniels added one from the backcourt. It was a much-improved performance from the team’s eight-block total in its preseason opener — a good start to “the block party”.
But blocks weren’t the only encouraging statistic on the defensive end. Milwaukee also forced 20 turnovers — it forced 22 against the Cavaliers as well last Tuesday — adding credence to the idea that the Bucks’ defensive prowess may have indeed improved.
That kind of significant increase in turnovers and blocks often means that the team is taking more risks on the defensive end. But coach Scott Skiles says that hasn’t been the case so far.
“We haven’t (gambled too much) yet,” Skiles said. “That’s something we have to make sure we don’t get suckered into — being soft on the perimeter because we have bigs or gambling on the perimeter because we have better bigs. We’ve been pretty solid. Like I said, we’re going to be tested a little bit more (on Tuesday).”
For Skiles, the improvement on the defensive end, even in just two preseason games, has been a very pleasant surprise so far. And although blocks and turnovers may have been the most obvious increases on Tuesday, it was a different stat — an arguably more important one — that stood out the most.
NBA teams often average around 25 deflections per game — measuring any time a player deflects or gets his hand on the ball. Against the Pistons on Tuesday, the Bucks tallied a total much higher than the average.
“We had 38 deflections the other night, and that’s a lot in an NBA game,” Skiles said. “That’s an awful lot. So we’re getting hands on balls, things like that. All those are good signs. … Thirty eight is very, very high.”
A bigger challenge: Skiles didn’t mince any words when talking about his team’s Tuesday matchup in Chicago with last season’s No. 1 defense.
“Nothing against the two teams we’ve played already,” Skiles said, “but the Bulls are a little different animal.”
Both the Cavaliers and the Pistons ranked in the bottom half of the NBA last season in most defensive categories. Chicago, on the other hand, was first in points allowed, second in opponent’s field goal percentage, and first in points per game differential. Even without point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls are a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end.
It’s a matchup that could certainly serve as an early measuring stick for an offense that is still developing chemistry-wise. But for forward Ersan Ilyasova, it’s a matchup that the Bucks are looking forward to.
“Chicago has great defense, and they’re an intelligent team,” Ilyasova said. “We’re kind of ready for it in a way. … It doesn’t matter what team we play against, if we stick with the same mentality … we’re going to be in good shape.”
No roster cuts yet: For now, the training camp add-ons will remain on the roster for another game, Skiles said Monday.
Although Eddie Gill, Mustapha Farrakhan, Orien Greene, and Alando Tucker haven’t seen much action in the preseason so far, injuries have and may continue to give them an opportunity to remain with the roster for at least a little while longer.
“We’re not going to do anything yet,” Skiles said. “With Doron (Lamb) still out and Luc (Mbah a Moute) out and Ekpe (Udoh) out, we feel like we need to keep as many as we can right now to be able to practice.”