MILWAUKEE — Brandon Jennings is well aware that not everyone believes he and Monta Ellis can form a solid backcourt for the Bucks. The two are undersized guards known for their scoring abilities on a Milwaukee team that lacks a true center without Andrew Bogut.
It sounds similar to the Golden State teams that Ellis played on, where he and Stephen Curry were never able to turn the high-scoring, fast-paced Warriors into a winning team.
Jennings has had doubters before, such as those who questioned his decision to play overseas rather than in college, and he’s out to prove that he and Ellis can make the Bucks a playoff team together.
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“We have a target on us now,” Jennings said. “Everybody wants to see, is it really going to work? Or are we going to be able to make that push for the playoffs? It’s always been our big goal, to make the playoffs.”
So far, there have been mixed results. In their first five games together, Milwaukee went 3-2. The three wins came on the road — in Golden State, Portland and Charlotte — all teams with a record worse than .500. The Bucks’ two losses came at home to Boston and Indiana, both playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
“I just have to keep playing my game,” Jennings said. “I can’t change who I am and what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here. The only thing is now I have another guy who can score points. It just seems like the ball’s been moving so well, (and now) me and him aren’t scoring as much anyway.”
Since the trade, Ellis’ numbers are significantly down. After averaging 21.9 points on 43.3 percent shooting with six assists in Golden State this season, Ellis has 13.8 points on 38.7 percent shooting and 5.6 assists since joining the Bucks.
Jennings’ 19 points-per-game scoring average prior to the trade have been down to 15 points in the first five games with Ellis.
However, as a team, the Bucks are scoring more points every game since joining Jennings and Ellis. Milwaukee, which struggled so mightily on offense in recent seasons, is seventh in the NBA in points and third in assists.
While Jennings, at 6-foot-1, would traditionally be considered the team’s point guard, it has been Ellis — at 6-3 and mainly a shooting guard in Golden State — who has impressed many of his teammates with his point-guard-like vision and willingness to distribute the ball.
“He’s more a passer, to me, it seems, than scoring,” Jennings said. “It’s just the style of the offense he was in (with the Warriors.) I actually had heard before that, that he was (naturally) more of a distributor.”
What Ellis has shown in five games with the Bucks has already taken pressure off of Jennings to have to run the offense on every play. But having Ellis on the court has been helpful to more than just Jennings.
“It takes pressure off the whole team, not just Brandon,” starting center Drew Gooden said. “We’ve got another guy that can facilitate. With Monta, that’s definitely a plus for us. He can be a great playmaker.”
It was Ellis’ skills as a ball-handler and passer that were a major factor when Milwaukee’s front office and coaching staff was deciding whether to go through with the trade.
“Monta, in our opinion, was an underrated passer,” coach Scott Skiles said. “Most guys that score the ball, people don’t see a lot of the other things they do. He can make point-guard type plays. He’s a good pick-and-roll player, and he’s a willing passer.
“But there’s going to be moments when we need him to go and score and get baskets. We haven’t had any need situations yet, but he’ll certainly fill that role too.
“The challenges are from the size standpoint.”
And it is that size factor that will be a looming issue for the backcourt of Jennings and Ellis for as long as they play together. That is especially noticeable on defense. When Milwaukee hosted the Pacers on Saturday, Ellis was matched up with Indiana’s 6-9 shooting guard, Paul George. Ellis also will have to match up twice this season with the New York Knicks’ much bigger guards, J.R. Smith at 6-6 and Landry Fields at 6-7.
“There’s obviously a size issue, that’s for sure,” Skiles said. “We weighed all that before making the move. (Small ball) is just kind of the way the league is going. Coaches put small players out there quite a bit, and they’re very difficult match-ups.”
When the Bucks made the trade, they were just on the outside looking in for the playoffs. More than a week later, that is still the case. While Milwaukee has won three of five, the Knicks — who hold the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed — have been winning since replacing coach Mike D’Antoni with Mike Woodson.
And while Jennings wants to show that he and Ellis can work well together, he knows the Bucks will likely have to win more than three out of every five games over the final month to get a chance at the postseason.
“If New York keeps winning and we keep losing, obviously we know what’s going to happen,” Jennings said.