ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — After his team was just routed by the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 11, Bucks coach Jim Boylan stood at the podium and preached his team simply had to move on.
The reason was simple: The Milwaukee Bucks were about to venture out on their longest road-trip of the season, one that was going to set the tone of the rest of the season.
Milwaukee finished the trip 3-1 — its first winning road trip of four or more games since 2001 — and the Bucks returned home feeling good about where they sit, but also recognizing there’s a long way to go.
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“We are just moving forward,” Boylan, who is 5-2 since taking over as head coach on Jan. 8, said. “Not getting too high, not getting too low. Everybody is worried about the next task and being humble about it.
“We had a good trip out west, but that’s over. Now we have a tough opponent coming up in Philly and our focus has to be on that.”
Milwaukee’s bench really shined on the trip, outscoring opponent’s reserves 138-78. With backup point guard Beno Udrih healthy and again playing at a high level, Boylan has a full arsenal at his hands.
Boylan has settled in to a rotation of Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson at power forward, Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh at center, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Mike Dunleavy at small forward and Beno Udrih being the main guard off the bench. While that’s been the standard rotation of late, Boylan has shown he’s not afraid to mix things up.
Frustrated with a stretch of play guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis had in a recent game, Boylan sat both and gave Marquis Daniels minutes. When Udoh struggled against Dwight Howard, Samuel Dalembert found time.
The main beneficiary of the mixing and matching has been Dunleavy. With Mbah a Moute struggling a bit offensively, Dunleavy has seen his minutes increase and he rewarded the team by making 12 of his 18 three-pointers on the trip.
“There’s a lot of good things happening when those guys come into the game and it seems like on a given night it could be anyone scoring,” Boylan said. “They move the ball well, they look for each other. They let the game dictate what they are doing. If the game says shoot it, they shoot it. When you have that the game is fun, easy and beautiful.”
Unlike his predecessor, Boylan seems willing to live with the growing pains of young players like Henson and Udoh. He understands there’s going to be growing pains but also that they can only improve through playing.
It’s a tough place for Boylan to be in. While he isn’t officially labeled as an interim head coach, he’s only signed through the end of this season, and easily could get the ‘win at all costs’ mentality.
‘We are in the moment right now, but we are not blind to the future,” Boylan said. “We see what they bring and we want to maximize their experience this year and it will pay dividends for us down the road.”
Since they’ve got extended playing time, the young bench players have proved not only to be the best option for the future, but the best option now. Boylan isn’t benching more productive players in order to play them.
“It’s not like we have two guys who don’t know what they are doing out there,” Boylan said of Henson and Udoh. “John makes some rookie mistakes but he plays hard. He rebounds and does things that not a lot of guys can do.
“They are getting experience but also they are important factors in that second unit.”
The depth and options Milwaukee has on its bench is something many teams just don’t have. While the Bucks have an abundance of power forwards and are an injury to a guard away from losing a lot of the strength of the bench, Milwaukee showed on the trip that it’s playing loose and settling in to Boylan’s rotation.
With the Bucks just as close to the fourth or fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference to the ninth and 10th seeds, the team’s ability to take advantage of an opponent’s weaker second unit could play a large role.
“When you sit in the middle of the pack, sort of a notch above the middle of the pack, if you will, everybody is close to you,” Boylan said. “The people in front of you are close to you, the people behind you are close to you.”