Henson, Pachulia thriving as centers of attention

Bucks big men Zaza Pachulia (27) and John Henson (31) are averaging a combined 20.3 points and 15.5 rebounds over the last seven games.

Mark L. Baer/Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — The depth of the Milwaukee Bucks has allowed coach Jason Kidd to drill the "next man up" mindset into the locker room. Instead of worrying about who isn’t playing, the focus is on the opportunity available to others on the roster.

With Larry Sanders’ future with the Bucks still up in the air, Zaza Pachulia and John Henson are left to man the center position for Milwaukee until further notice.

Pachulia and Henson have been a productive duo, averaging a combined 20.3 points and 15.5 rebounds over the seven games that Sanders has been out due to personal reasons.

"The beauty of this team is that we are very deep," Pachulia said. "During the season we’ve had guys out. We have to keep playing the right way. One guy goes down, the next guy steps up. And the next guy is capable of playing at a high level.

"Our focus is for this team to get wins. Something good is going on in this locker room with this team and organization, and we’re going to keep it up."

Pachulia seamlessly transitioned into the starting lineup on Dec. 26 and is averaging a double-double (12.0 points, 10.1 rebounds) in the seven games since. He has posted 14 or more rebounds three times in Milwaukee’s last six games.

The 11-year veteran is one of the best passing big men in the league, leaving the Bucks’ offense to flow smoother with him on the floor.

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"He’s the glue," Kidd said of Pachulia. "He’s one of our leaders on the floor and off the floor. Any time in this league you get consistent minutes you can show what you can do. We all know ‘Z’ can pass the ball and shoot the ball and rebound, but now playing a lot of minutes he is putting up a double-double and giving us that presence of rebounding."

Sanders’ departure from the team coincided with Henson’s return from a left foot sprain that caused him to miss 14 games.

His month-long absence allowed time for self-reflection. Henson realized he had to consistently play with a higher level of energy and effort in order to let his physical ability have an impact. 

"I had never been injured for that long of a period of time," Henson said. "It really made me sit back and realize how fragile this game is and how it can be taken away so quickly. It made me want to play every game as if it is my last. That’s what I’m trying to do now.

"It was tough but it was good for me. I just have to play hard. I’m maturing as an NBA guy, learning how to play the game and learning what to do off the court as well. All of that is kind of fueling into playing better."

Before suffering the foot sprain, Henson’s playing time was sporadic behind Sanders and Pachulia. It was fair to question Henson’s future with the team, as he was putting up just 4.2 points and 2.7 rebounds over 12.2 minutes per game at the time of his injury.

Henson has been a different player in the seven games he’s played since returning, averaging 8.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while playing 20.1 minutes per game.

His activity level defensively has been excellent, which is something Henson hasn’t been able to keep up consistently throughout the course of his three-year career.

"I think for John it is consistent minutes," Kidd said. "When you have Larry, Z and John, minutes were going to maybe be low, maybe none. With that being said, now it is him and Z. Minutes are high, he’s getting consistent time on the floor and taking full advantage of it.

"We missed John when he was out. He’s playing at a high level since he’s been back. Everybody trusts good things are going to happen when John comes in the game."

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Sanders ended his two-week long absence by sitting with the Bucks on the bench during Tuesday’s 102-96 loss to Phoenix.  With no timetable in place for his return to the court, Milwaukee will continue to go with Pachulia and Henson.

"All I know is it is personal reasons," Pachulia said the day before Sanders’ return to the bench. "I’m sure he will address when he will be back. Meanwhile, we have a serious job to take care of. We are at a very important time on the season, so we should concentrate more on the team playing the right way to win as many games as possible. That’s our job.

"We’re going to continue to work hard, and whenever Larry comes back . . . his locker is still here. It is up to him, but we know it is a personal reason."

Sanders won’t immediately jump back into the rotation if he is able to return to basketball at some point this season. If they continue to play the way they have over the past seven games, Pachulia and Henson would be hard to supplant.

"It is kind of cool because me and Zaza are polar opposites — body-wise, game-wise and things like that," Henson said. "It is a good one-two punch to have. He’s playing well lately. I just want to come in and keep up the high level of play."

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