I contacted Brew Hoop regarding a possible question and answer session preceding Wednesday night's matchup between the Heat and the Bucks. Frank was kind enough to sit down with me and hash out some details. I started with five questions, outlined below.
Andrew Bogut was a staple of Bucks defensive play, ranking in the NBA’s top 10 in blocked shots three times while in Milwaukee, and also averaging over nine rebounds per contest. Is there anyone filling that void for the Bucks?
The Bucks have taken a big-man-by-committee approach to replacing Bogut and there’s been little to complain about thus far. Starting center Samuel Dalembert has started to find his rhythm over the past four games, but third-year big man Larry Sanders has made huge strides in the first month and proven the Bucks’ best interior defender and rebounder thus far. Scott Skiles has generally played Sanders and fellow 2010 draftee Ekpe Udoh ahead of Dalembert and the struggling Ersan Ilyasova late in games, and their quickness, shot-blocking and defensive versatility has been a major factor in the Bucks’ fast start. The biggest difference has been on the defensive glass: the biggest impact of losing Bogut last season came in the Bucks’ inability to prevent second chances, but they’re currently leading the league in defensive rebounding percentage and have no shortage of long shot blockers either.
So while everyone would love to have a franchise center of Bogut’s abilities manning the middle, there’s something to be said for having a deep front line that can actually stay healthy. Bogut didn’t help the Bucks much while he was wearing a suit on the bench, and the Bucks also failed to add another big body as insurance the past two seasons. Thankfully they seem to have learned their lesson.
Milwaukee, like the Heat, lead their division at this point of the still young season. Do you see the Bucks as a threat to stay on top all season? What kind of seeding do you expect to see the Bucks challenge for?
I don’t think anyone expected the Bucks to challenge for the Central heading into the season, but Indiana’s early struggles and the long-term absence of Danny Granger has certainly changed the complexion of the division. If the first few weeks are any indication, Detroit and Cleveland still look like they’re a year away from playoff contention, Indiana will need to figure out how to score points if they’re going to keep things together until Granger returns, and the Bulls keep chugging along even with Derrick Rose out until at least early next year.
Even with the uncertainty surrounding Rose, I think the Bulls’ proven defensive credentials make them the Central favorites until further notice, but the Bucks are certainly making a good case to be taken seriously. Along with their first games against the Heat and Knicks, the Bucks get the Bulls twice in the next week, so we should have a much better sense of where the Bucks rank in the East by the end of the month. Before the season I would have pegged the Bucks for a team capable of landing anywhere from 6-10 in the East, but their strong start and the injuries hitting teams like the Pacers and Sixers definitely provide optimism that they could be even better.
The Bucks rank seventh in the NBA with a defensive rating of 101.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. How do you see them stacking up against the high octane Heat offense?
Saturday night’s shootout win over the Hornets showed the Bucks are definitely still a work in progress on the defensive end, but their early improvements on the defensive boards and continued ability to force turnovers have been a major part of their early season success.
The Bucks matched up relatively well with the Heat last year in large part because a) the Heat’s lack of big bodies meant the Bucks’ tendency to go small wasn’t too badly exposed and b) the Bucks had enough wing defenders to at least make LeBron and Wade work for their points. This year Bucks are able to play much bigger (which is good), but at the moment they’re also missing their best wing defender in Luc Mbah a Moute (which is bad). As a Bucks fan you have to be concerned with Monta Ellis and Tobias Harris being able to match up defensively with Wade and LeBron, especially given that Marquis Daniels is the only wing with much credibility on the defensive end.
Aside from Mike Dunleavy, who is making over 50% of his three-point attempts, who else is a threat to hit from deep?
The Bucks’ lack of consistent three point shooters is one of their major question marks offensively, especially with Ersan Ilyasova struggling to regain the terrific form he showed in the second half of last season. Thankfully Dunleavy has been lights out thus far and Jennings (as he showed in the Bucks’ second win over the Heat last year) is always capable of catching fire from outside. That pair combined to hit eight of the Bucks’ season-high 13 threes against the Hornets on Saturday, with Tobias Harris and Beno Udrih adding a pair each.
Let me hear your honest opinion – predict the final score of Wednesday night’s matchup.
The Bucks' formula for success is pretty clear: pressure the ball and prevent second chances defensively, then run whenever you can off misses and turnovers. While everyone will obviously focus on the Bucks' ability to stop the big three, it will be just as important that they don't let Ray Allen, Shane Battier and the rest of the Heat supporting cast kill them with open threes. I don't think the Bucks will be intimidated going to South Beach nor would a Bucks upset surprise me-remember that they won in Miami last season as well-but it's tough to predict a Bucks victory at this point without coming off like a homer. So I'll play it safe and project a 105-96 Heat win-while hoping the Bucks prove me wrong.
Frank also had some questions of his own for Heat Nation. I answered to the best of my ability.
Losing to the Mavericks two years ago seemed to bring a new focus and determination to LeBron and company last season. Now that they're the ones wearing championship rings, do you see them suffering any letdown or playing with less urgency?
To be honest, I see no change in the level of intensity so far this season. With the exception of a few bad games (20 point loss to the Knicks, 18 point loss to the Grizzlies), the Heat have operated like a well oiled machine.
Far from having to strap this team to his back, LeBron has been able to count on his supporting cast (and not just the usual suspects) to pick up the slack. Some of the names have changed (Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis), some have been soild (Norris Cole, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier), and some have started slower than expected (Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem).
Winning the NBA title has always been LeBron's number one goal. his odyssey to achieve the desired results took two cities and nine seasons, leaving one of those cities in basketball ruin. Like last season, his 28.9 PER (though two points lower than his 30.7 season rating) leads the NBA. To my eyes, the level of determination has remained the same in South Beach.
Wade has been banged up and his numbers are down in the very early going, while Bosh seems to be stepping up more of late. How do you see the dynamic among the Big Three evolving over the course of the season?
Wade has started off slower than usual, and the case can be made that age has started to catch up to him. He's probably just a little banged up, though. He may very well snap back into form. In the meantime, Bosh's numbers have picked up slightly from last season, but his drive and intent changes when Miami doesn't have Wade to count on. He just seems more dangerous to opposing defenses when he is the clear number one or two threat on the floor.
Most Bucks fans will always have at least a little bit of soft spot for Ray Allen--how has he fit into the Miami attack? How different is the supporting cast from the group that helped win the title in June?
When first acquired, Ray Allen was seen as an addition to the "big three," a "big four" if you will. Although he hasn't quite graduated to that level of productivity, Allen (and most of the rest of the team) can be counted on to spread opposing defenses. This leaves the lanes open for penetration for the three principals (and an improved Mario Chalmers, dishing out 11 assists with one turnover on two occasions this young season after not having had more than eight in any game throughout last season).
It's never bad when you can start an NBA game with the league's career three-point leader sitting on your bench. Maybe he's not a lock for the sixth-man-of-the-year award, but he's certainly a leading candidate for the honor. Incidentally, he has nailed 21 of his first 41 three-point attempts this season, a 51.8 percent clip.
One of the most impressive parts of the Heat's championship season was how well they defended despite playing most of the season without a traditional center. However, their defensive numbers have been way off in the early going this season--what gives?
The Heat boasts the NBA’s number one offense, scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions. This superiority lends them a little elasticity when it comes to shutting down opposing offenses. The defense allows 107.2 points per 100 possessions, in the bottom sixth of the NBA. The only true center on Miami’s roster is Joel Anthony, and he’s only played 35 minutes through the first 11 Heat games. I can’t honestly say if it’s a change in the philosophy of coach Erik Spoelstra or if it’s a more organic, devil-may-care attitude on the part of the five on the floor. This will be a secondary concern for the Heat as long as the points for average remains four or larger than the points against average (103.5-99.1, at latest count).