Milwaukee will get its leader back on Tuesday, which means the next few weeks prior to the All-Star break are going to be vital for perhaps the Eastern Conference’s biggest underachievers.
The Bucks, considered to be a team on the rise after finishing last season at .500 and taking a couple of games off the Bulls in the playoffs, opened the season 0-3 and were 11-18 when Jason Kidd took his leave on Dec. 21 to undergo hip surgery, getting a metal prosthesis inserted to ease his stiffness and pain.
“I think people from the outside thought it was just going to be automatic and we’d pick up from last year,” Kidd told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Expectations were a lot higher. But also, we had new pieces, with Jabari (Parker) being one of them, and Moose (Greg Monroe). Our defense did take a step back. Sometimes, you have to get games under your belt and see the good and bad and hopefully make the adjustments. As you can see, the guys are starting to play as a team.”
Assistant Joe Prunty fared slightly better than Kidd upon taking over on an interim basis, but Saturday night’s 116-89 loss in New Orleans dropped the Bucks to 8-9 (10-7 ATS) under his guidance. Once again, the Bucks failed to defend the 3-point line and went into lulls offensively.
Kidd has expressed his displeasure with the team’s defense and will look to place more of an emphasis on that end of the floor upon his return against Orlando. The under prevailed in six of Milwaukee’s 11 wins when Kidd was at the helm, so look for his return to be a major catalyst in the team picking up its attention to detail at that end of the floor.
Milwaukee gave up 100 or more points in 13 of the 17 games where Prunty filled in. The situation has been so poor that 116 scored by the Pelicans over the weekend ranked as only the fourth-highest total given up during his stint. Houston and New Orleans combined for 32 3-pointers in handing the Bucks their last two losses.
Michael Carter-Williams was expected to lead the charge in taking a step forward in his own development, but he’s been wildly inconsistent. Having Kidd back can only aid his development. He’s averaged 11.3 points in January, but comes off his best shooting game of the season, going 9-for-12 in New Orleans. If the Bucks can get him going, they will have a decent shot at righting the ship and coming through on their short-term goal.
“We would like to finish on a high note before the (All-Star) break and then come back after the break ready to make a push,” Kidd said.
Following Tuesday’s home date with Orlando, Milwaukee faces a back-to-back on Thursday and Friday, visiting Memphis and returning home to face injury-riddled Miami. The Bucks open February on the West Coast for games at Sacramento, Portland and Utah, a stretch that will be followed up by a few days off and home dates with the Celtics and Wizards.
Clips cautious with Griffin: L.A. power forward Blake Griffin was expected to be back in action this past weekend, or at the very least, ready to go as the Clips closed out a five-game Eastern road swing. Neither happened.
Griffin was sent home to L.A. despite the organization stressing the change in plans was not setback-related. He won’t play in stops at Indiana and Atlanta and is considered doubtful for a meeting with the Lakers on Jan. 29. The earliest he’s now expected to return would be Sunday afternoon for a showdown with Chicago.
Griffin hasn’t played since posting a Christmas night double-double in helping rout the Lakers, suffering a partially torn tendon in his left quad. The Clippers won the first nine games without him, but enter the week with losses in three of their last five as his absence has begun to catch up to them.
Sunday’s 112-94 loss in Toronto was the team’s worst of the season, so it’s going to be interesting to see how Doc Rivers prepares his team to bounce back as they wrap up the road trip with a Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back against the Pacers and Hawks. Both teams have winning records, which is of importance since the Clippers haven’t seen many teams with more wins than losses throughout Griffin’s absence. L.A. is just 2-2 against teams over .500 without their star power forward.
Given the stiff competition for reserve spots in the West, odds are great Griffin’s run of five consecutive All-Star nods will end on Thursday despite averages of 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists over 30 games.
My reserve spots would go to San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Golden State’s Draymond Green, Clippers point guard Chris Paul, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Houston’s James Harden.
Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook have already been announced as West starters.
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Dwyane Wade and Kyle Lowry will start for the East.
My choices for reserves would be Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, Chicago’s Pau Gasol, Miami’s Chris Bosh, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Washington’s John Wall, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan. The game will be played at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday, Feb. 14.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].