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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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In Sports

Milwaukee Bucks center Ekpe Udoh closes out on Monta Ellis during a recent practice. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi )

Bucks expect a return to an elite defensive level


When John Hammond brought in Scott Skiles to coach the Milwaukee Bucks prior to the 2008-09 season, a point of emphasis was defensive improvement. In the two years prior to his arrival, the Bucks ranked near the bottom of the league in opponent's points per game: 23rd in 2007-08 and 27th in 2006-07.

Enter Skiles, and the team defense improved to 16th in the league that first season. The Bucks then took a huge leap in 2009-10 – the team's lone playoff season under Skiles – by ranking seventh in the league by allowing 96 points per game.

They also ranked second in the league in basketball-reference.com's adjusted defensive ratings, which is an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions and weighted with an opponent's offensive strength.

In 2010-11 the Bucks improved to third in the NBA in defense.

Then last year, as the team became the highest scoring squad in the Eastern Conference (fifth overall), the defense dropped to 22nd.

Heading into this season, Skiles said the goal was simple – maintain the offensive production, but improve the defense to a top 10, or top 5, level.

"Going into last season, one of the things we talked about with the guys, was could we keep our defense similar to the year before and get better offensively?" Skiles said. "And if we could do that, we would have a very good year. Well, we got a lot better offensively but we got a lot worse defensively. Now it's flipped. Now we'd like to keep our offense. We'd like to be a top 10 offensive team and then get our defense back to a level we need it to be at."

The result was the acquisition of veteran, defensive-oriented paint-anchors Samuel Dalembert and Joel Pryzbilla to compliment younger, athletic big men Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh and first round pick John Henson. Toss in the re-signing of Ersan Ilyasova and the return of a healthy Drew Gooden, the Bucks seem loaded for bear in the paint.

"We had to get some more size, some more length, we did that," Skiles said. "Hopefully we won't see a lot of the layup drills we were giving up last year."

In two of Skiles' previous four seasons, the Bucks have finished in the top 10 on the defensive side of the ball.

Could it happen again?

"Why not?," Ilyasova said. "It's always our mentality was as a defensive team. By offense you can win a couple of games but as a defensive team you can win championships."

Added Sanders: "I think the mindset for this year was definitely to be more defensively sound and I think that, especially down low, with anybody that comes in the game, with any combination, we'll be able to protect that rim."

The strength in the paint has been duly noted – and has been on display so far in the preseason – but for Skiles the defense starts at the top. The team has a goal of 25 ball deflections per game, which is something Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Beno Udrih, Marquis Daniels, Tobias Harris and Mike Dunleavy all have a major role in accomplishing.

The key to that, however, is not gambling unnecessarily. It's about playing solidly up front to allow the defense to set itself up, which is something Skiles said his backcourt has been good about so far through training camp and the early part of the preseason slate.

"The only thing we have to do is hold our man to four, five dribbles and if they go to the basket we've got the big guys back there to wipe 'em out," Ellis said. "As long as we don't open the door in for them to all the way to the basket and get our big men in foul trouble, that's the biggest thing we need to do, focusing on defense and getting our big men out of foul trouble."

The Bucks head into tonight's fourth preseason game against Memphis at the LaCrosse Center in LaCrosse having allowed 80 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 91 points to the Detroit Pistons and 100 points to the Chicago Bulls. It's been a solid start defensively for the team, blocking 27 shots and coming up with 23 steals while limiting those three teams to a 41-percent average (101 for 244) from the field.

"That's what we were missing," Ellis said. "We had Drew playing out of position (last year), guarding 5s, and now he doesn't have to do that. We have seven legitimate big guys who we can move around in that four and that five rotation and we can get productive minutes, scoring and defense every night."


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