Bucks duo of Jennings, Ellis are out to make a statement
The question, invariably, would come.
Scott Skiles' eyebrows would furrow at it. Monta Ellis' voice would rise, and he would answer quickly. Brandon Jennings, on the other hand, would smile a little, keep his tenor level, but give the same response over and over.
Fortunately for all three, the question is being put to rest – and it could be buried beginning tonight against the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat.
Through the better part of 20 games last year, all offseason, and into the early stages of this campaign, the trio were peppered with the question of whether or not the combination of Jennings and Ellis "could work" for the Bucks.
People were drawn to their height, to their scoring mentality, to whether they would buy into Skiles' defensive-minded approach.
"Just the fact that everybody doesn't want it to work, everybody thinks it can't work," Jennings said. "But I think we came to an agreement that we'll sacrifice just whatever to win."
So far, it's working. Through nine games, the Bucks sit at 6-3 and atop the Central Division. Ellis is scoring 21.4 points per game and Jennings is at 16.7. The two have combined to average nearly five steals per game.
Tonight though, the Bucks travel to Miami where reigning MVP LeBron James and former NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade await.
This is the Bucks first test of the season, the first real opportunity to push the narrative in a different direction.
Skiles, from day one, never understood why it was there to begin with.
"I don't know what people were saying last year," Skiles said. "I really don't know what everybody was saying about his transition here but I thought (Ellis) was comfortable last year. He and Ekpe (Udoh) both just kind of hit the ground running, you know? There hasn't been many times I haven't been pleased. I thought they played well together last year. There are issues there of course, but they both pass the ball, they can both score the ball. They play pretty well together."
Skiles isn't blind. He knows that the pair have, and will have, defensive issues against bigger, more physical guards. They don't shoot at the highest percentage. Yet they combined for 11.4 assists per game last year, and are at 13.5 this year.
It's something Ellis made clear the day he was acquired from Golden State – that he likes to pass – and he consistently railed against the notion the duo need to trade baskets in order for it "to work."
"We don't need to do that," he said. "We've got length now. We've got guys who we can throw the ball into who can score the basketball. We've got young guys who are hungry, who have talent. Me and Brandon don't have to score 25 points or 30 points to win. We don't have to do that anymore."
During one particular interview session earlier in the season, when asked the question – again – Ellis grew visibly perturbed.
"Everybody keying in on us, everybody making it out to be Monta and Brandon," he said, his eyes rolling. "But it's not even a scorer's standpoint. Everybody can score on this team. Everybody. If you look at it, all of 'em. All the big men. Small forwards. Everybody can score."
What is interesting is the different approaches the players and Skiles have taken to this.
The veteran coach just sort of shrugs his shoulders. Ellis fights it, insists he hasn't heard any negative talk about the pairing. Then there's Jennings, who freely acknowledges it, talks about it, and puts it out there publicly that he wants to prove such doubters wrong.
"I don't get into all that," Ellis said. "The only thing we can do at the end of the day is go out and play hard and leave it all on the court and try to get wins. I'm not here trying to prove nobody wrong. The only thing here is to help this team win. That's it. Proving everybody wrong really don't matter. The only thing we can do is prove it to ourselves and this locker room."
Ellis breathed in, pushing out his chest.
"That's going to be the biggest shock to the world is when we get out there and we play the defense and have those big guys back there all on the same page," he said. "Then, we just let it speak for ourselves. We don't have to talk. We don't have to prove nothing wrong. The only thing we have to do is just play our game and don't try to do too much."
Despite the differences in approach to speaking about "the question", they are all on the same page where it matters most – the court.
Skiles has done a good job in diversifying their minutes between having them together and apart. Jennings is playing at an extremely efficient rate while Ellis is just being, well, Ellis.
"Me and Monta talked about that at the end of the day, everything is going to fall back on us, the good and the bad," Jennings said. "So it's going to be up to us to set the tone for team and leave it out there every night on the floor. We just can't take days off."
We may be moving on from "the question" here in Milwaukee and embracing this team, but on a national level, games against Miami, Chicago, New York and Boston matter. If the things that have worked so well through the first nine games break apart over the next five, it will be asked all over again.
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