What’s up with the Bucks?

John Salmons has the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs this season.

The Milwaukee Bucks are going to be in the playoffs this year. The boys from Wisconsin, who haven’t played into May since the 2005-2006 season, are playing better than anyone could have expected them to at the beginning of the year. Currently in fifth place in the East, the Bucks are slated to draw a first-round matchup with either the Boston Celtics or Atlanta Hawks, who are tied for third place.

What has accounted for the Bucks’ surprising and sudden transition to a postseason-caliber team after being assumed lottery players for three years? Well, certainly very few expected rookie Brandon Jennings to play superhuman basketball at the beginning of the season (and still-above-average basketball, especially for a rookie, now). And certainly very few expected former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut to be posting 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks a game for a cool PER of 20.6. But they’re not the true reason for the Bucks’ absurd play.

No, John Salmons is responsible for that.

Since acquiring Salmons prior to the team’s February 19 contest against the Pistons, Milwaukee is a stunning 16-4. During this span, Salmons has averaged slightly over 20 points per contest after putting up about 14 a game with Chicago earlier this season. He showed flashes of this scoring ability in Sacramento and Chicago last season, but after an inauspicious start to the current campaign, I expected it was just a fluke. He can really score the ball, has meshed well with Jennings in the back court, and gives Milwaukee a reliable late-game jumpshooter after Michael Redd went down with a season-ending injury.

Speaking of which, credit the Bucks’ front office for not folding the cards after that and selling away the season. They went out and made a deadline deal to keep themselves competitive, and now they figure to be at least competitive in the playoffs. With six scorers averaging in double figures, they have a balanced offense.

The emerging problem? Are they deep enough up front with Bogut, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kurt Thomas? That will be definitely be problem against every single one of the teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.

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NBA Today: March 29

  • The day after I write about Vince Carter’s importance to a successful Orlando playoff run, he leaves the team’s game with a sprained toe.
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Game of the Day: March 29

Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks — 8:30 PM eastern, telecast on NBA TV

This should be a good one. The two teams  jockeying for second-place position in the Western conference square off Monday in what could very well be a preview of a postseason series.

Neither team has been playing its best of lately. The Mavs are 6-4 in their last 10 and have been blown out by two lottery teams in the New York Knicks and New Orleans Hornets during that stretch. The Nuggets, 5-5 in their last 10, have also lost to the Knicks. Otherwise, their losses during that stretch have been to playoff teams and Houston, which has a remote shot.

The Mavericks are considered by many to be the only team capable of dethroning the Lakers before the NBA Finals after their deadline trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood.

But beating the Nuggets requires stopping Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.

Shawn Marion will draw the assignment on Melo, who has been held to under 20 points in both games against the Mavericks this season. Billups has played in only one game against Dallas this season, scoring 6 points on 6-of-8 shooting.

Up front, the Mavericks will get a break with Kenyon Martin out injured for Denver, so Dirk Nowitzki will be able to minimize effort on defense against the non-threat Johan Petro.

Off the bench, expect Jason Terry and J.R. Smith to put up a handful of points. Don’t be surprised if Rodrigue Beaubois does, too, coming off a 40-point performance against the Warriors last night.

The teams have split their series thus far, and I think the Mavericks emerge victorious in this one. Nowitzki should play heavy minutes and put up a lot of points, but Dallas’s defense is what should do the trick. Haywood should have handle on Nene at center, and Jason Kidd can still play decent enough defense to prevent Billups from going off.

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