Milwaukee & Cleveland Put Up A Fight In The NBA East

The NBA’s Eastern Conference is marked by a steep drop-off after the top six teams, creating a tight race among mediocre teams for the final two playoff berths. And situated right in between well-publicized Eastern teams in Boston and New York, are small-market hubs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Each team is coming off a big weekend win, with the Cavs beating the Celtics in the Garden last night, and the Bucks knocking off the Lakers at home on Saturday. Milwaukee and Cleveland are each 8-11 and tied for the 8th spot in the East. Today, TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at both.

Milwaukee: I’m going through the Bucks first, because they’re the least likely of the two to keep this going. Andrew Bogut, their 7-foot center, is absolutely critical to their success and he’s now out indefinitely with an ankle injury. Bogut is not a superstar, with an 11 points/8 rebounds per game average, but he at least gave the team a low post presence. Now a bench, which wasn’t deep on the frontline to begin with, is going to worn thin. The inside burden will fall to power forward Drew Gooden, who is a poor man’s Bogut, and 24-year old Ersan Ilyasova, who now has the chance to make a name for himself.

Brandon Jennings is the star of the show under any circumstances and the point guard averages 20 ppg. At 23, Jennings is set to become a fixture in the league for a long time and it remains to be seen if the Bucks can get the talent in place to keep him happy and in town. His running mate is Stephen Jackson, a non-descript performer at age 33 who shouldn’t be in the starting lineup of any team with playoff aspirations. Mike Dunleavy Jr. plays the small forward spot and averages 10 a night, but shoots sub-40 percent from the floor.

Ultimately shooting is a big problem for this team. The Bucks have no one whose reliable as a three-point gunner. Jackson and Dunleavy should be fined if they ever launch a three-ball and while Jennings’ 35 percent is acceptable, it’s a real problem when he’s your best option. In fact in general, it’s a basketball truism that your point guard shouldn’t have to be your lead option when it comes to taking shots. Jennings clearly is for Milwaukee, so if that truism is accurate, it’s a big problem for this team. For the record, I’m not sure if I buy into theory completely, but I see the logic behind it, and it certainly applies in a case like this where there’s simply no other good options besides Jennings.

Now that I’ve carved up the Milwaukee personnel let’s take a look at some positives and it starts with the bottom line. They’ve won four of their last six and it’s not because the schedule got easy. In addition to the Lakers, Milwaukee won on the road at improving Houston, they won the road at New York—which admittedly is not a tough game, but it’s a team the Bucks have to beat out if they’re going to make the playoffs—and they won at Miami. The losses were more than respectable, coming to Atlanta and on the road in Chicago.

The reason is defense. Head coach Scott Skiles is doing a terrific job at getting this team to play together defensively, and they’re 4th in the league in defensive efficiency. How much of that can be sustained without Bogut is another question, but give the coaching staff some props and give the players high marks for effort.

Coming up this week, Milwaukee has to show they can take care of business against the dregs of the East, when they play two games against the Pistons, including a home date tonight. They’ve also got considerably tougher home games with Miami and Chicago.

Cleveland: The Cavs are the mirror image of the Bucks. While Milwaukee looks terrible on paper, but puts it together with defense, Cleveland looks pretty decent when you go player-by-player, but they are not getting it done on the defensive end.

Kyrie Irving, the 19-year old point guard from Duke who went first in last June’s draft, has lived up to his press clippings, averaging 18 ppg and being a viable three-point threat. I’d like to see more assists from Irving, but at 5 apg he’s not bad, and as his supporting cast improves, the assist numbers surely will too.

Irving is joined in the backcourt by veteran Anthony Parker, a regular on the best teams this franchise had in the LeBron Years, but at age 36, he’s nursing back problems and hasn’t produced all that much when healthy. Cleveland could use Daniel Gibson or Ramon Sessions to really stand up and claim this job, but so far neither has distinguished themselves.

The forward spots are in steady hands. 35-year old Antwan Jamison can still score, and he has the ability to step out and hit from downtown, giving Irving an added weapon off penetration. Jamison is joined by 6’11” Anderson Varejao, averaging a double-double per night. Where Cleveland is lacking is that no true center draws any significant playing time.

Cleveland’s bounced back well from a tough mid-January stretch where they lost games to Chicago, Atlanta and Miami, and they win at Boston has the chance to be a signature moment for this team. The Celts make a return trip to Cleveland on Tuesday night, an opportunity that will test the Cavs’ maturity. Can they make it two in a row against a team they need to beat? The schedule around the corner doesn’t get easier, with Orlando, Dallas, Miami and the LA Clippers coming up in succession.

In comparing the two teams, I like Milwaukee’s overall profile better because of the defense, but at this point in the season I think Cleveland has much better prospects moving forward. The individual talent suggests the opportunity is there for the team to gel, while the Bucks are already probably playing about as well as they possibly can. Cleveland’s still healthy, while Milwaukee is not.

If either team made the playoffs, it would make for a potential rivalry battle in the first round. Milwaukee could be paired up with Chicago. And I don’t know if the media would notice, but a Cleveland-Miami series would involve LeBron James taking on his former team. Sarcasm aside though, for both teams, just getting into the postseason would constitute a huge win in of itself and even winning a single game there would be even better.