HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — His demeanor has shifted. The smile is gone.
The gravity of what Brandon Jennings and his Milwaukee Bucks are facing, down 3-0 to the defending champion Miami Heat in their first-round playoff series, seems to have set in for the brash young point guard.
That funny math he used to predict the “Bucks in six” has crumbled over the past eight quarters of this series. It’s no longer a laughing matter, not when your season and potentially your career in Milwaukee is potentially coming to an end.
Jennings has vowed to play until the final buzzer in Sunday’s Game 4, hoping to stave off elimination for at least one more games. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that this series is every bit the mismatch most of us thought it would be on paper. And it’s even tougher to avoid the obvious question that will linger between now and free agency for Jennings and the Bucks. Do they stick together after four extremely productive years for Jennings, a restricted free agent at season’s end?
He’s helped the Bucks to the playoffs twice, his rookie season and this one, and he’s shown his many critics that his decision to bypass college for a one-season detour in Italy did nothing to damage his NBA stock. But in a league filled with as diverse and talented a group of point guards as its potentially ever had, where exactly does a player like Jennings fit?
“Great question,” an Eastern Conference general manager said. “His rookie season I felt like he was going to join that group of elite point guards, especially after what he did to the [Atlanta] Hawks during the playoffs. He showed off playmaking skills and scored at will in the postseason, doing things you don’t normally expect from a rookie. And he’s been solid ever since. But I don’t know that he’s moved into that tip tier of point guards. He’s not there, not yet.”
Jennings has averaged an impressive 17.0 points, 5.7 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 291 career regular season games. Considered more of a scorer than a facilitator, Jennings has proven himself capable of handling both responsibilities for the Bucks. Still, there is some uncertainty about his desire to stick around in Milwaukee during what could be a complete rebuilding situation this summer.
His backcourt mate Monta Ellis can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. And Samuel Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy, Marquis Daniels, J.J. Redick and Joel Pryzbilla will all be unrestricted free agents this summer.
The Halloween deadline for Jennings and the Bucks to agree on an extension of his rookie contract passed without either side admitting that they were even close to getting something done.
That’s one reason why this series against the Heat is such a showcase event for Jennings. It’s his final platform before free agency to remind the league that he’s a player a franchise can build around. The upset guarantee and his 26-point effort in Game 1 was the ideal buzz and result for Jennings early on.
But he’s managed just 24 points in the two games since the opener, shooting 8-for-30 from the floor and 1-for-14 from beyond the 3-point line. The Heat have stymied the Bucks’ offense late in all three games, eliminating the pick-and-roll as an option for Jennings and Ellis when the game is one the line.
“One of the problems we have with that is our size in the backcourt,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “We’re not a big team. So when they are out there trapping and staying with the ballhandler like that, they are putting a lot of pressure on you, first of all. Secondly, they have good size. It’s easy for me stand up in the huddle and say ‘we’ve got to make a quick pass, we’ve got to move that ball and take advantage of them double teaming.’ But sometimes it’s hard to do. They are flooding the strong side and cutting off passing angles and it makes it difficult to find the right man, the open man, with a pass. It’s usually a cross court pass and those are always dangerous because of their speed and activity.”
This is one of the premier defensive teams in the league we’re talking about in the Heat, who boast quality perimeter defenders in not only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but also Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Ray Allen.
Chalmers and Cole have taken a particular interest in limiting Jennings, both of them no doubt smarting from the brash attitude and words Jennings has been sure to share with the world.
“They are really getting physical,” Boylan said. “It’s playoff basketball. So there is a lot more contact than in the regular season. And anytime we use any sort of pick-and-rolls, they are double-teaming him and putting pressure on him. That combination is difficult. And they are focused in on both [Jennings] and Monta. They did what they needed to do, be physical, be big and cut off those angles for finding people.”
At 23, Jennings is probably done growing. So there is nothing he can do about that size disadvantage and the fact that the Heat are executing flawlessly in wearing him down. But he has at least 48 minutes left to prove that his skill set can best whatever advantage the opposition brings to the show.
That Bucks in six stuff is obviously history.
Whether or not Jennings’ time with the Bucks is, however, … well, only time will tell.