1. Andrew Bynum has played double-digit minutes in 13 straight games, but his production has slipped of late, as he’s scored in double-figures just once in his last four games. Is Bynum a player Milwaukee needs to gameplan for, or is he still too limited to be a major factor in Friday’s game?
Nick Whalen, Behind the Buck Pass EIC: Not surprisingly, Bynum’s season has already included several peaks and valleys. He’s clearly not the player he once was, but on a certain nights this season he’s been an impact player, showing flashes of his former self. He strung together four games of 14 or more points at the beginning of the month, but his production has tapered off a bit of late. That said, I think he has a chance to be an impact player against this depleted Milwaukee front line. Neither John Henson nor Ekpe Udoh have the size to guard him – Henson is too slight, while Udoh gives up three inches – so it will be a matter of whether Bynum (and his knees) are up to the task of playing aggressively inside. When the two teams met on Nov. 6, Bynum was held to four points and four rebounds in just 14 minutes. He’s averaging over 20 minutes in the month of December, so I’m expecting a much better statistical output.
Trevor Magnotti, Staff Writer: I think that Bynum should have a decent game against the Bucks this time around. The Bucks are still without Zaza Pachulia as well as Larry Sanders, and that takes away both of their primary defensive threats in the middle. Zaza played outstanding in the last meeting, both in defending Bynum and outworking him on the glass. Without him, it’s up to Henson mainly to try and work against Bynum, and while Henson has a lot of talent on the defensive end, he’s simply not big enough to keep Bynum from backing him down. Bynum looked pretty bad last week prior to the game against Portland, but I think this will be a good game for him to correct things and get back on track.
Marlowe Alter, Staff Writer: This is a game Bynum needs to show up for. Henson could be an under-the-radar candidate for ‘Most Improved Player’ if he continues to build on his stellar season, but he’s giving up 60-plus pounds to Bynum in this matchup. If Bynum still thinks he can be a productive player, he must take advantage of this mismatch against the worst team in the NBA with an injury-riddled frontcourt.
2. Suffice it to say Kyrie Irving won the matchup with Brandon Knight in last season’s Rising Stars Challenge. But Knight is a physical, aggressive defender with great size. How can Kyrie control the matchup this time around? And, conversely, what can Knight do to slow down Irving?
NW: What makes Irving so difficult to defend is his rare blend of three-point shooting and elite ability to get to the basket at will. He’s shooting just 32.5 percent from beyond the arc this season (down from 39.1 percent last season), but he’s made 12 threes in his last four games. The key for Knight will be to limit Irving’s open looks on the perimeter, which means playing him tightly in the halfcourt and helping less. With a player like Irving the Bucks essentially need to pick their poison: help off and allow Irving to shoot; or guard him tightly and give up some open looks to Cleveland’s wings. I think the latter is the better option. Irving’s best bet is to rely less upon his jump shot and focus more on getting to the hoop. Henson is a fine shot-blocker, but with Sanders out of the lineup Milwaukee lacks an elite rim protector. Even if Irving doesn’t make the shot, Milwaukee allows the third-most offensive rebounds per game at 12.3.
TM: This is going to be a great game for Kyrie to attack the rim. Not only is he in a favorable matchup with Brandon Knight (Or at times, Luke Ridnour, which is even better), he also will benefit from the problem we discussed above. If the Cavs get Bynum going early, it’ll open up the lane a bit, because instead of stepping in and helping, Henson and Udoh will have to keep an eye on a potential dump-off to Bynum off a drive. Irving shouldn’t have much of a problem getting to the rim at all. Now, the Bucks can counter this by playing Kyrie tightly and forcing him to pass the ball off, or they can try sticking O.J. Mayo on him for stretches. However, as long as Kyrie is hitting his shots, which he didn’t in the last Milwaukee game, I can’t see a good way for the Bucks to stop him.
MA: Knight scored a career-high 36 points against the Knicks on Wednesday night. He’s shaken off the early season injury and looks to be rounding into form as the combo guard Milwaukee envisioned when they traded Brandon Jennings for him over the summer. Knight and Irving are the same size but Knight’s longer wingspan allows him to play off Irving and still give a good contest on any Irving jump shot. Without Larry Sanders patrolling the rim, I say Knight should play off Irving and force the Cavalier guard to beat him from the outside, something Irving has struggled with all season (though he’s shooting 41.9 percent from three-land over his past five games). As for Irving, I’d like to see him establish his dominance from the start. He should be aggressive like he was in the fourth quarter against the Blazers, when he drove the ball to the paint to create easy baskets for himself and his teammates.
3. The Bucks, statistically speaking, have issues with getting points on the board. Against Cleveland, is there a player who could have a big scoring night?
NW: Saying the Bucks have “issues” scoring the ball may be putting things lightly. They average just 90.2 points per game (last in the league) and shoot a downright horrifying 41.7 percent from the field (also a league-low). Brandon Knight had a big game against New York on Wednesday, but he hasn’t shown any signs of consistency this season, nor have any other Bucks outside of John Henson. With O.J. Mayo back in the fold following a one-game absence (personal reasons), I think he’s the best bet to be an impact player offensively, particularly since he’ll likely be defended by Dion Waiters for much of the night. Mayo has perhaps been Milwaukee’s most inconsistent player – he has eight 20-point games and 11 games of fewer than 10 points – but looking at this roster, it’s tough to really put faith in anyone else.
TM: The Bucks don’t really have a strong post scorer. Zaza is perhaps their closest thing to that, but he’s injured. Ersan Ilyasova can play well on the glass, but he’s been awful this season, averaging just 8/5 per game. This team’s really built from the outside in, and the Cavs should destroy them on the boards and in the post. Outside, the Bucks killed the Cavs in the last game with O.J. Mayo and Caron Butler hitting a ton of threes. Both of those players didn’t play on Wednesday against New York, however, and at least Butler will not suit up against the Cavs. Honestly, the only player who might be a real threat to the Cavs is Giannis Antetokounmpo, thanks to his weird combination of length and athleticism that will be a nightmare for the Cavs to guard. However, he’s not prone to huge scoring outbursts. I really just can’t see the Bucks getting a big night from anyone, mainly due to all of their threats being hurt.
MA: Mayo is the obvious choice because he’s the most skilled offensive player the Bucks have right now. He’s scored 20 or more points in six games this season, though he’s struggled lately. We all know Cleveland’s perimeter players (specifically Irving, Jack and Waiters) are poor one-on-one defenders. Mayo is surely emotional after his grandmother’s passing and I think he’ll play inspired basketball tonight. He goes for 20-plus in this one.