Defense first helps Milwaukee Bucks start fast

Associated Press photo by Jonathan BachmanNew Orleans' Ryan Anderson shoots the ball over Oklahoma City's Nick Collison Friday in New Orleans. The Thunder won 110-95.
Associated Press photo by Jonathan BachmanNew Orleans' Ryan Anderson shoots the ball over Oklahoma City's Nick Collison Friday in New Orleans. The Thunder won 110-95.

NEW ORLEANS — The Milwaukee Bucks ended last season with a 31-35 record, out of the playoffs and amid speculation that their starting backcourt — Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis — could not coexist.

It’s still early, but this season looks much more promising for the Bucks, who enter tonight’s home game against the Hornets with a 5-2 record and hope. And, Jennings and Ellis are showing it is possible for two guards who want to shoot — a lot — to play together.

Jennings and Ellis talked before training camp on how to make things work smoothly. However, much credit should go to coach Scott Skiles. Skiles changed the team’s mindset to more of defense first, pushing offense on the back burner just enough.

Now, more of the team’s offense is generated by its defense. Although Milwaukee is only 15th in points allowed, the Bucks are third in the NBA in steals (9.6 per game) and eighth in forcing turnovers (16.7), a big reason they lead the league in assists (24.3) and are eighth in field-goal percentage (45.5 percent).

Jennings leads the league in steals at 3.14 a game, and Ellis is averaging 1.57, fueling the team’s transition game.

“I think it’s just active hands, just being defensive-minded first,” said Jennings after the Bucks beat Indiana 99-85 on Thursday in Milwaukee.

But what’s been just as impressive has occurred on offense.

Jennings, a 6-foot-1 point guard who was known for his affinity for launching 3-point shots, is averaging 7.9 assists and shooting a career high 46.7 percent, along with scoring 16.9 points per game.

Ellis, who at 6-3 aggressively attacks the basket and was expected to be a dynamic point guard for his former team, the Golden State Warriors, leads the Bucks in scoring (20.0) and is contributing 5.4 assists per game.

Skiles maximized their effectiveness by positioning Jennings, a left-hander, where he can do a lot of things offensively going to his left, and Ellis, who is right-handed, where he can do a lot going right.

Turnovers has been an Achilles’ heel for the Hornets this season. And, tonight’s game will be the second of a back-and-back scheduling situation. Meanwhile, the Bucks have had two days off, waiting to pilfer.

Demps deal

The Hornets announced Friday the team has signed General Manager Dell Demps to a multi-year contract extension. Terms were not released.

Demps was hired the summer before the 2010 season and is in his third season with the
Hornets. New Orleans made the playoffs in his first year after missing it the previous season.

Demps, 42, received wide acclaim for turning over the Hornets roster in favor of young, energetic players who can play coach Monty Williams’ defense-first style. The moves also freed the Hornets from costly contracts that did not result in a high-level of play.

“It’s unbelievable,” Demps said before Friday’s game against Oklahoma City, thanking team owner Tom Benson and Hornets Executive Vice President Mickey Loomis.

“We have a plan, working with coach Williams, to achieve the same success (as the Saints), and we want to see these young players grow and compete together.”

Demps shaped the team’s basketball future while the franchise, which was overseen by the NBA, searched for a new owner. Benson purchased the team earlier this year.

This offseason, the Hornets drafted rookies Anthony Davis, No. 1 overall, and Austin Rivers, 10th overall, and brought in forward Ryan Anderson and starting center Robin Lopez.

Different pace

The Hornets had four days of practice before Wednesday’s game against Houston. The previous week, they had an off day and two days practice before their game against Philadelphia.

Williams said that time was critical coming at the start of the season, saying it was like an extended training camp that allowed him and his coaches to continue teaching and to clean up mistakes.

“The good thing about having the extra time is that you can watch film, then show them on the court a lot more than when you are playing a lot of games in a short period,” Williams said.

Whither Eric Gordon

Eric Gordon is in Los Angeles rehabilitating his sore right knee, but he crossed Williams’ mind after the team’s 100-96 loss to the Rockets in Houston.

Asked on Thursday for an update on Gordon’s status, Williams said he had brought the guard’s name up the previous night.

“I talked to Eric; he’s doing his rehab, (and) it’s still four to six weeks, as far as I know,” Williams said. “When we cut it to four (points), it was prime time for Eric to take over, and now we can just ride him. And even if it was close, like a one-point game down the stretch, you feel you have a chance if you can give him the ball, and if he doesn’t get something, somebody else will.

“I told the coaches (Wednesday night), if we had Eric last night, you never know.”

Something brewing

The Hornets obtained guard Matt Carroll from the Charlotte Bobcats in a trade Tuesday in exchange for forward Hakim Warrick.

However, Carroll still hasn’t reported to the Hornets, fueling speculation that another move is afoot, or perhaps a contract extension or buyout is being discussed.

Demps shed little light on the situation before Friday’s game against Oklahoma City.

“We’ll have a resolution on that in a couple of days,” Demps said. “We’re looking at a few options now that I can’t get into. We talked to Matt and his representatives, so we have an agreement, so there’s no deadline, there is no (he) has to be here. He isn’t violating any rules. Right now, no decision has been made.”

On Thursday, Williams suggested it was an altruistic move made in fairness to Warrick, aside from bringing in an extra 3-point shooting threat for a team that has struggled scoring, particularly with Gordon out.

“(Warrick) has performed well enough to play,” Williams said. “We just have a lot of players at (the forward) position. And this being his last year (on his contract), we wanted to give him the opportunity to play.”

Football fan

Count Williams among fans caught up in Notre Dame’s gridiron resurgence this season.

Williams, a 1994 graduate of Notre Dame, was asked if the Fighting Irish would win its remaining games, including the huge one ending the regular season against Southern California, and position itself for a shot at the national championship. Or, whether it would stumble.

“I mess with a lot of people around here, because their football programs can’t compare to ours,” he said. “So, we most definitely will win out, though that’s not popular in LSU country. The Irish will win out, and I will gloat. Just letting you know.”

Williams said he had friendly wagers with Hornets players., including some curious ones. He has one with forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who played at Wake Forest, who play the Irish at South Bend, Ind., today.

“Chief is excited about the game this weekend,” Williams said. “But I warned him, you have to take the flags off when you play against Notre Dame.”