ST. FRANCIS, Wis. Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles was brutally honest Monday when asked about the Bucks' challenge of guarding second-year Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving, who Milwaukee will see tomorrow night in its preseason opener. He hasn't forgotten how that task went last season.
"We had a terribly difficult time with Irving last year," Skiles said Monday. "He pretty much owned us. He's a very, very good player. It's somebody we've got to be much more competitive against. ... We've got to do a much better job at containing him. He was in the paint and making his perimeter shot. He pretty much had his way with us last year."
As a rookie, Irving certainly left his footprint on the league, and against the Bucks, that footprint was especially noticeable. Healthy for just two games against Milwaukee last season, Irving turned in two of his four highest scoring outputs of the season against the Bucks, tallying 28 and 29 points and shooting better than 55 percent from the field in both games.
And with the Bucks traveling to Canton to meet the Cavaliers on Tuesday to open their preseason slate, Irving will certainly be a tough challenge again for Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings, who Skiles says has clearly improved defensively.
As far as litmus tests go, Jennings' defensive effort Tuesday could speak, at least somewhat, to his improvement on that side of the ball. The young point guard said Monday that he's specifically worked on being more aggressive and containing quick defenders, something that should come in handy in a tough division for guards.
"Our central division is filled with guards," Jennings said. "We've got probably the best backcourt in the NBA on the east coast. Cleveland, they have Kyrie Irving. Detroit, they have (Rodney) Stuckey and Brandon Knight. Chicago, D-Rose. Our division is really tough."
Harris at the 3?: When asked about whether Tobias Harris would open the preseason as the Bucks' starting small forward, Skiles was particularly vague in his answer.
"I might (start him)," he said.
Judging by the scrimmage rosters during training camp, however, it seems Harris will be the likely choice for the spot at least for now with Mike Dunleavy coming off the bench in a sixth-man role and Luc Mbah a Moute sidelined, still recovering from his knee injury.
Harris has shown a great deal of potential in the summer and preseason, having dominated the Las Vegas Summer League and impressed coaches by working out more than any other Bucks player in September. But without much serious experience guarding small forwards in the NBA, Harris' defense is still a work in progress.
"He's trying to go from a poor defender to a mediocre defender to a good defender, and those things take time," Skiles said. "The three-men at this level, they're moving all the time, they're coming off of screens, they're on the board, they're doing all kinds of things. He's gotten better at it, but now he just needs to keep trying to improve and hopefully in these exhibition games he can get some minutes and get better at it."
Harris has, however, spent plenty of time in practice guarding Dunleavy, who Skiles said provides a realistic idea of how many of the perimeter small forwards in the NBA should operate this season. Still, there's significant improvement to be had in Harris' second season.
With Harris' defense still progressing, the immediate future at the small forward position remains unclear, as Harris could put himself in a good position come the start of the regular season if he proves to be effective on defense throughout the preseason. Still, with Mbah a Moute not yet in the mix, Skiles hasn't given many hints as to what he's expecting out of his three-men this season.
Big man rotation: The sheer amount of big men in Bucks training camp has been a constant topic of conversation this preseason, and Tuesday, the picture in the frontcourt may get slightly clearer with game action.
Still, expect Skiles to experiment with lineups quite a bit in the team's exhibition games. He acknowledged Monday that he could even play a handful of big men in one game and another group in the next game, if the situation called for it.
"I'm going to kind of go game by game," Skiles said. "I'll make some decisions later on tonight about exactly what we want to do tomorrow, but with so many guys, it doesn't make sense to give everybody 10 minutes in a game. It's possible we do that maybe the first game or two, but at some point, the guys you intend on playing the most have got to get more minutes as the exhibition season goes on."
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