MILWAUKEE -- "We really moved the ball well again."
After nearly every game in recent weeks, these have been the words that Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles chooses to explain how his team once again totaled more than 30 assists that night.
For a Skiles-coached team that only one year ago was known for its stifling defense but poor offense, this year's Bucks are an offensive juggernaut by comparison. Much of that is due to the fact that this year's group has been sharing the ball and distributing the offense equally on a whoever-is-open-gets-the-shot offensive philosophy.
And while the Bucks were good in the assists category nearly all season, they have taken it to another level since acquiring Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh in a trade from Golden State. Since these two began wearing a Milwaukee uniform on March 16, the Bucks are the very best in the NBA in assists, averaging 27.3 per game.
"We have a lot of guys that can score the ball and a lot of guys that share the ball," Ellis said. "We just play as a team and everybody takes shots when they're open and makes plays for others."
It's paid off in the win column as well, as Milwaukee is 9-4 since the trade.
All of these assists have been partially a result of a faster style of play since Andrew Bogut fractured his ankle -- and was subsequently traded a month later. The Bucks are second in the NBA in scoring since adding Ellis and Udoh with 105.9 points per game and are third in field-goal attempts.
"We've had a lot of good ball movement this year," Skiles said. "It's taken a tick up a little bit in the last couple of weeks, but we've had a lot of good unselfish play. Even when we weren't winning (earlier in the season), the guys have done a nice job of moving the ball this year."
While Milwaukee's up-tempo game has increased its assists and scoring, it hasn't negatively affected turnovers as the Bucks are the best in the league at assist-to-turnover ratio.
"That's been happening the last couple months, the fact that we've just been moving the ball well and finding everybody," point guard Brandon Jennings said. "Guys are open and guys are making shots. Our offense is better than it was before."
Last season, Milwaukee was last in the NBA in assists, points and field-goal percentage. Going from worst to first means there is plenty of credit to go around, but the addition of sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy -- whom Skiles called "one of the league's best offseason acquisitions" -- has been a huge help to the Bucks' offense. Dunleavy's career-best percentages in 3-point and field-goal shooting have helped space the floor very well when Jennings and Ellis are penetrating.
"We thought being last in the league in offense last year was just an anomaly, we didn't think that would happen anyway," Skiles said. "Then, with some of the new personnel, we thought we would be a better offensive team. We thought maybe we could from a last place team to maybe a top 10, 12, 15 type team, and obviously we've done that."
That goal has more than been reached.
Throughout Ellis' career with the Warriors, he was mostly known as just a scorer. Though his assists were at a career-high level prior to the trade, Ellis has come to Milwaukee and been facilitating the offense very well. He is shooting 3.5 shots less per game and his scoring is down from 21.9 points to 16.6, but his teammates have been impressed with him in other ways.
"He's more a passer, to me, it seems, than scoring," Jennings said.
Jennings explained that Ellis' shoot-first mentality in Golden State "was just the style of the offense he was in."
Bucks starting center Drew Gooden added that he "knew (Ellis) was an underrated passer."
In Ellis' highest-scoring game with the Bucks -- a 33-point outing in a win over the Atlanta Hawks -- Ellis also had eight assists, which led Skiles to call it "a very unselfish game for a plus-30-point game."
That compliment really struck a chord with Ellis.
"I never got credit for anything else that I did but scoring," Ellis said when told of Skiles' comment. "With this team, we pass the ball so well, why not continue to pass it?"
The ball movement in Milwaukee's offense seemed to baffle Udoh, who was part of the trade that brought Ellis to the Bucks. After a recent game, Udoh said he wasn't accustomed to a team that was so willing to pass the ball.
What makes Milwaukee's league-best assist rate is that it's not just been one player racking up huge assist totals. Whereas Rajon Rondo accounts for more than half of the Boston Celtics' assists, the Bucks are doing it by committee. Despite leading the league in assists since the trade, the best Milwaukee player in that area has been Ellis, who ranks 23rd in the NBA in assists with 5.5 per game. Two spots behind him, reserve guard Beno Udrih has 5.3. One spot behind Udrih is Jennings with 5.2 assists per game.
"We don't have selfish players," Udrih said. "It doesn't matter where Brandon and Monta are in assists. It's why I always thought basketball was a team sport and it doesn't matter where each player is individually, it matters what the team does."
That mentality has been working well for the Bucks. Now at 28-28 and just one game behind both Philadelphia and New York for the seventh and eighth spots in the Eastern Conference postseason race, if Milwaukee can finish their final 10 regular-season games like they've played in recent weeks, the Bucks' unselfish play will result in achieving their No. 1 goal this season -- making the playoffs.
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