NEW YORK — When New York Knicks public address announcer Mike Walczewski introduced Greg Monroe to Madison Square Garden before the Bucks’ 99–92 win Friday, the Milwaukee center heard a chorus of boos usually reserved for the Knicks’ fiercest rivals. Monroe, of course, spurned the Knicks this off-season, choosing to sign a three-year max deal with the Bucks.
Shortly after the boos, Monroe silenced the New York faithful with his play. Milwaukee fed its new big man early and he scored six points in less than five minutes on the court. The five-minute display was just a microcosm of what Monroe has brought the Bucks this season, as he entered Friday night averaging more than 19 points and nine rebounds per game.
Monroe, who starts at center, was often miscast in Detroit, where he started his career on a team eventually playing too many big men. Now, Monroe looks at home on the block with Milwaukee.
“I’m very comfortable here,” Monroe told SI.com before the game. “I was comfortable in Detroit also, but I like the team we have here. With the different people we have, the versatility, I’m interested to see how good we could become.”
Monroe showed some versatility on the offensive end. His first two buckets in the game came off jumpers a little above the elbow, before he went right back in the post for another score. The midrange game is a point of emphasis for Monroe, who is trying to stretch out as far as the 18-foot range. The added space in Monroe’s game could help open up the Bucks’ offense, for which shooting could be an issue as their young players develop.
Monroe will have to continue hitting jumpers to earn the respect of defenses. The Knicks hung back on pick-and-rolls whenever Monroe was the screener, forcing the Bucks to find other ways to penetrate the lane. Monroe’s second jumper was the result of him acting as a release valve on a drive that got stuck in the paint.
Monroe’s hot start in New York eventually gave way to some struggles. He exited the first quarter with two fouls, then seemed to grow agitated with the antics of Knicks center Robin Lopez, whose boundless energy clearly frustrated the Bucks center. Monroe finished the game with only eight points, never again finding his rhythm amid foul trouble and unlucky rolls off the rim.
“Robin is known for being a very good defender. Greg had some great looks, I think he got mad at himself for missing some of those layups,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said after the game. “That’s just basketball. I don’t know if it’s so much Lopez, I think he got frustrated with himself. He understands when you put yourself in that position you have to find a way to get yourself restarted. We all have been in that position. It is tough.”
Monroe was upset he lost his rhythm. He felt his aggression wasn’t lacking, just his touch around the rim.
On the defensive end, Monroe was up-and-down Friday, at times struggling to keep track of Lopez. The Bucks held the Knicks under 100 points, a common thread to each of their three wins this season. Monroe said after the game the team will have to continue to win with its defense, something which Milwaukee excelled at before he got there. The Bucks were second in defensive rating in 2014–15, but that number has slipped considerably in a small sample size of six games.
Last season, Milwaukee used a little bit more of a position-less approach, stockpiling players with length who could defend multiple positions. With Monroe in the game, the team has adopted a slightly more conservative defensive scheme. Monroe lingers in the paint when his man sets a screen, but he’s willing to be a little more aggressive if asked.
“I’ve been guarding smaller players the past few years, it’s something I’m used to,” Monroe said, noting his extensive time at power forward with the Pistons. “[But] knowing what I know now, I don’t think we’ll be switching with the five, unless it’s very, very late in the clock. But I have experience guarding smaller players on a nightly basis. I’m comfortable with it if they ask me to do it.”
Comfort is key with Monroe, who chose the Bucks over numerous suitors during free agency. He noted how much the team has improved since he faced it as an opponent last season. Monroe admitted to being more free after playing last season on a one-year contract. The security has eased the burden on his mind, but the new contract creates a different kind of pressure: becoming the leader of his team.
“I know [being a leader] comes with the territory but it’s not extra pressure,” Monroe said. “I want to be a leader, so I have no problem doing it, I’m just trying to set an example first, come in every day and do what I need to do. Hopefully that’s something everyone can pick up.”
If Monroe is the team’s leader, it will be on his shoulders to carry the team further in the playoffs. Last season, the Bucks gave the Chicago Bulls a scare in the first round, although their inexperience showed by the end of the series. Milwaukee hasn’t been out of the first round since ’01, when Kidd was in the prime of his playing career and Ray Allen was the team’s No. 1 option.
Of course, any team with serious playoff hopes knows it will have to square off with LeBron James, a concept Monroe is well aware of.
“It’s a known fact if you have aspirations of getting to the Finals in this conference, you have to go through LeBron,” Monroe said. “He’s shown that year in and year out. We have to focus on getting better. Whenever that time comes we have to prepare to win. At the end of the day, the games have to be played, and we feel like we have a chance. But that’s a long way down the road.”