MILWAUKEE -- If the Bucks played against the Bucks, the Bucks might not ever score. As it stands, they hardly do anyway.
There are good games, and there are close games. Tonight clarified that the two are not inherently one in the same. This was a close game.
With Milwaukee's offense looking like (and actually being) the very worst of all, NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant picked a most convenient time to be held out of the game. But Milwaukee's offense at this point is more bad than its defense is good, and that is quite a feat to pull off.
The Bucks Drew Gooden scored six points in more than six minutes to open the game as the Bucks dug themselves an early 14-6 deficit. And that seemingly manageable eight-point difference proved too large for the offensively-inept Bucks, who never came all the way back.
James Harden, one of the league's least efficient starting guards offensively before the game, fired in three triples in the first quarter and led his team with 23 points. Meanwhile, counterpart John Salmons was held scoreless in that same first quarter, finished with nine points overall, and none of this paragraph is the stuff of résumé lines for the starting Milwaukee shooting guard.
Salmons wasn't the only Buck to struggle; on the contrary, Drew Gooden was actually the only Buck to not struggle, and even he finished 5-13 shooting, so it was just that kind of a night. Again.
The Bucks again struggled to reach 80 points, and they failed to beat an OKC team missing two starters, one of whom happens to be one of the top five basketball players in the world. Sure, they had just won in Boston the night before, and I don't really get how that happened (I can only assume it was the night for Boston to take their weekly game off), but the Thunder were running Eric Maynor/Royal Ivey/Thabo Sefalosha/D.J. White/Nick Collison lineups and the like at Milwaukee, and so there was really no excuse to lose this game at home.
The Bucks mounted a comeback late in the third quarter and the game was within half a dozen points throughout the entire final period. Brandon Jennings came alive with 13 points in the fourth, and Andrew Bogut also woke up (though he slept in for a long time before), but Jennings missed two game-tying three pointers in the final eight seconds of regulation.
Jennings hit a floater to cut it to 75-74 with 2:31 remaining. After a Harden three, Jennings drew a foul on Russell Westbrook while attempting a three-pointer, and Jennings made all three at the line to bring it back to within one. Then Bogut blocked Nick Collison's shot, and the Bucks had a chance to take their first lead since 2-0. But Jennings missed a jumper, Bogut missed the put-back and then Salmons threw the ball directly to Collison, who was wearing a clearly-identified blue Thunder jersey at the time.
After a couple Westbrook free throws, the Bucks got the ball back down three with 16 seconds. Jennings missed a three, but Gooden got the offensive board and so nearly almost put back an and-one. Instead, he made two free throws. Then the situation repeated itself: Westbrook hit two more free throws, Jennings missed a three to tie, and Gooden gathered the offensive rebound, this time laying the ball in, but with only a second left. So even when Eric Maynor missed both free throws, there was only time for Bogut to get the rebound and heave what the ESPN play-by-play box describes as such:
0:00 82-81 Andrew Bogut misses 84-foot three point hook shot
And that is just right, because it feels like every shot the Bucks take these days is an 84-foot hook shot.
Drew Gooden. A fourth really good game in a row for Gooden, and his only real failing in this one was realizing early on that he was just about the only player ready to play, resulting in a few instances of trying to do too much lowlighted by some over-dribbling and ill-fated drives. But he played the game with zeal, in spite of his drowsy teammates.
I'm not going to judge his 5-13 shooting effort too harshly when he totaled almost as many offensive rebounds (7) as missed shots (8).
Just two minutes into the second half, Gooden had drawn three fouls (of five) on Serge Ibaka, forcing the noted defensive ace to the bench until 5:07 remained in the fourth quarter. And if there was ever a team that needed to force an opposing team's best defensive player to the bench for more than 16 straight game minutes, it is these Bucks mid-November Bucks.
Gooden scored the team's first six points, last four points, and ended the night with 16 points, 16 rebounds, and the distinction as the only player on his team who played well.
Brandon Jennings. You only want your point guard finishing with an 8:1 field-goals-attempted-to-assist-ratio when he is making at least half of said shots, but Jennings only made one-third (8-24) from the field.
He forced some questionably long and difficult jumpers trying to spark a dormant offense early, as it was obvious from the onset that the team just didn't have any ideas on that end.
That falls partly on Jennings as a facilitator, but there isn't much to facilitate when your options are so, so meager. Salmons and Bogut joined Mbah a Moute as offensive no-shows for a good hour to start the game, Ilyasova isn't ever likely to be a post presence and is hit or miss from outside (and he missed all three from outside tonight), Maggette didn't make a shot, and pairing Jennings with Dooling in the backcourt hasn't quite harked back to the Jennings/Ridnour days of last season. That leaves Gooden, and not coincidentally the Bucks left with only two players in double figures: Jennings and Gooden.
Andrew Bogut. Bogut was the sixth worst Buck tonight.
11. The Bucks racked up 11 assists on 29 field goals, and they turned the ball over 15 times.
79. With seven seconds remaining in regulation, the Bucks were stuck on 79 points, an all-too-familiar position for a team that had scored exactly 79 twice in the past week already. Gooden put back an offensive rebound for a layup with a second left to push the Bucks all the way up to 81.
6. James Harden made six field goals -- all three pointers. He made 6-8 from long range and missed all five of his two-point attempts.
At least we got to see Kevin Durant on the court. Actually, Durantula did spend a bit of time on the court tonight, even though he was in a suit for his only trip to Milwaukee this season.
Specifically, he is the tall, thin guy in a black suit in the lower left corner of the photo at the top of the story. I didn't Photoshop him in there -- I just snapped this (in the waning moments with Milwaukee down 78-77) during one of the numerous times Durant walked onto the court to cheer on his team during the run of play. He did this enough times to elicit some calls to "sit down" from fans, including one in particular who was sitting just a few feet from me. Durant appeared to mouth "shut up" to that guy, which I found pretty amusing.
Close game at the BC. Milwaukee's two closest previous home games weren't really all that close: They lost by six to the Hornets, but they were down by double-digits for a good chunk of the evening and they beat the Warriors by seven, but they really controlled that one.
So this marked the first down-to-the-wire game at the BC this season.
Defending Westbrook. Kevin Durant is the best player on the Thunder and one of the five best in the world, but coming into tonight, Russell Westbrook was actually the one guy on OKC playing at an MVP-level this season. Westbrook came in with the second best PER in the NBA behind Chris Paul, averaging approximately 24/5/8, and it's hard to name more than a handful of better two-way players in the NBA going forward (try).
But the Bucks did well trying to keep him out of the paint, and Westbrook made just 1-10 jumpers, and just 5-18 from the field overall. He finished with a respectable 18/3/6 and coolly iced the game at the striple, but didn't exactly dominate things.
Threes bad. Both teams shot an equally atrocious 37 % from the field (the Bucks slightly better at .372 compared to .370), and both teams made exactly 20 free throws.
What really tipped the scaled in Oklahoma City's favor was that they made 8-14 (.571) three-pointers while Milwaukee made just 3-18 from long range.
The lack of outside touch is insanely frustrating for a couple reasons: First, the Thunder entered the game with the second worst three-point defense in the NBA, allowing opponents to make 41.9 %.
Secondly, this continues a trend of misfiring from deep. Frank noted after the Bucks missed all 12 three-point attempts in Philly that it was the third time this season that Milwaukee made three or fewer three pointers in a game this season after making at least three triples in every game last season.
For better or worse, the three-point shot was a big part of the team's offensive identity last year. The offense lived by it, and they died by it, but at least they lived by it. Now? The offense is just dead.
Depth. After using 11 players in the loss to the 76ers, Coach Skiles opted to try an eight-man rotation on the second night of a back-to-back. Skiles, after the game:
I intentionally tried to shorten the rotation tonight just to see if that would get them going a little bit. We are searching a little bit right now trying to find combinations and some consistent way we can play.
But none of the three reserves contributed much.
Ilyasova wasn't terrible in a bench-leading 25 minutes, but he remains off from outside (0-3 tonight after coming into the game shooting a career-worst 31.8 % on threes) and just doesn't seem to positively affect games like he did last season. Skiles seemed to make clear that he considers Dooling the backup point guard by playing Dooling 18 minutes and Boykins none, but Dooling is just bad so far this season, and the Bucks really could have used some quick points from Earl (two points would have done the trick). Maggette chipped in with his most anonymous game as a Buck -- three points on 0-3 in 14 minutes.
Slow start, slow starters. "Slow start" is probably both an understatement and misleading -- an understatement because the Bucks scored six points in almost seven minutes to start the game, and misleading because it implies that the beginning was the real problem. It was not. They scored 19 points in the first quarter, and then 18 and 19 in the next two quarters.
Gooden and Jennings were the only starters to score in the first quarter during which time seven Thunder players (Thunders?) got on the board. Mbah a Moute, Salmons, and Bogut were dreadfully unproductive throughout the entire first half, really. At halftime, that that trio of starters had twice as many personal fouls (6) as points (3). And dreadful is starting to sound like a nice way to describe their performances.
I get that Mbah a Moute is not only a defense-first player but an offense-never player -- it makes him a real liability, but I get it and I accept it. But Bogut cannot go to halftime without a point, and he cannot finish a game with zero free throw attempts. Yes, he was hampered by foul trouble, and he is obviously still in recovery from injuries, unfortunate as that is. But the team still isn't finding him in the post, and when they do, he isn't doing much of anything to complete the play.