The Bucks aren't getting any worse, but they're unfortunately also finding new and increasingly agonizing ways to lose. Falling short at home to an undermanned Thunder squad? Disheartening. Allowing the Cavs to come back from a double-digit deficit and win on a buzzer beater by Mo Williams? I mean...come on. That's like the ultimate nightmare for any self-respecting Bucks fan. And so in keeping with the last week of Bucks basketball, that's exactly what happened.
Playing without Andrew Bogut (back spasms), the Bucks held things together for three periods but reverted to their now familiar Three Stooges offensive routine down the stretch, and it was their old friend/nemesis Mo who sunk the final dagger, sticking a step-back 22-footer in Brandon Jennings' grill to send the Bucks to their fourth straight defeat 83-81.
Bogut's absence meant a starting nod for Jon Brockman, which in turn meant the scoring burden fell even more on the backcourt than usual. Not an ideal scenario for an offense that has been utterly brutal even with their only low post threat in the lineup, and early on both teams struggled to find a rhythm in their halfcourt sets. The good news was that Salmons got off to a good start with a tough jumper and a triple in the first four minutes, but Jennings was useless, clanging his first five shots before scoring his only points of the game on a long three near the end of the period. He redeemed himself somewhat by pestering Mo Williams (2/7, 4 pts in the first half) and collecting a pair of blocks I didn't really notice, but alas, the second half was a different story.
The second quarter saw the Bucks starting to make jumpers for a change, which on this night was enough to gain some temporary breathing room. Corey Maggette and Larry Sanders (yes, he actually played and acquitted himself well) each stroked a pair of catch-and-shoot numbers while the Cavs struggled to get anything going, turning the ball over too easily and settling mostly for contested jumpers. That also made Bogut's absence less of an issue, as the Bucks gang-tackled the defensive boards and let J.J. Hickson try to convince himself he's a perimeter player (hint: he's not).
The tide began to turn behind Williams' resurgence in the third. For one he started making jump shots, which for all his struggles this year shouldn't be too surprising--he's been doing it for years. But even when he wasn't shooting he was putting pressure on the Bucks' defense, getting into the lane and finding open teammates on the perimeter--something the lightning quick Jennings has been maddeningly incapable of providing lately. Williams scored 13 in the third, though Skiles' wise decision to bring on Dooling (nine points in the final six minutes of the period) for Jennings allowed the Bucks to hang on to a three point edge going into the final quarter.
A three point play by Dooling and a jumper from Salmons extended the Bucks lead to 75-68 with 9:30 remaining, but that's when they closed up shop for the night and the Cavs went to work. Cleveland ratcheted up their defensive pressure on the perimeter, and as we've often seen, the Bucks simply didn't know how to respond. Dooling began misfiring, Salmons yet again turned into an offensive dead end, and Jennings was glued to the bench until Skiles finally pulled the fatiguing Dooling with a couple minutes left.
As always seems to be the case, the Bucks had their chances late as Antawn Jamison, Mo, and Daniel Gibson all missed good looks to break an 81-81 tie in the final two minutes. But Salmons was shut down and forced into a travel on one possession, missed a thumper on the next, and Maggette surprised Drew Gooden with a pass in close quarters with just under 24 seconds remaining. So the moral of the story is that Maggette might as well shoot, because none of his teammates will be expecting a pass. The Bucks took their foul to give with five seconds remaining, but Mo then waved off a screen and instead drove and pulled back for his dagger against Jennings, a fitting punctuation to Williams' domination of his younger opponent (1/10 fg, 3 pts, 4 ast, 2 stl, 2 blk, 1 to).
Keyon Dooling. Dooling wasn't quite as good as Jennings was bad, but he still had easily his best game in a Milwaukee uniform. That might seem like faint praise given how abysmal his first month has been, but he really was refreshingly good. Playing mostly at his more customary PG spot, he didn't waste time pounding the ball into the ground, instead combining confident shooting with some aggressive play in transition and a couple of attacks to the heart of the defense. Dooling's looked out of place playing SG alongside Earl Boykins, so I'm hoping tonight is the beginning of a trend: less Earl at the point, more of Dooling playing well.
Larry Sanders. Sanders started quickly with an early up-and-under and then a pair of jumpers, a much needed boost in a first half that saw the Bucks yet again struggling to get anything going offensively. Of course with the good also comes the bad: buoyed by the confidence of hitting a couple shots, Sanders seemed intent on jacking up a shot whenever he touched it from there on out, throwing up a contested 22-footer and an ugly brick off the side of the backboard on an ill-fated baseline turnaround. He also tried a couple of wayward sweeping hooks out of the post, though I'd categorize that as an improvement on his usual tendency to always shooting turnaround jumpers. Variety is the spice of life, Larry.
Defensively, Sanders used his length pretty well against both J.J. Hickson and Antawn Jamison, swatting the latter's first three point attempt into the stands and avoiding the kind of pump-fake baiting he's otherwise liable to get exposed on. Not a perfect game, but definite progress for the rook.
Luc Mbah a Moute. I don't think Mbah a Moute should be starting at small forward, but I won't fault him for the effort and aggression he put forth tonight. He rebounded well and had a number of strong takes to the hoop, cracking double figures for the first time in six games. But a game-worst -15 differential? Yeah.
81. The Bucks failed to crack 81 points for the third time in as many games, strengthening their vise-like grip on 30th place in the offensive efficiency standings. I'd be much more worried if the Bucks were scoring but not defending, but that doesn't make the Bucks' offensive struggles any less comical.
8. One major problem with the Bucks' offense in 10/11: they're not taking care of the ball anymore. Last year the Bucks ranked fourth in turnover rate, but they entered the game on Wednesday just 22nd. So it was at least somewhat encouraging to see the Bucks cough it up just eight times along with their so-so 18 assists--the first time they managed an assist:turnover ratio of better than 2:1 since opening night in New Orleans.
13. The Bucks led much of the game, but once again couldn't make shots when it mattered, wilting in the fourth quarter and making just one field goal in the final nine minutes of the game.
Same old defense. The Bucks surrendered some easy transition buckets early, but they kept things together and overall did well forcing Cleveland into mid-range shots and keeping them off the boards (just four offensive rebounds). That's generally an effective strategy, and particularly impressive given their leading rebounder and shot-blocker was in street clothes. though Williams and Gibson found their range as the game went on.
Short bench. With Bogut joining CD-R and Delfino among the ranks of the injured, Skiles had little choice but to shorten his bench, as Earl Boykins was the only healthy Buck not to make an appearance. But despite playing just four subs, Skiles got 40 points from his bench and all of them had +5 or better differentials.
Maggette played. I don't know why Skiles couldn't find more than 15 minutes in three of the Bucks' previous four games, but he tried to make amends tonight with 32 minutes. Maggette wasn't great, but he put pressure on the Cavs' defense, drew a slew of fouls, and was generally a positive factor on the court.
Jennings. The Bucks' starting guards each deserve mention for their negative contributions, but I'll start with the bricklaying Jennings. The obvious problem was his 1/10 shooting, but to me that masks a bigger problem with Jennings' ability to run the offense of late. He's certainly not the only problem--Salmons is getting way too many isos and starting Mbah a Moute at SF kills the Bucks spacing--but Jennings has also been abysmal in P&R and far too often dribbles out the shot clock ineffectively probing the defense or inexplicably picking up his dribble 35 feet from the hoop. Most conversations about Jennings focus on whether he's a "true" point guard or just a scorer, but too often he's been ineffective in both respects. For all his speed, he rarely beats his man off the dribble and he's an absolute disaster shooting the ball from mid-range (26% on 16-23 feet).
Salmons. I've been bemoaning the Bucks' insistence on running offense through Salmons even as he struggles, and down the stretch it was more of the same. Salmons actually had his moments earlier in the game, so in that sense it was a bit more understandable that Skiles kept calling his number in the fourth But down the stretch he was locked up by Anthony Parker and spent most of his time running down the shot clock while dribbling around under pressure. Salmons had two chances to give the Bucks a lead in the final two minutes, but he traveled after picking up his dribble with two minutes left and missed a tough jumper with just over a minute remaining. Salmons' season in a nutshell, isn't it?
Bogut and Delfino. They didn't play, and it certainly didn't help. The Bucks finally released some real information on Delfino's injury tonight, and the good news is that he's 90% free of concussion-like symptoms (whatever that means). The bad news is that he's probably a couple weeks from returning.
Bogut's sore back appears less serious, so there's a good chance he'll be back in time for Friday's game in Detroit. Still, it's always worrying to hear about Bogut's back given his injury two years ago. I'm guessing there's no correlation, but during times like these it's easy to be paranoid, isn't it?