Didn't see that one coming, eh?
Yes, the Bucks have been getting their act together of late, but that doesn't mean a rational observer would have granted them much of a chance at winning either of the two games they play this week in Texas. Consider: The Mavericks (19-4 entering tonight's game) and Spurs (20-3) sport the two best records in the league, and between them had not lost in 17 games. Until tonight at least. And while the pundits may consider both teams too old and flawed to play for a championship in June, that doesn't mean the Bucks were going to find anything easy about beating them in December.
After a sluggish start, the Bucks got a good look at just how the Mavericks had won 12 consecutive games, when the combination of Dirk Nowitzki's inimitable shot-making (30 points, Shawn Marion's still boundless energy, the penetration of J.J. Barea, and some stifling defense staked Rick Carlisle's bunch to a rather commanding 42-22 lead midway through the second. It's not that you'd expect the Bucks to give up at that point, but pragmatically speaking a team like the Bucks doesn't make up a 20-point deficit on the road against a team like the Mavs.
But Dallas may have gotten a bit smug at that point, and the Bucks simply kept working and began to pick apart the Dallas defense. Keyon Dooling found Andrew Bogut for a dunk and then converted off his own miss after Brandon Jennings stole the ensuing inbounds. And all the tough shots that Dirk and co. were hitting in the first 18 minutes suddenly went slightly askew, while the Bucks began to chip away. Dooling finally found some luck playing next to Jennings, making us forget about Luke Ridnour for at least a night with 16 points on shots and no turnovers, including a series of key plays that kept the Bucks in it and then helped clinch it.
Trailing by nine at the half, the Bucks made their move in the third, due in part to Skiles' decision to change things up at the start of the half. Ersan Ilyasova and Chris Douglas-Roberts were rewarded for their good first halves by starting in place of Larry Sanders and Luc Mbah a Moute, respectively, and they wasted little time in helping the Bucks erase a nine point halftime deficit. The tone was set immediately when CD-R slashed to the cup first in transition for the hoop and foul, and he followed it up by drawing a bail-out foul and a couple throws on the next possession. Jennings also got to work, shaking off a slow start to score ten in the period--two threes and a pair of nice drives to his left.
The two teams were now trading leads as the third quarter ticked down, but the Bucks didn't back down even as Dallas seemed to wake up from their slumber. It didn't seem like Nowitzki could miss as he splashed in an open spot up three to give the Mavs a five point lead, but he gave it back just as time was expiring in the third when he fouled a streaking Dooling in transition. To compound the problem, he turned it into a three point play when he was T'ed up for arguing a non-call on the other end, handing the Bucks a surprising one-point lead going into the fourth.
But while the Bucks led heading into the fourth, it didn't take them long to both show their nerves and resolve. Jennings began the period in facepalming fashion, aimlessly pounding the ball into the ground until being forced into a desperation heave at the shot clock buzzer, and the Bucks looked a bit confused as Dallas mixed in some zone coverages with their usual man-to-man set. But Bogut and Drew Gooden got free for tip-ins on the Bucks' next two possessions before a fifth foul sent Bogut to the bench with eight minutes left.
Like the rest of Bucks Nation, I made a snarky comment when Jon Brockman surprisingly replaced the Aussie, but it turns out Skiles knew what he was doing. Perhaps out of loving homage to the Hack-a-Bogut strategy used by the Magic last week, Skiles had Brockman foul the 26% shooting Brendan Haywood on consecutive possessions, and he promptly rewarded the Bucks with four straight misses. Brockman also helped in an airball just as the shot clock was expiring, but Skiles thankfully didn't push his luck and brought back Bogut, who surprised everyone by overplaying the ensuing inbounds play, picking off the pass, and coasting in for a breakaway dunk that restored the Bucks' one point edge.
And surprisingly the Bucks didn't stop there. Salmons and Ilyasova each tripled to make the lead 97-88 and complete the 14-0 run, though the Bucks then went into their more familiar shell and nearly gave it away in the closing stages. Dallas was forced back out of its zone on the defensive end and punished the Bucks' increasing attention to Nowitzki on their end, as both Terry and Kidd got open for threes that narrowed the Bucks' margin to three. Some poor clock management by Jennings and Ilyasova then set up Dirk's difficult, off-balance potential game-tying shot from the lane with 10 seconds left, but Mbah a Moute bothered him enough to force the miss and Jennings rose to grab the rebound. Dooling then calmly drained both of his free throws to seal it, as the Mavs could only hoist a wayward three in the waning seconds.
Andrew Bogut. While Jennings' third quarter awakening coincided with that of the Bucks, Bogut was fittingly the Bucks' anchor all night, scoring eight of their 15 first quarter points, dominating the boards (14), and keeping the offense chugging with his passing from the high post. Dallas was doubling on most of Bogut's regular post touches, but he did well recognizing the extra man quickly and then moving off the ball to get into good spots where his teammates could find him for easy looks. So while Bogut was ultra-efficient from the field (10/12), it had much more to do with working the glass and letting his teammates locate him in good positions than beating up on Dallas' big men in the post.
Brandon Jennings. The kid started the game inauspiciously by clanking a series of jumpers from mid-range and letting the elder Kidd beat him off the dribble, but Jennings was distributing well from the start and then got his own offense going in the third. Jennings was feeling it from long range (3/4) but was also taking advantage of Dallas' step-too-slow P&R defense, getting to the rack time and again when Dallas couldn't prevent him from turning the corner as he dribbled to his left.
Keyon Dooling. We easily could have gone with the more efficient CD-R here, but I'll give the nod to Dooling, whose 16 points (4/10 fg, 3/4 threes, 4/4 ft), four assists, and no turnovers included a number of big plays that helped the Bucks stick around and eventually put the game away. His three with less than two seconds remaining in the first half kept the Bucks within nine at the break, and he followed it up by drawing a transition foul on Dirk near the third quarter horn to boot. When Nowitzki got a tech for bickering he turned it into a three point play that gave the Bucks the lead, and he later sealed it with two free throws that provided the final margin.
9/13. A regular offensive effort was never going to get it done in a gym like this--particularly given the Bucks' low standards for "regular"--and there is nothing regular about hitting 9/13 from deep. Hey, whatever it takes. Only four Bucks attempted threes but all of them made 50% or better, and many of them were rather huge.
54-36. Big night from the bench, with Dooling, Douglas-Roberts, and Ilyasova all bringing much-needed energy and shot-making, and deservedly seeing increased minutes in the second half. In fact, Skiles to his credit went with CD-R and Ilyasova over Mbah a Moute and Sanders to start the second half, and they responded by helping turn a nine point halftime deficit into a one point lead going into the fourth.
14-0. A lot of things could have happened with the Bucks down five with just under seven minutes left in the game, but going on a 14-0 run? Not at the top of my list of things that could have happened next. It started with the attacking of Brandon Jennings, continued with finding Andrew Bogut in good position, and concluded with a pair of big threes--one from the otherwise ice cold Salmons from the left wing and a contested corner triple from Ilyasova on the right.
Signature. A blowout win in Atlanta had been the Bucks' "signature" road win up until this point, but that will probably now take a backseat to beating the red-hot Mavs in a building that has generally been very unfriendly to the Bucks. Milwaukee's goal for December is survival, which starts with beating the teams you're supposed to beat. And with wins against the Dwight-less Magic, Pacers, and Rockets, the Bucks did just that over the last week, even if they were less than convincing in each.
But looking at the schedule you knew the Bucks probably needed to steal at least one or two in order to avoid falling more than five or six below .500. Thankfully, they got their steal out of the way early, which will hopefully mean added confidence--in addition to some margin for error--the rest of the way.
Movement. The Bucks had their usual trouble spots, but more often than not they were active both in passing the ball around and moving off the ball to get open or collect offensive boards. Bogut responded crisply to the frequent doubles he was seeing, Ilyasova was flashing towards the hoop, and they pushed the ball when possible to get out in transition. I was also impressed by Jennings' increased passing once he made it into the paint--normally that's when he's made up his mind that a shot is going up.
Bench. Bogut and Jennings were predictably the stars yet again, but there's no way the Bucks scrape out a win if not for the bench's huge night. Ilyasova's game has made major strides after a slow start, but Dooling and CD-R were also equally important--Douglas-Roberts for getting the Bucks back in it in the third quarter and Dooling for stepping up with big plays late in the second, third and fourth quarters.
Always be closing. The Bucks needed a nine point lead with 3:10 remaining in order to barely hang on in Big D, which isn't that surprising given how they struggled to put away the Rockets, Pacers and Magic last week. Dallas amped up their defense, but the Bucks also looked nervous, as Ilyasova and Jennings both settled for rushed shots too early in the clock in the final two minutes, while Salmons missed badly and was then stripped on consecutive possessions beginning at the 2:30 mark.
Bogut at the line. One step forward, one step back. Bogut was just 1/6 from the line, the only blemish on his 21/14 line.