Larry Sanders was a giant tonight, and his performance should command attention no matter the outcome of the game.
But when it's December and you have half as many wins as losses, and the only reasons to celebrate after a game are the accomplishments of a raw rookie, it gives the feeling that (even if you are not) you are following a lottery team. Which is an awfully frustrating feeling for a team that was built to win (not a championship, but to win) now.
Sanders blocked eight shots in 33 minutes and produced the defining moments of his young basketball career in the third quarter when he blocked Carmelo Anthony's layup attempt, won a jump ball, and then on the very next possession blocked Anthony again. Anthony was hit with technicals for dissent after each block (both of which appeared legitimate on replays), and so the opposition's star scorer was kicked out of the game. Best of all, the Bucks were still very much in the game, down 68-65, and primed to steal another one in Denver.
But just like when the Thunder came to the BC without Kevin Durant, another team playing without a former scoring champion stepped up and outscored the Bucks. Which, to be fair, doesn't require a scoring champion or anything close to it.
The Nuggets did score 60 in the second half, as the Bucks still can't score consistently and are finding it harder and harder to stop others from doing so without Andrew Bogut in the middle, even on a night when the fill-in center blocks eight shots.
And that's just the thing: A lot had to go right just to lose by 11. Sanders stepped up in a huge way, Anthony was ejected, John Salmons actually had a good shooting night, Corey Maggette returned in fine form, and the Bucks started off hot from outside and even took a lead into halftime.
But Milwaukee can't win even against teams playing without their star player, and they certainly can't seem to win without their own star player.
Larry Sanders. Hit or miss. Miss or hit. Expect that for the next six to eighteen months from Sanders.
Sanders missed everything in Utah -- he missed all of his shots, missed out on tons of rebounds, and missed defending the paint.
Then he went to Denver for his greatest hit. He went to Denver, and out-Birdman'd the Birdman in his own coop, and single-handedly (literally) got Carmelo Anthony kicked out of his own home.
Opposing center Nene Hilario put up a game-high and season-high 28 points, as Sanders lacked the weight, muscle, and discipline to hang with one of the perennial leaders in field goal percentage. But he certainly put an end to merely showing "flashes" on the defensive end.
And he combined his best defensive game (eight bocks, two steals) with his best offensive one too (14 points on 5-10 field goals, 4-5 free throws).
John Salmons. Stuck a couple threes early, kept his hands up on defense, and finished with a respectable statistical line that includes 21/4/3 on 7-15 shooting, 3-6 on threes, three steals, and a block.
That sounds like a lot of activity for someone who at times looks awfully slow out there. At one point in the third quarter, J.R. Smith flew in for a one-handed tomahawk slam, and then on the ensuing possession Salmons slowly traversed the painted area and barely lifted off the ground for a layup attempt in traffic that hit all backboard. The contrast in both style and substance was striking.
But in the end, Salmons scored more than Smith (21 to 20) and did so on fewer shots (15 to 16). Salmons was the savior when Bogut went down last season, whereas this time around he seems more like part of the problem. He is probably never going to be quite Spring 2010 Salmons again, the way it all came together. But more nights like tonight, even if they are somtimes aesthetically frustrating, are welcome.
Corey Maggette. Vintage Maggetteball tonight, with 17 points on 5-10 field goals and 7-10 from the stripe. Better passing than usual (four assists to one turnover), but worse rebounding (zero). In the end, the only good player off the bench for the Bucks, the only decent player off the bench for the Bucks, the only not bad player off the bench for the Bucks, the only...
8. Worth a reiteration or three, Larry Sanders blocked eight shots in his third NBA start, which is more than premier shotblocker Andrew Bogut has blocked in any single game in more than five NBA seasons.
4. Milwaukee totaled four assists in the entire second half after assisting on 15 of 20 field in the first half. Larry Sanders had as many blocks as the Bucks had assists in the second half.
3. The starting forwards, Ersan Ilyasova (2-9) and Luc Mbah a Moute (1-2) totaled three field goals combined in 50 combined minutes.
Future frontline: Bogut/Sanders. Can almost picture the possibilities.
Maggette's return. We didn't know for certain before the game whether Drew Gooden would play, and you would be hard-pressed to know after the game whether he actually played (he did), but at least one wounded Buck is back in form. Maggette was not a game-changer, but did his thing offensively to help keep the game close.
Carmelo kicked-out. Sort of a fun couple minutes there. Also of note: Luc Mbah a Moute did not play after Anthony was ejected.
Beginning of the end. After taking a five-point lead to the break, the Bucks gave it away by allowing 31 points in the decisive third quarter but still only trailed 76-71 entering the fourth.
But Brandon Jennings watched from the bench as the Nuggets scored the first seven points of the final period, effectively ending the game. Jennings came in and scored six points in less than a minute to bring the Bucks within six points, but that is the closest they would get.
He needs rest at some point, and ultimately minutes are minutes and it doesn't matter when he plays them, but it's hard to avoid noting this one game after the Bucks trailed by nine entering the fourth with Jennings on the bench and the Jazz started the final period with nine straight points to effectively end that game.
Bad even when good. Keyon Dooling led the team with a +5 differential, made 2-4 threes, and had a steal off the bench, but he also turned the ball over three times, and like most on the team, even the good is coming with a fair share of bad.
Arresting Brandon's development. Before the year (and even during the beginning of the season), Jennings talked about wanting to average 10 assists per game. That was never going to happen. That is probably never going to happen. Steve Nash, Deron Williams, and Chris Paul are the only three players to average 10+ dimes in a season over the last eight seasons, and they are the three best point guards of this century.
Brandon doesn't have their court vision, but you have to wonder how much it would even matter if he did. He is currently tasked with directing the most inept offense in basketball, flanked by what has been a flat-footed, crooked-shooting shooting guard (though Salmons was mostly on tonight), the (pronounced thee) worst offensive starting small forward in the league, and two starting post players who haven't the slightest idea how to post up.
He still needs to improve on his shot selection (and pass selection), he is no longer a rookie, and a lot of things rightfully should fall on him. But it's almost a lost offensive cause at this point, and he is certainly forced into taking at least some of those bad shots when there is no one to pass to. Jennings continues to look improved pushing and passing the ball in transition, and finishing at the basket, but the half-court offense is an untenable situation.