MILWAUKEE --The Bucks had the last week off, sure, but they looked more like a team that hadn't played basketball in years.
This was destined to be a close game. A couple of supposed overachievers (read: experts got it wrong) sans their star shooting guards of yesteryear, both the Bucks and Rockets entered the night a game and a half out of the final playoff spot in their respective conferences. Mighty different conferences admittedly, but the home court advantage should have evened things out just right, right?
The first quarter followed, with four ties culminating in a 20-20 draw after 12 minutes in which Houston never led and Milwaukee never pulled away.
But mostly the night was two hours and eight minutes of disorienting deviations from the script, as it became increasingly difficult to figure out what exactly was happening on or off the court.
The strangeness all started with Brandon Jennings swishing jumpers (okay, okay) and then going to the locker room, cause for great alarm. Naturally, he apparently was inflicted with something of a coughing fit, and all was well in due time.
But he never really got it going again, no, the night shined on players like Chase Budinger, Garrett Temple, and Jermaine Taylor, who combined for 28 points on 12 shots.
Meanwhile, the Bucks were swinging a trade with a division rival, a team they were battling with for a playoff spot -- in other words, the least likely trading partner imaginable. That created a small buzz in the Bradley Center during the oddly high-scoring 37-32 second quarter.
After halftime the Rockets had enough of the competitiveness, and they proceeded to make seven three-pointers in a stirring four and a half minutes. A stunned crowd turned on their team as Houston turned a five-point halftime lead into a 34-point abomination by the end of a third quarter in which Milwaukee might as well have been cited for vagrancy.
Toward the end of that third quarter, Dan Gadzuric, backup big man with Kurt Thomas and Francisco Elson seemingly on the way out of town, came in and tried his hand at basketball but looked all too much like someone who had played about 17 minutes in the past month.
And so the Bucks brought Thomas back in for the fourth since Gadzuric was just that bad, and the trade was perhaps ready but not official, so why not get all of the Kurt Thomas while you still can? That's what the Heat, Mavericks, Knicks, Suns, Sonics, and Spurs have been saying for the last 15 years.
A week to relax, and the Bucks, just enervated. A night after losing in Houston, the Rockets, all energized. A confounding night in all, and not in a charming way. Yet while this game was a real loser, the trade at least signals the Bucks are trying to win, even if it didn't seem like that tonight.
Kurt Thomas. More than a fair farewell song (if it is so) by Kurt, who went out doing everything the team hoped for when he started: hitting the elbow jumper (4-6 from the field overall), rebounding (5 boards), even blocking a shot and not committing a turnover.
He was the team's biggest positive (+5 differential) so perhaps it's fitting that he was (okay, possibly) traded because he certainly didn't fit in on this night.
Luc Mbah a Moute. The swirling trade rumors preceding tonight concentrated mostly on the Bucks acquiring a starting power forward (Troy Murphy, Tyrus Thomas, etc.) so it was curious to see them swing a deal for a guard and send away a pair of big men, but Mbah a Moute was the least of the team's problems against Houston.
Houston cruised to 127 points, and every Buck was complicit in that, but at least The Principal continued his fine pre-All-Star-break offensive form by leading Milwaukee with 18 points, even tossing in a couple jumpers. He also made 6-8 at the line, and gathered eight rebounds (five offensive) in 27 minutes.
If Mbah a Moute becomes a passable offensive player, he is very much worthy of a starting role going forward.
Brandon Jennings. Facing one of the few starting point guards whom he boasts a size advantage over, Brandon properly lit the Bradley Center by firing in his first four shots for the team's first nine points. All jumpers, all pure. Primed for a big night.
And then, a cough apparently sent him to the locker room, and he played sparingly, contributed sparingly thereafter. Odd night.
70. Houston scored a mind-numbing 70 points combined in consecutive quarters, dropping in 37 in the second and then pouring in 43 more in a most unsightly third quarter.
69.6 %. Led by Shane Battier (6-6) and Trevor Ariza (6-7), the thoroughly unconscionable Rockets rained in 16-23 (.696) three pointers, leaving the Bradley Center crowd in a tizzy of gasps, oohs, and boos.
+143. Houston's starters (Battier +36, Scola +31, Brooks +29, Ariza +25, Hayes +22) combined for a +143 differential.
Johnny B. Alright. If there were ever a night that needed a distraction from the actual game, this was it, so the trade for John Salmons proved timely.
In the midst of his worst season since four mostly anonymous years in Philadelphia, John Salmons in essence netted the Bulls contracts, not players.
That first bit is the bad news: Salmons is in a 51-game shooting slump of sorts (42.0 fg%) and unfortunately he's never been enough of a passer, rebounder or much of anything else enough to make up for it.
Still, after four very respectable seasons of shooting the ball, you have to figure that his percentages will only rise just as Luke Ridnour's will only fall. This very well might qualify as a shrewd bit of buying low, and the proverbial cherry on top is that the Bulls appear to have surrendered this season with the future rightfully on their mind first and foremost. For the Bucks, a team obviously gunning for the eight spot, this trade canceled at least some of the many vibes.
Tonight the Bulls won and Bucks lost, perhaps both teams will come out winners in the trade eventually, but for now the 2.5 game difference still seems manageable.
Luc. Last five games: 13.8 points on 69.2 % from the field, ya dig.
Houston Rockets. That franchise is on top of things. Without Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady? With a 6'6" starting center and Garrett Temple? And they are competing in the west, and doing this?
Home court disadvantage. Two abjectly rotten performances at home in a row, and all you can hope is that the Bucks have hit the nadir and cannot help but spring back up. The Pistons loss was bad, hide-it-on-the-back-page stuff, this was a front-page disaster.
Boos greeted the Bucks on a couple of occasions in the third quarter alone, as the majority of the 11,658 fans stuck around trying to get their money's worth but it just never happened.
The road-weary Bucks played a nip-and-tuck, overtime affair in Houston, so this truly shocked.
Frontcourt depth. Let us hope, nay, pray, that help is on the way. The Bucks apparently agreed to trade Thomas and Elson during the game, and so they dipped into the frontcourt pool for five drowning minutes of Dan Gadzuric, who missed all three of his shots (including a particularly dreadful airball) and generally looked unfit for the NBA. Meanwhile, fellow frontcourt mate Ersan Ilyasova threw a couple airballs of his own on this night and finished with a -23 differential in 20 minutes.
If it's Thomas/Elson on the way out, is there another deal in the works?
All of the above. The starters, the bench, everyone contributed to the madness.
Andrew Bogut excels with rest, so of course he was hardly a factor (5-12 shooting, three turnovers, -22) after a week of rest and facing the likes of Chuck Hayes and David Anderson.
Carlos Delfino made a crosscourt pass to some guy in the stands, and January appears very much behind him, regrettably.
And in one of those blowout games in which you hope to at least say, "at least Jodie Meeks played well," he had four of his shots blocked on the way to a 2-11 effort, missed all four of his shots from distance, and it's not looking good despite his bursts to the basket.
Skiles summed it up after the game:
We continued to be flat-footed, and they just started drilling shots on us. Didn't have much of a response.