Apologies for the lateness of the recap, my power went out last night after the game and I couldn't publish until today. Forgive me, BrewHoop nation!
The theme for the Bucks' trips to Indianapolis this year? How about...good enough.
Back on December 21, the Bucks winning any game on the road was a big deal, yet there was still something wholly unsatisfying about their 84-81 slug-it-out win at Conseco. Sure, the career-high 31 points from Andrew Bogut were great, but a parade of bricks from the foul line nearly spoiled it all.
Scoring wasn't a problem this time around--both teams were well above their season averages with around 120 pts/100 possessions--but once again the Bucks were forced to escape with a narrower-than-necessary win. After finishing 2009 on a four game losing streak, the Bucks are now 17-10 in 2010, 9-3 in February, and winners of five in a row overall and on the road.
A seesaw first half saw the Bucks trail by six early on as Bogut picked up two fouls in the first five minutes and Brandon Jennings once again struggled to find his shot early on. But as per usual, the supporting cast was there to pick up the slack. Ersan Ilyasova showed why the Bucks were unwilling to deal him as part of a package for Troy Murphy, scoring 13 of his 17 points (7/9 fg) in the first half. No, he can't really put it on the floor or score out of the post, but a big who rebounds, runs the floor, and drills spot up jumpers doesn't need to do everything well.
A big third quarter saw the Bucks lead by as many as 16, as they turned the screws a bit on defense and a continued balance attack on offense earned them a 12-point edge going into the final period. But the Pacers weren't quite done yet. Luther Head scored the first five of the fourth, fellow reserve Roy Hibbert scored on consecutive possessions in the post, and Murphy drilled two threes (just about straight away, his fave spot) to cut the lead to just three with 2:14 remaining.
Fortunately, the Bucks' little guys were turning it on at the right time, especially given Indiana's understandable decision to double Bogut every time he got the ball in the post. Luke Ridnour stroked three jumpers in the first half of the fourth before passing on the baton to Jennings, who shook off his usual cold start to drill three big shots down the stretch. Jennings and Murphy traded misses in the final 90 seconds before Earl Watson's improbable tip-in cut the lead to just two with 32 seconds remaining, but Salmons drove and drew a foul with 12 seconds left and calmly stroked both free throws to restore the Bucks' four point lead. Nice to have a slashing guard to bail you out in those situations, isn't it?
Things got a bit hairy in the final 10 seconds when Luc Mbah a Moute tangled with Danny Granger on a catch-and-shoot three pointer, but Granger was dreadfully short on his first freebie and Jennings made both of his free throws on the ensuing Bucks' possession to restore the four point lead. The Bucks' only job after that was simply not to foul and hope the Pacers missed, but Ridnour was whistled for slapping Ford on a corner triple attempt with just 1.5 seconds left. It looked like Ford stepped on the baseline first, but what fun would that have been? Ford made the first two but his intentional miss was handled by Ridnour as time expired.
Bullet dodged, streak extended.
Andrew Bogut: 24 min, 15 pts, 7/9 fg, 1/1 ft, 10 reb, 2 ast, 2 blk, 3 to
After watching Bogut dismantle Hibbert in previous outings, Jim O'Brien changed things up by starting Murphy at center. The strategy required the Pacers to double Bogut on the majority of his low post touches, but it also forced Bogut to spend much of his time on defense checking Murphy near the three point line. Considering the job Bogut has done rebounding and defending the rim this season, that's not exactly ideal, and some nagging foul trouble further limited Bogut's impact.
Fortunately Bogut was exceptionally efficient every time he did get a one-on-one chance, and as usual he protected the cup ably when the Pacers' guards began to have success getting to the rim.
John Salmons: 35 min, 20 pts, 5/12 fg, 1/3 threes, 9/10 ft, 2 reb, 1 ast
Salmons defended reasonably well and scored efficiently, hitting only 42% of his shots from the field but adding 9/10 from the stripe. Given the Bucks' non-Bogut offense is almost entirely based off ball movement, Salmons' ability to create off the dribble has become a crucial pressure-reliever. A week ago I would have preferred Salmons opt out of his $5.8 million option for 10/11, but based on early returns I'd be perfectly content to have him stick around.
Luke Ridnour: 27 min, 12 pts, 6/11 fg, 8 ast, 3 reb, 2 to, 2 stl
Ridnour finished with a team-worst -7 rating but he carried the second unit during key stretches of the first half and early fourth quarter.
7. It was all about balance for the Bucks, as seven hit double figures and made the job of picking just three Bucks to highlight extremely difficult.
35. The Pacers didn't shoot well from the field but made up for it with a big night from the line, hitting 35/44 from the stripe. Jennings had trouble keeping Ford in front of him all night, and the former Longhorn made 11/12 on the evening. Seems like we haven't complained about the Bucks' free throw deficits too much lately, but old habits die hard, eh?
10-9. It seemed like the Pacers were pretty careless with the ball much of the night, but the box score shows both teams took good care of the ball, the Pacers turning it over just 10 times and the Bucks nine times. Am I taking crazy pills here?
Road warriors. The Bucks have now won won five in a row overall and five in a row on the road as well--pretty crazy considering the Bucks' consistent struggles away from the BC over the first few months of the season. Granted, the Bucks haven't faced the toughest road opponents of late--Indiana, New York (twice), Detroit, New Jersey--but there's something to be said for taking care of business.
Guards stepping up. It was vintage Jennings in the fourth, as he shook off a bad shooting night to hit a trio of clutch jump shots. Ridnour also had his jumper going, hitting 6/11 from the field and playing the final 15 minutes.
Standings. The Bucks are miraculously above .500 again, and at 29-28 are now a half game ahead of Miami for 7th in the conference and 1.5 games ahead of Charlotte (now 9th).
Closing out. First off, let's be clear: unless somebody gets injured, I always feel good about road wins. That said, it's also not encouraging when a 16-point lead is almost completely erased by a bad (but explosive) Pacer team. Fortunately, the Bucks held their composure and--unlike their last trip to Indiana--made free throws down the stretch. Disaster averted.
Bogut doubled. The Pacers had no intention of defending Bogut straight up, instead bringing a double almost any time he began to back down. Given the way Bogut dominated Hibbert the past two meetings I couldn't fault O'Brien for trying something new with a small but swarming lineup, and it almost worked. Even with the Bucks continuing to move the ball well, Indiana did a pretty good job rotating and recovering and limited the Bucks to just 26 points in the paint. That's well off the whopping 72 the managed against New Orleans and also short of the 38 they score on average (26th in the NBA).