So let's put it to a vote: did the Bucks just get that stupid "signature win" everyone's been droning on about all season? Or does the other team need to show up for it to count?
For sure, the Bucks haven't come close to beating a team as good as Denver on the road, and after their improbable comeback on Friday night, Milwaukee probably shouldn't have felt too much pressure going into the finale of their three game Western road trip. Aside from the obvious challenge of facing an excellent Denver team with the league's second-best home record (30-5), the Bucks' key players were almost all coming off 45+ minute outings just 24 hours before.
And apparently the Nuggets were thinking the same thing, because 48 minutes of Charmin-soft defense and jump shots later, the Nuggets found themselves on the business end of a 102-97 loss that they thoroughly deserved.
The Bucks played Denver tight throughout the first half, had it even through 36 minutes and then managed to take a modest lead early in the fourth on jumpers by Ridnour and Salmons. Yet as enjoyable as it was to watch the Bucks giving the Nuggets all they could handle, to be honest I kept expecting Denver to mount a run. But it never happened--thanks to equal parts missed Denver jumpers and the Bucks always making plays when needed. Ironically, the Bucks did much of their work at the foul line (13 of their 23 free throws came in the final 8:29 of the game), as they were rewarded for attacking the Nuggets' shaky perimeter defenders.
To the Bucks' credit, they came out and executed offensively as well as you could have expected given the circumstances, shrugging off Andrew Bogut's first truly bad game in quite some time (1/3 fg, 2 pts, 3 reb in 15 minutes) thanks to 25 valuable minutes from Kurt Thomas (5 pts, 6 rebs, 2 blk). With Bogut sitting most of the game with foul trouble, Skiles also went small for extended periods (Ilyasova/Mbah a Moute up front), gambling that the Nuggets' size advantage on the glass would be offset by their lack of quickness on the other end. Not a bet I'd like to make every night, but you can't argue with the end result.
Chris Andersen (5 offensive boards, 12 total, 4 blocks) was particularly active cleaning up on the Nuggets' misses, but he also missed three putback dunks that in many ways summarized the Nuggets' inability to convert offensively. Mbah a Moute, Salmons and Delfino managed to make Anthony work for his 29 points, as the Nuggets' superstar shot just 10/29 from the field. It was a similar story for Chauncey Billups, who made an absurd 17/17 from the line but just 5/17 from the field. In the end, Skiles had the luxury of not even bringing Bogut back late in the game, instead rewarding the ancient Thomas for an excellent defensive effort against Nene (just 7 points on 7 shots).
And for a game that was close throughout, there was surprisingly little drama in the closing minutes. Anthony picked Salmons' pocket at the top of the key and drove the length of the court for an easy dunk that brought Denver to within a point with 2:19 left. But from there on out Anthony missed all four of his shots, turned it over once, and fouled Mbah a Moute on a rebound that led to a pair of clutch freebies from Milwaukee's favorite Cameroonian. The Bucks then effectively put it away with 1:12 left, breaking a half-court trap to find Ilyasova all alone for a layup. Amazingly that was the Bucks' only field goal in the final five minutes, but it was enough for Milwaukee to leave Denver feeling rather great about a 2-1 Western trip.
John Salmons: 39 min, 26 pts, 8/16 fg, 1/1 threes, 9/9 ft, 4 ast, 3 reb, 3 to
Salmons would have been forgiven for not having the energy to follow up his 53 minute player-of-the-game effort from last night. Instead, he started strongly and was the Bucks' go-to guy down the stretch, tallying a team-high 39 minutes while scoring efficiently against a Nuggets defense that was even worse than advertised.
Carlos Delfino: 27 min, 21 pts, 6/11 fg, 4/6 threes, 5/8 ft, 7 reb, 1 ast, 1 stl, 1 to
Delfino's night was almost spoiled by a couple late bricks from the line, but fortunately Salmons and the Bucks' defense picked up the slack. He did most of his damage burying triples, but also scored five straight (two free throws and a driving three point play) early in the fourth to help the Bucks create the lead they would never relinquish.
Ersan Ilyasova: 32 min, 14 pts, 6/12 fg, 1/3 threes, 1/2 ft, 10 rebs, 2 ast, 1 blk, 0 to
Ilyasova was forced to play out of position at center for stretches, but ended up providing just enough hustle and bend-but-not-break defense to help the Bucks scratch a second win in as many nights.
13. For an explosive offense, the Nuggets are actually only middle-of-the-pack in terms of assists/game (21.4, 14th)--probably because of their reliance on 'Melo isos and the fact that they get to the line a ton. But their 13 dimes tonight pretty accurately summed up their general stagnation on offense. Maybe it was the 58% first quarter shooting that got the Nuggets feeling too good about themselves, because they spent most of the night focused more on iso plays and trying to beat the Bucks one-on-one, which given the Bucks' well-oiled help defense generally doesn't work too well.
37.2%. I'm not going to act like Denver was anywhere close to their best, but let's also give the Bucks' defense some credit for playing through some tired legs to hold Denver to just 37% shooting.
20-8. Denver's bricklaying meant plenty of offensive rebound chances, and they didn't disappoint by pulling down 20 offensive boards--an excellent 38.5% of their own misses (they came into the game at 26.5%, 17th in the league). If you're wondering how Denver hung around all game, you've found your reason.
Roles well played. The big complaint from the last two games was the lack of production from guys not named Bogut, Jennings, and Salmons, but it was the supporting cast which did most of the damage on a night when Jennings and Bogut combined for just 11 points. Ridnour picked up for Jennings' slack by hitting 5/8 shots for 11 points, Thomas had one of his best games of the season, and Delfino/Mbah a Moute got it done at the forward spots. The Bucks become really tough to beat when Bogut is producing and getting that kind of help, but fortunately they didn't need a big night from Bogut this time around.
Showing up. Judging by the Nuggets' performance, we shouldn't underrate the value of coming to play. Considering the Bucks' amazing record of 12-6 in the second night of back-to-backs, you can't accuse Skiles of not having his guys ready to play regardless of the situation.
Grand theft basketball. It feels like the Bucks stole two games in the span of 24 hours; last night they won in spite of their own play for most of the night, while tonight they played pretty well but got plenty of help from a club off its game. Hey, whatever it takes.
Bogut. Bogut never had much chance to get into a rhythm (thanks, fouls!) and even with his scoring and rebounding non-existent he managed to yet again block three shots. But the reality is that the Bucks are not going to win many games with Bogut taking himself out of the game like this. He's been significantly worse in back-to-backs all season (ironic given the Bucks' team success), but this was a bit extreme.
Offensive glass. The Nuggets' offensive efficiency wasn't actually all that terrible--108 pts/100 possessions, compared to their usual 113. But it was all because of their relentless work on the boards, as Birdman and Carmelo both grabbed five offensive boards on the way to 20 in total.