MILWAUKEE -- The Bucks aren't half bad. The Bucks are half bad.
That was the tale of this game, in that order, and it's the general feeling you have watching this team on a nightly basis. You can see the forces of good -- defensive pressure, Bogut hooks on the right block, offensive rebounding, doing battle against the forces of evil -- Mbah a Moute jumpers, dribblingdribblingdribbling, Maggette gunning.
Tonight Milwaukee faced a force of really, really good -- the best team in the NBA to date. And for that reason, the loss to the Spurs is neither surprising nor especially disheartening. But when the losses stop being disappointing you are no longer following a good team. You don't hear about how good teams lose to good teams, they just happen to simply lose sometimes, occasionally. It's on them, not the other team.
The Bucks were good in the first half. They were really good in the first quarter. Tim Duncan played quite well to start, but Andrew Bogut just owned the game, scoring, rebounding, and having his way. He grabbed four offensive rebounds, the Bucks piled up eight second-chance points in the opening quarter, they led early and it seemed legitimate. Bogut and the Bucks kept it up in the second quarter and Drew Gooden returned to the team with six quick points as Milwaukee withstood a warming Manu Ginobili (9 second quarter points) to carry a healthy 51-43 lead into the break.
It was the best of times. And it was the worst of times.
Is it being pessimistic or realistic to have thought during halftime that it was all going to come crashing down? That the offense would sputter and that the Bucks would walk meekly into the night?
After a crisp first half offensive performance, Milwaukee missed the mark the rest of the evening, committing three turnovers before making a first shot and then going more than four game minutes without scoring another point to start the second half. At that point, the Bucks were still up, 53-50, but nobody (except the thousand Spurs fans at the BC -- really, Wisconsin?) had a good feeling about it. The latter half of the third quarter was weirdly entertaining as Matt Bonner and Earl Boykins dueled in some sort of trick-shot game, but in the fourth Boykins was just missing and Bonner was still making (he scored 17 in the second half), Bogut disappeared from the offensive gameplan (he scored 0 in the fourth quarter), and the best team in the NBA slowly but predictably pulled away from the 22nd best team in the NBA.
Then again, we aren't even halfway through.
Andrew Bogut. Andrew was everywhere to start, but mostly he was just around those two baskets. He sat out the Nets game but picked up right where he left off in his 27-rebound night at the BC against the Heat with nine first quarter boards. In the first half, he was giving it to Tim Duncan, keeping possessions alive, hitting hooks, going around the back, and playing like he was playing against Tim Duncan and the Spurs. Which is to say, rather well.
And then the second half happened. During which, not all that much happened. It was an up and down game for Bogut, but not in the sense that that highs and lows changed back and forth. There was a high. And then a low. The Bucks actually fed Bogut the ball some after halftime, but his shots (yes, he took a real "shot" again from 18 feet) were in and almost all out. He hit 1-6 from the field in the second half after going to break 6-7.
15 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 blocks makes him the player of the Bucks game, but he didn't grab an offensive rebound in the second half, didn't score a point in the fourth quarter, didn't close the game, and ultimately, didn't have much help.
John Salmons. Manu Ginobili is a class or three above him, and during one possession in the fourth quarter he won an unannounced dribbling competition or something, but on an evening when (you guessed it) the Bucks couldn't crack 90, at least Salmons scored some. He only scored 17, but he made both of his threes, and while 17 is not a lot, is not enough, it is more than anyone else scored. And it's more than anyone else is scoring. With Brandon Jennings out, Salmons entered the game as the leading active scorer on the team, averaging 13.9 points per game.
Salmons has scored 12+ for almost a month straight now (he scored 5 in Dallas on Dec. 13).
Ersan Ilyasova. Turk Nowitzki (?) missed both of his three-pointers, and he is down to 26.6 % from beyond the arc this season. Which means one of a two things: Either he needs to stop shooting threes, because he does not make enough of them to warrant the attempts, or the 33.5 % career shooter from deep is due for seriously hot finish to the season to get that average up around career norms. Which way you think that goes probably is a good indicator for how you think the rest of the team's season in general will go.
So while he was badly overshadowed by an opposing sweet-shooting power forward, Ilyasova did contribute in other fashions. Mostly he was an asset on the boards, grabbing 10 rebounds and keeping a number of plays alive.
0. Turnovers committed by the starting five of the Bucks in the first half. They combined for 37 points, 7 assists, and didn't turn the ball over. Not coincidentally, Milwaukee erupted (yes, erupted) for 51 points.
And then John Salmons passed the ball to Manu Ginobili on the first play of the second half, and Luc Mbah a Moute committed three turnovers all by himself in less than a minute. Sort of sums up the halves, and the game.
3. Milwaukee had 3 assists in the second half compared to 8 turnovers. In the first half, they had 11 assists and 3 turnovers. "Three assists in the second half," exclaimed Alex.
10. This was the tenth game of the season in which Larry Sanders did not play due to coach's decision.
Sked. Please keep in mind that other teams probably feel similarly about playing the 14-22 Bucks, but the schedule outlook is officially good until playoff time: the Bucks play @Philly, @Houston, vs Washington, @Cleveland, and vs Memphis in the next five. At that point, the season will be exactly half (41 games) over, so there is time and possiblity, still.
Gooden return. Drew Gooden returned after three weeks on the shelf and pitched in pretty nicely in a limited role off the bench with 10 points in 8 minutes. He looked awake out there, poking the ball away from the Spurs for an offensive rebound at the end of the third quarter, driving to the hole for a hoop to start the fourth, and he wasn't noticeably guarding and Skiles is just easing him back in, but it's good to have some healthy bodies. Speaking of which...
Carlos not bicycling for 23 seconds. I was walking to drop off my jacket in the media room before the game when I noticed Carlos Delfino running toward me:
What's not working. Dan pointed out this week that the Bucks had taken charge after halftime lately -- outscoring opponents by a 6.3 point per game margin over the previous three third quarters. Tonight they were just dreadful immediately after halftime, scoring two points in the first five and a half minutes to start the second half.
Offensive. For all of Milwaukee's unprecendented success over the last decade against the Spurs (the Buck have now split the last 24 games), they have only hit triple digits against San Antonio once in the last eight matchups. And despite rolling into halftime more than halfway there tonight, the Bucks fell laughably short of the century mark after totaling a paltry (paltry seems generous) 33 points in the last 24 minutes.
Chris Douglas-Roberts managed to not score in 22 minutes and his game logs this year go like this: double-digit scoring two games in a row, single-digit scoring five games in a row -- double-digit scoring three games in a row, single-digit scoring eight games in a row -- double-digit scoring two games in a row... this. Let's hope we don't have to wait a couple more weeks before getting some offensive punch from CD-R this time.
Meanwhile, no one else is really doing anything different than they have all year either. Which is a problem for the (still) last-ranked NBA offense. Bogut is wildly hit-or-miss, even within a single game, Boykins provides some pop but also is a bit trigger-happy at times, Maggette gets to the line but has poor shot selection from the field, Ersan can't shoot, and Mbah a Moute (that early airball oh my) and Dooling for the most part know better not to. I went on vacation last week to the Dominican Republic for my brother's wedding, and didn't seem to miss a thing.
The Return of the Red Rocket. The sequel. We have seen this before. Matt Bonner dropped 23 points on 7-10 threes on Milwaukee's noggins last year in San Antonio to beat the Bucks. After the game I asked Scott Skiles about Bonner:
Nothing against Matt. We are Matt Bonner fans. But we know he is going to pump-fake and go right. And he pump-faked and went right over and over and over again. Just closing out, letting him go right, and he made us pay for it.