The Charlotte Bobcats may not be in the playoffs come next spring, but don't expect them to roll over on opening night. After a promising first half that saw the Milwaukee Bucks build a 59-45 lead early in the third quarter, Charlotte's youngsters outgunned and outworked the Bucks after halftime and withstood a late rally to claim a narrow 96-95 opening night win in Charlotte.
The young backcourt trio of D.J. Augustin, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson combined for 50 points and Boris Diaw just missed a triple double (9 points, 11 rebs, 9 ast), offsetting an excellent Milwaukee debut from former Bobcat Shaun Livingston (14 pts on 10 shots, 4 rebs, 6 ast).
The more things change, the more they stay the same?
That would be one way to summarize the sinking feeling most Bucks fans probably felt in watching Milwaukee's first official collapse of the 11/12 season, this time coming in the form of a 26-7 third quarter Bobcat run that turned an 11-point halftime lead into a five-point deficit to start the fourth. Buoyed by their comeback and an awakening of the crowd, the young Bobcats held the Bucks at arm's length for most of the final period before a pair of Brandon Jennings threes (22 points, 8/21 fg, 3/6 threes, 3/3 ft, 4 ast, 0 to) and a spot-up three from Mike Dunleavy (13 pts, 3/12 fg, 3/8 threes, 3 reb, 3 ast) turned an eight-point deficit into a 90-89 lead with 1:20 remaining.
All of a sudden the Bucks again had hope of salvaging victory from a decidedly, ahem, uneven opening night performance, but it wasn't meant to be. They twice failed to stop Augustin in the final minute, Jennings badly missed a rushed jumper in trying to go two-for-one with 25 seconds left, and Dunleavy's open three from the left wing came off just short with 11 seconds remaining.
With Charlotte insisting on a center-less starting lineup, the Bucks predictably went to Andrew Bogut (17 points on 14 shots, 9 rebs) early, and he delivered with eight quick points against the increasingly doughy-looking Diaw. But the Bucks' defense was looking a bit ragged itself, with Ilyasova making a pair of early mistakes and the Bucks' perimeter rotations looking a step slower as Charlotte took an early 12-6 lead.
Milwaukee then took control of the first half behind the second unit of Beno Udrih, Shaun Livingston, Larry Sanders and Drew Gooden (joined by Mike Dunleavy) and a 10-0 run over the final 3:50 of the first. Sanders' quarter-ending long jumper gave the Bucks a 27-19 lead, and from there Livingston and Udrih took over with nine straight Bucks points to start the second. Udrih was smooth from mid-range and crafty around the hoop, while Livingston was lethal in the post en route to 11 first half points. Charlotte did the Bucks plenty of favors as well, missing most of their open looks from the perimeter including 1/9 from deep in the first half. Funny how bad shooting can make a defense look good, eh?
Livingston's strong debut came in sharp contrast to that of the more highly-regarded Stephen Jackson, who struggled to make an impact thanks to a potent brew of foul trouble and rusty, ineffectual play. Not surprisingly it was the Bucks' depth that nearly proved their savior: 29 of their 52 first half points came courtesy of the reserves, with Livingston and Udrih contributing 21 of them. Brandon Jennings was less of a factor in the half, converting a pair of early drives but otherwise doing fairly little before he coaxed a 15-foot push-shot off the rim and in at the halftime horn.
Maggette ripped a pair of jumpers to start the third, but Bogut and Ilyasova scored inside and Jackson got his first points in a Bucks uniform after Maggette got a small piece of him on a three point attempt. At 59-45 everything was going according to the script; Charlotte's youngsters were supposed to take the hint at that point while the Bucks' deeper, more veteran squad would surely keep plugging away.
Unfortunately the Bobcats apparently didn't get the script.
The Bucks stopped rebounding and moving the ball, while Charlotte's second chances helped their confidence begin to snowball. Livingston, Dunleavy, and Ilyasova were called for travels. Jackson picked up his fourth and fifth fouls and tacked on a technical because he's Stephen Jackson. The short summary from Skiles' post-game comments:
"We started overdribbling, holding the ball too much."
The Bucks led 66-60 when Skiles opted to give Bogut a breather with 3:30 left, a not uncommon time for Skiles to rest Bogut ahead of a full fourth quarter. But the Bobcats pounced on the Bucks' disarray with an 11-0 run that included Drew Gooden's ejection for a fast-break hack to Gerald Henderson's dome. I usually don't call out Skiles' rotation choices, but pulling Bogut at that point felt like a dangerous move; it just seemed as though the Bucks needed to refocus their gameplan around their captain at that point, not sit him down. And so it goes.
All told, the Bobcats outscored the Bucks 26-7 in the final nine minutes of the third quarter, fueled by nine offensive rebounds and a staggering 13 second-chance points. A number of those were longer rebounds that nobody in the paint was going to have a chance at, but it's a still a five-on-five game. When the ball was loose, Charlotte invariably came away with it. Energy, effort, intensity--whatever you want to call it, the Bobcats had more of it in the third and the Bucks paid for it with a regrettable loss. Hopes of a 3-0 start ahead of the Bucks' January road trip have now been clipped, replaced by the more modest goal of 2-1. No time to panic, but also no better time for a dose of urgency than ahead of the home opener on Tuesday night.
Shaun Livingston. Livingston's isolation skills were the catalyst behind the Bucks' strong first half, and he also played the majority of the fourth in place of Jackson, putting Bucks fans (and Scott Skiles) on notice that he plans to earn minutes regardless of how many point guards the Bucks might have or whether or not Carlos Delfino and Luc Mbah a Moute are healthy. Livingston looked at ease playing either guard spot and shifted to the three in the fourth, though his lack of perimeter range doesn't make him an ideal choice to park in the corner. But despite playing from the right corner for much of the fourth, he still managed to cut in for a dunk off a nice feed from Jennings and found Bogut for a flush as well.
Andrew Bogut. An uneven performance for Bogut, who could have had a bigger night playing against an undersized and fairly out-of-shape Bobcat front line. He started brightly and was quiet in the middle periods, but also gave the Bucks a 92-91 lead with a confident move to his left against DeSagana Diop with just under a minute remaining. The fact that he corralled just a single rebound after the intermission was indicative of the Bucks' rebounding no-show in the second half.
Brandon Jennings. Overall, Jennings' 37 minutes seemed to summarize everything Bucks fans have come to love and hate about their third year point guard. He took 50% more shots than the next most shot-happy Buck (21 fga vs. Bogut's 14) and made just 1/9 shots from between 3 and 23 feet, but he also brought the Bucks back from the dead in the late going with 12 points and two assists in the fourth period. Sadly, that also included badly missing a rushed shot with 27 seconds remaining.
30-14. The Bucks outscored the Bobcats by eight, three and four points in the first, second and fourth quarters, respectively. But one terrible third quarter rendered 36 otherwise solid minutes irrelevant.
+19. Charlotte dominated the final rebounding numbers (15 off/52 total vs. 8 off/39 total), which is all the more remarkable considering the Bucks led both categories at halftime (6 off/25 total vs. 3 off/19 total). All told, Charlotte collected 33 rebounds in the second half compared to just 14 for the Bucks. This is how you lose basketball games.
99.0 / 97.9. Despite those early signs of life, the Bucks managed to finish the game with a poor offensive rating (97.9) even by their own impossibly low standards (99.0 last year). Their defensive efforts once again gave them a chance however, as Charlotte managed just 99 points/100 possessions. Also of note: the teams projected to 97 possessions, well above the 92.1 the Bucks averaged last year.
Bench. The Bucks got nothing from Jackson and mixed bags from Bogut and Jennings, but Udrih and Livingston provided a much-needed shot in the arm off the bench and were rewarded with extended action in the fourth quarter.
Bogut is...back? It wasn't an exclamation point game from the Australian, but it was still encouraging to see him making some free throws and generally looking ambidextrous again. We'll need a much bigger sample size before we can conclude that the Bogut of 09/10 is back, but this was a solid start.
Sanders rebounds! This game won't go down as the turning point in Larry Sanders' career, but he did do a few good things that were nice to see after his poor showing in the preseason finale last week. He threw down on rookie Bismack Biyombo and confidently stroked a jumper for a modest-but-perfect 2/2 shooting night and also snagged a couple of tough rebounds in traffic--something I'd normally ignore if not for the fact that I'm always harping on Sanders' terrible rebounding numbers. Baby steps?
No Jack. Stephen Jackson couldn't have had a more irrelevant debut, managing just 18 ineffective minutes before fouling out midway through the fourth. Even Jackson's six points were of the dubious variety, the first three coming on a questionable foul call and his only field goal a banked three that he followed up with an airball. The Bucks likely would have lost by more if his foul trouble hadn't translated into extended burn for Livingston.
Third Quarter Collapse. The Bucks have their share of youngsters and new blood, but against a supposedly lesser club they simply can't afford to lay eggs like they did in the third. Milwaukee had the Bobcats on the ropes early in the period but couldn't deliver a knockout blow, instead seeing their offense stagnate and their defense suddenly incapable of finding a loose ball.
Must wins. There's no such thing as an opening night "must win," but the shortened season has made it all the more crucial that the Bucks not let winnable games slip through their fingers. Considering the challenging month of January ahead of them, the Bucks can ill afford to squander similar opportunities at home against the Wolves and Wizards.