No matter how cynical I might appear, believe me when I say that I want to like this team. In fact, there's nothing I want more than to believe the 10/11 Milwaukee Bucks can still turn things around yet this season.
But they're making it tough, mainly because it just doesn't seem like they believe. Too many flat starts, too many scared finishes, and too few excuses left to blame. The Bucks now have everyone but Drew Gooden back in uniform, they've had an easy schedule for the past few weeks, and they've got shockingly little to show for it.
Case in point: two nights after slumping to an uncompetitive loss against the lowly Wizards, a red-hot start to the third quarter in Memphis had the Bucks poised to snag a precious road win against a respectable Grizzly team. And then, as feared, all the same problems reappeared in the fourth, as the Grizzly backcourt of Mike Conley (23 pts on 18 shots, 8 ast, 5 rebs) and Sam Young (19 pts, 8 rebs) made plays down the stretch while the Bucks struggled to even get shots off. The end result was another loss that had the Bucks looking like a team with neither the fire nor the composure to be taken seriously, because we're now 52 games into the season and we've been talking about the same problems since opening night.
If not now, when?
With Zach Randolph missing with a bum ankle and O.J. Mayo serving his steroids/PEDs/whatever suspension, Sam Young was the Grizzlies' surprising danger-man in the first half, getting into the paint at will and converting all five of his field goal attempts (including one vicious slam on Bogut) en route to 13 at the break. On the other end, Bogut was having no luck posting up Gasol, who used his bulk to stymie any attempt by Bogut to back him down. But John Salmons was looking refreshingly decent with 10 points on 3/7 shooting, and seven quick points from Brandon Jennings helped compensate for Bogut's invisibility on the offensive end. Just like in Washington, the Bucks looked to be letting things slip away midway through the second, but the Grizzlies couldn't build on their eight point lead and had to settle for a 45-40 margin heading into halftime.
But just not like in Washington, the Bucks came out the better, more urgent team after halftime. Corey Maggette went all Ray Allen in the early stages of the third, burying four threes in a row to spark a 20-4 run that turned around a five point halftime deficit and had the Bucks looking sharp and confident--decidedly uncharacteristic, indeed.
But despite leading by as many as 11, the Bucks never looked capable of pulling away, and by the early stages of the fourth quarter it was clear they would have a fight on their hands. Milwaukee suffered through a 2/18 stretch stretching from the late third into the fourth before Jennings mercifully canned an open three to tie the game at 73 with 5:16 remaining. A minute later with the game still tied, the Bucks looked to be in good shape with the Grizzlies' shot-clock expiring and Marc Gasol forced to throw up a tough 20-footer over Bogut, but Sam Young leapt over Salmons for the rebound and then crammed it down his throat to the delight of the small but boisterous crowd on hand. At the time I worried that play might be the defining one of the night, and in the end it was.
Luc Mbah a Moute then tied it on a tip in with 3:33 left and Salmons made a rare clutch bucket by driving and pulling up from mid-range a minute later, but with a chance to take the lead he coughed the ball up on consecutive possessions. The second ignited a fast break that saw Conley go around the back to a streaking Tony Allen for a dunk, and after a long Jennings miss Conley put the dagger in with a clutch corner three at the 1:12 mark, eerily reminiscent of what he did in the Grizzlies' road win in Milwaukee just weeks ago. The Bucks now found themselves down 82-77, but Bogut capped off his forgettable night by inexplicably missing an essentially uncontested two foot lefty hook shot, while Jennings slipped and turned it over on the possession thereafter. A comedy of errors to seal the Bucks' 32nd loss, but it'll be no laughing matter in Milwaukee.
John Salmons. Salmons' two crucial turnovers--his first of the game--made it really tough for me to pick him first among the Three Bucks, but it's hard to argue with his overall statistics, especially when compared to the struggles he's had since returning from his hip injury a couple weeks ago. Salmons still hasn't had a 50% shooting game since the New Year's Day win over Dallas, but 5/11 with 7/9 shooting equaled 18 points on good efficiency and he added five boards and six dimes to boot.
Corey Maggette. Maggette's four threes were the most he's had in a game since March 2008, which made it all the more remarkable that they all came in just a 160 second span of the third quarter. We've been seeing Maggette do an increasing amount damage with his jumper, but there's still nothing typical about him using the three point line as such a weapon. The Grizzlies reacted well, however, denying him the ball at every opportunity and making him a non-factor in the other three quarters.
Luc Mbah a Moute. Another quietly productive night for Mbah a Moute, who made 4/6 from the field and grabbed nine boards (four offensive) in just 19 minutes.
20. I don't have any research to back this up, but I'm guessing Maggette's 20-point third quarter was the most by a Buck since Jennings' 29 point jaw-dropper in the third quarter of his 55-point game against the Warriors.
11. The Bucks tied a season high with their eleven made three pointers, just the second time they've cracked double digits since November. So how'd they end up scoring just 89 points? Shooting 17/51 on two pointers doesn't help.
22%. The Bucks made just 4/18 shots in the fourth quarter. You know the drill.
Homestand. The whole "easy schedule" theory has been a complete and utter bust over the past couple weeks, but the Bucks' home-heavy schedule over the coming weeks is the one remaining hope I have that this team pulls itself together enough to make the playoffs. An eye-popping 14 of the next 18 games are at home, followed by eight of 12 on the road. Now or never. Oh, and it's probably worth noting that last year at the 52-game mark (when they were 24-28) the team made the Salmons trade and finished 22-8. Don't count on that kind of hot streak, but they need something if they're going to break out of their current funk.
Executed. In what I can only assume was a dastardly plot to make me gouge my eyes out, the Bucks committed four turnovers in the final 2:20 of the game. Months ago Skiles talked about guys just needing to do basic things to get the job done--running sets correctly, making passes, etc.--and yet here we are eulogizing another Bucks loss because of the same problems. The Bucks seem to struggle more than most when teams pressure the perimeter and overplay the passing lanes, and that formula not only saw the Bucks cough it up but also miss ensuing shots when they got them off.
Jennings vs. Conley. The two little lefties are probably each other's best comparables, and for the second straight meeting it was Conley who made the big plays to put the Bucks away. While his numbers weren't fantastic, Conley did a bit of everything and his scoring, defense, and playmaking sent Jennings home a loser. Jennings couldn't replicate his fourth quarter driving success in Washington, but what annoyed me most was his regrettable defense against Conley late in the first half. He twice took bad angles that let Conley get to the lane (one for a layup, one for a pair of freebies) and then just got out of Conley's way on a length-of-the-court drive that set up another easy bucket with a second to go. Jennings looked worried about a screen at the top of the key and jumped to Conley's right, which gave him a clear path to his preferred left and forced the Bucks' help defense to collapse.
No O in Bogut. Another recurring theme, eh? I was hoping Bogut might try facing up more against Gasol to take advantage of his quickness, but it never really happened and overall Gasol and the Grizz did a terrific job forcing Bogut into contested 10-15 foot hook shots. And he missed all of them, with his only two hoops coming on offensive rebounds. Most painful was his late-game miss after Gasol seemingly conceded him the bucket rather than risk fouling. The Bucks had probably lost at that point anyway, but it sort of summed up the night and reminded me a bit of his big late-game miss in Phoenix last year.