Nuggets 94, Bucks 87: Fourth quarter blues continue

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Box Score

MILWAUKEE -- The Nuggets have scored the most points in the NBA this season. And the Bucks have scored the fewest. So Denver scoring more than Milwaukee is not such a perplexing matter.

But the truth is, the Bucks are playing against themselves as much as against any other team. And they are not winning. If all they needed to do was suit up and score a mere 90 points, the 2010-2011 Milwaukee Bucks would have a 29-26 record. Forget outscoring the opponent, just reach 90 and we'll give you the win, team. And you would give us a middling record that currently would not qualify for the playoffs in the West. This marked the 26th game of the season in which the Bucks could not crack 90.

And 90, really, is not asking for all that much. Not when every team in the NBA (even last-place-you, though barely) averages more than that. And 90 (try 95 even, this eve) is certainly not asking all that much when you already have 86 points and get to play for 4:21 more.

But this is where we are. That time, almost that paragraph, to explain that the Bucks melted again in the fourth quarter. It is a tiresome practice and I am tired. Not tired of this team in any apathetic way, just tired. I walk in through that tunnel at the BC photographed at the top of the story for each game, and tonight I saw the Bucks credited with a 24-0 advantage on the scoreboard a couple hours before the game, and I recalled what the Bucks did to the Nuggets last season at this very place:

Brandon Jennings. This was supposed to be Young Buck's first real (like, for real, for real) point guard test. And judging by the result, it won't be long before we are talking about young Buck opponents having their first real test against Jennings.

In his first career matchup against Mr. Big Shot, it was the the 20 year-old who wasn't supposed to be able to shoot who made the biggest shots of the game. Jennings poured in 14 points in a scintillating fourth quarter performance. And the fashion with which he stole the show reminded of Billups at his best: Jennings stuck two straight three-pointers with under five minutes to play and sunk six straight no-sweat free throws to close out another win.

Jennings played his best game against the best team and best point guard he has ever played against. He was the scoring point guard (32 points), the distributor extraordinaire (9 assists), and even the shooting specialist (11-19 from the field, 2-2 from outside, 8-8 from the line). In short, he was everything. Again.

So this was the opposite of that.

Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings failed to score in the first quarter and they went into the halftime break shooting a combined 1-11 for 4 points. But John Salmons (15 points) nearly matched Carmelo Anthony (21 points) in a first-half shootout, and the Bucks trailed by just three at half. The Bucks hit an offensive lull (please believe me) midway through the third quarter and Denver turned a 54-55 deficit into a 62-55 lead. But the Bucks, spurred again by Salmons, ended the quarter on a 14-3 run, and it appeared that the national television audience would be treated to a pleasant (if not representative) performance and result by the Bucks.

However, an 86-83 lead with 4:22 remaining was it for the Bucks. They did not make another shot from the field.

Brandon Jennings re-entered the game with an 86-85 lead and 3:18 remaining, after sitting the first 8:42 of the final period. But just then John Salmons' shot finally betrayed him, missing two straight, and the rest of the team continued to play as it previously had, which is to say, profoundly ineffectively. Jennings seemed not to know the shot clock was winding down when he threw up in airball three with Milwaukee down 88-86 with 1:42. Andrew Bogut made 1-2 at the line, which was the only point of this stretch. Then Corey Maggette just barely missed a three. Carmelo Anthony missed a jumper (rare, considering his 38 points), but Salmons missed another three with a chance to tie down 90-87 with 23 seconds. Maggette got that offensive rebound but went up lamely and the Bucks somehow were blocked three times in the final 21 seconds.

Jennings capped the loss with a missed layup down 94-87 as everyone was done playing basketball for the night. Only the Bucks were done four minutes and twenty-one seconds earlier than the Nuggets.

Three Bucks

John Salmons. After swimming upstream all year, The Fish is at long last with the current. Two nights after playing the passing-guard role to near-perfection, Salmons returned to shooting guard, and almost shot the Bucks to a win against a real team. The only real mark against him was a 1-6 line from outside (including the potential game-tying three down, 90-87 with 23 seconds remaining), but his mid-range game was reminiscent of the fat days of last spring. Salmons made 7-9 jumpers, slicing across the lane with a calm.

Larry Sanders. Makes me nervous, but also makes some plays that no other Buck can. A nice early cameo for Sanders, notching six points in as many minutes on an evening he had a taste for dunks.

Corey Maggette. He's an insanely frustrating watch, and never more than when in the final minute he missed a three, and twice plowed into the lane and nothing more. I guess I have to add something positive here: Maggette does have a clue how to score, and makes it all pretty simple sometimes. That is rather unique.

Three Numbers

0. The Bucks scored zero second-chance points. Not a one. They shot 0-5 on second-chance opportunities. The Nuggets did not have many extra opportunities either, but they at least scored six points on second-chances, and the seven-point final margin illustrates their bearing.

13.0 % Milwaukee shot 3-23 (.130) on threes, more than twice as inaccurate as Denver's shabby 3-11 (.273) mark from outside.

55. Brandon Jennings (32) and Andrew Bogut (23) combined for 55 points in the team's last home matchup with the Nuggets.

Three Good

Splendiferous Salmons. Last February 18, the Bucks traded for John Salmons, and the team played basketball in the sky for the next two and a half months. Now one year later on the same week, Salmons appears primed for another notable post-All-Star break stretch. First Salmons dropped 12 assists in a nice win over the Clips, and tonight he went solo for Milwaukee's offense and scored a season-high 33 points. Clearly the playmaker in every way in these last two games, and yet Samons did not commit a single turnover in more than 87 minutes of ball this week.

Bench. Granted, Earl Boykins made some loathsome plays in this one (shooting awkwardly on a three-on-one break and not proceeding with caution in a Chris-Anderson-lane), and Corey Maggette predictably fizzled his way into the paint in crunch time and was blocked almost as many times (3) as he made shots from the field (4). 

All items considered though, the bench accumulated a +30 differential in sum while the starters garnered a composite -75. And this comes after two games in which Milwaukee's reserves racked up major points against the the Pacers and Clippers: The backups outscored their counterparts 51-25 against Indiana and 30-10 against Los Angeles.

For this game, though, this is mostly another nod to Larry Sanders.

Break. All-Star Weekend is here for the Bucks, who do not play until next Tuesday at home against Minnesota.

Three Bad

There is one 'O' in Bogut. Hence the one basket.

Where were you when Andrew Bogut scored? The time was 9:54 p.m. central, merely an hour and forty-four minutes after the 8:10 tip-off. Bogut scored three points in 44 minutes tonight. And he grabbed just a single offensive rebound and contributed two assists (along with three turnovers), so he was not making up for the lack of points in any other way either.

The Nuggets entered the evening with the second worst FG% allowed (.438) in terms of shots within 10 feet (excluding those at the rim). As you know, that is precisely the place where Bogut prefers to shoot more than any other. Quite literally. Bogut leads the NBA in shots attempted per game from within 10 feet (but not at the rim) according to HoopData, averaging 5.4 per game, almost exclusively hooks. Predictably, six of Bogut's seven field goal attempts were within 10 feet of the hoop. And none were at the rim. Yet he made just 1-6 from the field.

And he made 1-4 at the line, which felt about right. There is no Designated Defender position at the All-Star Game.

Pass. Before the game, Scott Skiles again praised the team's passing in its home win over the Clippers on Monday. And then his team totaled one assist in the entire fourth quarter as the offense so familiarly perished.

There was no reason for Monday's assist-hero John Salmons to pass to anyone but himself tonight, Keyon Dooling sat this one out with left knee soreness, Carlos Delfino neither created nor even swung the ball in useful ways, and Brandon Jennings needs this break about now. Earl Boykins (five assists in 20 minutes) was the only Buck even considering making a pass to someone who was not stationary, but he also made some glaringly poor decisions in both the half court and on the fast break.

Threes Bad. We are plenty past the halfway point of the season, and plenty past dismissing these shooting nights as flukes. At this point, the good shooting nights can only be deemed the aberrations. 

And Brandon Jennings (0-6 on threes) and Carlos Delfino (0-6 on threes) just cannot do this.

Carlitos came off a 7-10 night from deep so his open attempts from range were understandable. But the numbers show that over his past three seasons in the NBA, his three-point attempts have gone up and up and up, from 3.8 to 4.9 to 6.1 per game, while his accuracy has gone down and down and down, from 38.2 % to 36.7 % to 32.6 % this season. I am usually fine with him taking those corner triples, because what else do the Bucks really have in the works offensively anyway, and on good night Carlos offers a lot more than shooting to the offense, but again -- more than half of his shot attempts per game are threes, so some need to fall.

And Jennings? If he is not making open threes, it is hard to say how he separates himself from other guards offensively. And this is the team's leading scorer. Point guards typically don't feature extremely prominently on the three point accuracy leaderboard (seven of top 25), and if Jennings can make this his thing, great. But he has even dropped off a bit from his rookie season, while still attempting as many from long range.

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