All season we've been waiting, hoping, praying that the Bucks might finally figure out a way to win close games. And after 73 games of mental anguish, I'm officially waving the white flag on that front. I've always been a firm believer in better late than never, but at this point we're unfortunately much closer to never than late.
Consider the latest evidence: In a season full of late-game collapses and shooting ineptitude, the Bucks saved their soul-crushing worst for a game they needed the most, choking away a six point lead in Charlotte thanks to a mind-boggling finish that saw them miss their last eleven shots and go scoreless over the final 3:51 of the game. No words can describe exactly how agonizing the Bucks' finishing was in that span--not that this is new territory--but for the benefit (masochism?) of those who missed it, I'll do my best to capture exactly how a perfectly solid performance can go so horribly, horribly wrong. Then again, you've seen it before, haven't you?
Much like their agonizing loss to the Bulls on Saturday, the Bucks spent the first 43 minutes putting themselves in position to pull off a crucial win against an Eastern foe, thanks largely to the sparkling play of Andrew Bogut (26 points, 13/19 fg, 9 rebs) and Brandon Jennings (26 pts, nine rebs, five ast, zero turnovers). There's no solace in it now, but there was actually a great deal to like about those first three quarters-plus, even if Charlotte was without a true center and saw both of its point guards limp off by the middle of the fourth quarter.
The Bucks actually led by as many as nine in the final period, and given Charlotte's shorthandedness--no offense to former Buck-turned-Bobcat Garrett Temple--they looked rather well-positioned to take care of business after Carlos Delfino's two free throws extended their lead to 86-80 with 3:51 left. Correction: well positioned if you ignore their obvious history of not closing out games. And while the Bucks then set about finding new and exciting ways to miss layups and open jumpers, Gerald Henderson rattled off seven straight points to give Charlotte the lead and the win (17 pts, 7/10 fg overall), the last two buckets on perfectly-executed catch-and-shoots that gave the Bobcats their 31st win of the season--and dealt the Bucks' already dimming playoff hopes what might be a death-blow.
Sadly, Jennings' baffling inability to make a shot was also the story of the game's final minutes, as he somehow managed to miss eight shots without a make in the final five minutes, including three in final 12 seconds. After Henderson's final basket gave the Bobcats an 87-86 lead with 22 seconds remaining, Jennings shook his defender on the left side and angled in for a layup that should have restored the Bucks' lead. Instead it rimmed out, but it wouldn't be his last chance.
Jennings looked on the verge of redeeming himself when he intercepted a lobbed inbound for Stephen Jackson, coming out of a scrum near midcourt to drive between three defenders and loft a lefty layup from the right side. It rimmed out--of course--but the ball ended up in the hands of Keyon Dooling, who then picked out a wide open Jennings in the left corner. Jennings' last chance at redemption naturally bounced off the iron--I don't know about you, but the thought of it going in seemed completely foreign even as he teed it up--but somehow that wasn't the Bucks final chance. Delfino had flown in to tip the miss, timing his jump perfectly only to watch it bounce off the back iron as the horn sounded.
Lying on the floor under the basket, Delfino couldn't bear to watch as the Bobcats, cheerleaders, and post-game crew rushed the court to celebrate the victory. Jennings stood in disbelief nearby. At once it seemed both impossible and completely logical.
With Kwame Brown missing due to a family emergency, the Bobs found themselves seriously undersized up front and the Bucks took advantage immediately with Bogut in the post. Tyrus Thomas, Eduardo Najera, Boris Diaw, and even Stephen Jackson all found themselves with the unenviable task of marking Bogut in the first quarter, and thankfully the big man responded with 18 (9/11 fg) of the Bucks' 26 first quarter points.
The Bobs were trying to 3/4 Bogut in the post, but instead they found themselves consistently out of position as the Bucks patiently ran play after play for the big Aussie, who to his credit was also decisive with his moves against his smaller defenders.
Charlotte responded with an 10-0 run early in the second to extend their lead to 37-29 midway through the second, but Salmons scored seven straight and Larry Sanders' dunk with nine seconds left staked the Bucks to a narrow 46-45 edge at the half.
The third quarter then belonged to Jennings, who shook off a 1/5 start and some shaky defense against Augustin to score 13 in the period and help the Bucks establish a seven point edge going into the fourth. Not that any of it was easy. After Bogut again lost his defender for a layup to start the period, Charlotte reeled off nine quick points thanks to a flurry of mid-range jumpers, only for Jennings to respond with a wing triple and a long jumper in rhythm before twice knifing through the Bobcat defense for impressive finishes. The Bucks' aggressiveness then helped them edge ahead, as Mbah a Moute scored seven and Bogut added another pair of buckets all down low.
The Bucks were able to hold off the plucky Bobs for most of the final period, even as Temple hit a three and made a couple nice plays to set up teammates in transition. And while the Bucks' late-game futility is hardly a new thing, there also seemed to be an element of bad luck as things began to unwind. Delfino came up with crucial steals to win valuable possessions for the Bucks, but they simply couldn't find a way to snap their drought. Part of it was of course self-inflicted-- a broken possession with 60 seconds left forced Jennings to flip an off balance one-hander towards the rim, which bricked off the backboard to Mbah a Moute as the shot clock expired. But the ball appeared to change direction as it went off the backboard, and replays showed the ball curiously bouncing off the padding on the bottom of the backboard before caroming up off the bottom of the rim area. Still, there's no way I'd blame the this loss on a single borderline call, and Alex summed up the irony best in the game thread:
"Pretty fitting that a Bucks game would come down to not whether the Bucks made a shot but whether the Bucks could hit the rim on a shot."
Andrew Bogut. Bogut looked unstoppable in scoring 18 in the first quarter, so that's the good news. He easily outmaneuvered the smaller Bobcat defenders around the hoop, using both his size and touch to finish 9/11 shots. I have no idea why the Bobcats didn't double more aggressively or simply try to foul him (26 points with no free throws?), but then again Bogut is the rare player who scores all his points inside and yet rarely goes to the line.
Despite the huge start, he would go just 4/8 the rest of the way (including 0/2 in the fourth) as the Bucks had an increasingly difficult time finding him in the post or anywhere else. Part of that is playcalling, but it's worth noting that the Bucks ran a series of P&Rs with Bogut and Salmons in the fourth quarter and he also missed on both of the plays called for him in the final minutes. The Bogut/Salmons play had gotten the big man a couple of easy buckets in the third, but the Bobcats adjusted and the Bucks became somewhat predictable as the game wore on. Skiles did a call a left block post play for Bogut out a timeout with 2:47 remaining (which he pushed off the rim) and then a P&R dive play from the top of the key that Bogut couldn't convert with just under 40 seconds remaining. It looked as though Bogut caught the ball slightly too far from the hoop, meaning he couldn't dunk it and was put off by a couple of Bobs challenging the shot as he leapt at the rim.
Brandon Jennings. The big shame of Jennings' horrifying finish is how it will overshadow what had been a terrific game up until that point. Jennings made 10/19 to start the game and had 26 points after a big three midway through the fourth, to go with a game-high nine rebounds (really), five assists, and not a single turnover. By now we're used to seeing Jennings go cold for stretches, but I can't say I've ever seen a guy miss so many big shots in such a short period--to be honest I felt really bad for him as the final horn sounded, which is saying something given I'm often critical of his shot selection.
What's especially bizarre about his two missed layups--which were contested--is that he had looked terrifically confident in driving for a number of difficult finishes in the third quarter. And while I don't think Jennings is the type to get discouraged easily, you can't blame him if this one stings more than most.
Luc Mbah a Moute. Jennings and Bogut got little help from their supporting cast, though I'd single out Luc for his usual hustle on the offensive boards as well as some key plays in the third quarter.
0/11. The Bucks made 35/79 shots in the game's first 43 minutes, then missed 11 straight to close the game.
17-4. Milwaukee used their size and hustle (not to mention their higher number of misses) to pile up 13 more offensive rebounds than the Bobs, and generally dominated inside with a 48-32 edge in points in the paint.
0/10. The Bucks' two best players started the game a combined 23/36 for 52 points before missing their last ten shots combined.
43 minutes. Give the Bobcats credit. Owner extraordinaire Michael Jordan publicly gave up on them after the Gerald Wallace trade, but Paul Silas and the players haven't mailed it in--and they're still in the thick of the three-legged sack race for the final East playoff spot. So given the Bucks' own struggles all year, there was nothing pre-determined about the Bucks coming into town and nabbing a win. Still, for the vast majority of the game Milwaukee did what it needed to do. Bogut was dominant early, and Jennings put them in excellent position to close out a crucial game. And really, those are the guys who matter in the long term for the Bucks, so they're the ones we should be hoping to see strong finishes from regardless of what happens in the playoff race. So, uh, accentuate the positive?
Redd returns. Michael Redd didn't score a point (0/3), but just getting back on the court for the first tie in 14 months was a victory for the Bucks' one-time franchise player. Playing a more-than-expected 15 minutes, Redd found Bogut for a layup with a nice P&R pass shortly after entering the game in the first, but thereafter saw his short banker rattle out after backing down his man on the left block. Redd added another three assists off post feeds to Bogut--despite what the box score suggests, he hasn't reinvented himself as Magic Johnson quite yet--but he would miss his only two shots in the second half, both of them rushed threes. Looking slim and trim, Redd didn't appear out of place on the court and his team-best +11 showed he didn't hurt the Bucks either.
Finishing. What more can you say about another collapse? The Bucks watched Chicago reel off a 12-0 run in the final minutes on Saturday, but at least Chicago played great defense. Tonight there was no shortage of good looks late, as Bogut and Jennings combined to miss three chip shots (and an open three) in the final forty seconds. This one had more to do with bad luck than simply bad play, but we all know the Bucks have had enough of the latter to overshadow any complaints about the former.
Window closed? The Pacers have had no interest in locking up the final playoff spot, which is the only reason the Bucks have even been able to entertain the idea of scraping into the postseason. But losing to their primary competition for the ninth spot (forget eighth for a moment) AND watching the Pacers pull out a big home win over the Celtics? If the past is any indication the Bucks won't roll over, but they also won't be able to pull together the kind of win streak that will be needed to avoid the lottery.
Bench. Skiles has deservedly caught some heat for his unwillingness to use his bench of late, and tonight the guys who did get into the game did little to help. Drew Gooden was a strong presence on the glass (eight boards in 17 min) but a mess offensively, hoisting up four badly missed jumpers before a terrific tip-in gave the Bucks their last (and Gooden's first) field goal with five minutes left. In total the bench made just 4/18 shots as Corey Maggette racked up yet another DNP.