Consider it a case of immovable object vs. unstoppable force.
All season the Bucks have struggled to close opponents out, showing a troubling penchant for folding late in games--a trait that was no more painfully evident than in their last two losses. Then again, losing in Toronto would also have been the decisive hammer-blow to the Bucks' playoff chances, and if this season has taught us anything, it's that the Bucks have a Rasputin-like disinterest in just mailing it in.
So here we were yet again: a narrow lead in the closing minutes in a must, must, must-win game. Watching Andrea Bargnani swoop to the hoop for an 88-87 Toronto lead with just under five minutes remaining, you'd forgive me for getting that "here we go again" feeling, but thankfully the Bucks were also playing the Raptors. And in spite of their predilection for disappointing finishes, the Bucks for once produced the sort of late-game playmaking that you'd hope for against the defense-optional Raptors.
While much of the credit goes to Brandon Jennings (25 points, seven assists) and Andrew Bogut (17 points, 10 rebs), Scott Skiles also found an unexpected difference-maker in Drew Gooden. Making just his second appearance since January 21, Gooden started the game on fire and made key plays late, tallying 22 points (8/17 fg) and 11 rebounds in just 25 minutes for his third 20/10 night as a Buck. After Carlos Delfino buried a big three to restore a 90-88 Bucks lead with 4:13 left, Gooden drew a foul and made two freebies to make it 92-88, and followed it up with some quick thinking on the Bucks' next trip. Catching at the top of the key against the Raptor zone, Gooden bailed himself out of a hairy situation by throwing the ball to himself off the backboard--twice. I didn't notice that the second one was intentional until I saw the replay, so initially it looked like a slightly less elegant version of a similar play he pulled off against the Knicks in November. It was as lucky as it was clever, but that's kind of Gooden's deal, isn't it?
After Leandro Barbosa's layup narrowed the Bucks' edge to 94-92, Andrew Bogut both got a late game touch and scored a big hoop (huzzah!), chucking in an off-balance righty hook to restore a two-possession lead. Barbosa's miss then set the stage for a crisp Bucks' possession (no, really) that saw Salmons drive and kick for an open Gooden jumper in the corner to seal it. Hardly a gimme, but this was Gooden's night--and it meant the Bucks live for at least another day.
For a team in desperate need of a victory the Bucks showed precious little urgency early on, as they hung back on defense and watched Toronto make 10/11 to start the game and open up a 24-12 lead midway through the first. Salmons was beaten twice by DeRozan on cuts to the hoop, and Bogut held back a couple times on Raptor drives--I trust he knows when to go for the block and when to just avoid the foul, but all in all the Bucks were just a step slow.
Thankfully, the bench--remember them?--came out on fire to bail out the sluggish starters. A floater from Dooling and two P&R jumpers from Gooden allowed the Bucks claw back to 28-22 after one period, and the bench continued to get it done in the second, hitting their first six shots of the period to nab a 38-34 lead. After leaving all four of his jumpers well short in Charlotte, Gooden was particularly useful, burying his first five shots and making a handful of good defensive plays (!) to boot. For the sake of the remaining four years on his contract, it was some encouraging stuff.
The starters then put in a more respectable showing when they came back, mostly thanks to Jennings. Looking to bounce back from his rough finish in Charlotte, Brandon finished the half with six straight Buck points (13 in the half), scooping in a gorgeous transition finish and then finishing off a hectic scramble by gathering in the corner and putting it off the glass past a pair of Raptor defenders. Still, both teams shot over 50% for the half as Milwaukee could only manage a 52-49 edge at the break.
The teams traded leads for most of the third, as eight points from Bogut down low were offset by Bargnani's continued success (12 points in the period) against the smaller Mbah a Moute. Jennings added another eight to up his total to 21 through three, but the Bucks couldn't string together any stops and found themselves deadlocked at 76 heading into the final period.
Drew Gooden. Gooden's had plenty of these games over his long career--many of them against Milwaukee it seems--but after months of struggles with plantar fasciitis it was awfully nice to see him do it in a Bucks uniform. Gooden's shown a soft touch on long twos all season (45% shooting from there), but tonight he combined some big jumpers with a quality all-around game--rebounding, some smart (!) defensive plays, and big plays down the stretch. His size also proved more useful than Mbah a Moute's quickness in defending Bargnani, who scored just two of his 22 in the final period.
Brandon Jennings. Jennings bounced back in encouraging fashion following his late-game struggles in Charlotte, providing a major spark in the two middle quarters on his way to a very good all-around line. He picked his spots as a scorer with a solid shooting line (8/18 fg, 2/6 threes, 7/8 ft) and generally ran the offense pretty well--exactly the kind of game we all want to see in the final weeks of an otherwise lost season.
Andrew Bogut. The Aussie typically destroys the Raptors' charmin-soft front-line, so coming into the game you knew it had to be a point of emphasis for Skiles and company. Toronto predictably tried to deny Bogut by fronting him whenever possible, which helps explain why he only had 12 shots. Sure, you would have liked to see more touches, but they remembered him in the last two minutes and he came through with a big bucket to help seal the game.
26. The Bucks shot well because they shared it--their 26 assists were the most they've recorded since dropping 31 dimes against the Warriors on February 3. While Salmons did little in the scoring department (2/6 fg, five pts), he matched Jennings with seven dimes and added eight boards and a pair of blocks.
.513. The Bucks surrendered a disappointing 51% shooting to the Raps, but managed to pull out a key win thanks to their own better-than-usual shooting (49% overall, 47% from three).
4. Small forward/free safety Delfino tallied four more steals, the fifth time this month he's registered at least that many in a game. He's now averaging 1.7 spg for the season, exactly twice his career average.
Cornerstones. I'll say it again: the most important thing for the Bucks right now is that they continue to see progression from Jennings and Bogut. Yes, I want to see wins in the short term, but the long term is what we really care about. For the Bucks to matter in the next couple years, Jennings has to become significantly more consistent and Bogut has to recapture the pre-injury form that earned him All-NBA third team honors.
Thankfully the signs have been increasingly positive of late. Bogut has scored 13+ in seven of his last eight, and while Jennings hasn't been particularly consistent in the last month, he has had plenty of big games that hopefully offer a preview of bigger and better things next year.
Bench. I can't give you a good explanation for the disappearance of Corey Maggette, but I will assure you that the Bucks' bench played a key role despite Skiles continuing to keep his reserves on a short leash. Michael Redd and Gooden both returned from injury in Charlotte, and both looked predictably rusty on the offensive end (1/9 combined shooting). Tonight they appeared more comfortable, as Redd stroked an open three in the first half and dropped a short floater in the fourth on his way to a five-point (2/2 fg) in under eight minutes. But not to be overlooked were the early contributions of Earl Boykins and Keyon Dooling, who combined for nine points,+13, and 3/3 shooting in their abbreviated stint in the first half.
Delfino comes through. In the game thread we found ourselves pondering why Carlitos was once again getting huge minutes in spite of a mostly quiet night on the court. OK, we know it's because Skiles loves him, but he repaid that trust with a pair of big threes and some excellent defense down the stretch. The most obvious highlight: poking a ball loose near midcourt, beating Barbosa to the floor for the ball and flipping it ahead--from his backside--to Jennings for a layup.
Indy wins. The Bucks remain three back, making their tilt with the Pacers on Friday night even more of a must-win. By the way: I'm so sick of that term. Really.
Brockness hurt. Jon Brockman was knocked out of the game in the first half after Jerryd Bayless flagrantly fouled him from behind on a fast break, sending the Brockness Monster tumbling awkwardly into the stanchion under the hoop. Initially it looked like Brockman may have hit his head on the padded part of the basket support, and he looked out of sorts as he missed both free throws before leaving for the locker room. Reports from the locker room were that he suffered a left shoulder injury, so hopefully it's not another Bucks concussion.