There's always next year.
Sadly that's been a common sentiment for most of the last two decades in Milwaukee, and for all the promise of the 09/10 season that's where we again find ourselves on April 2, 2011. Trailing the Indiana Pacers by three games with just eight contests remaining, there was no mystery about how much this game mattered--or how impossible the Bucks' chances would be if they lost.
But in the end the Bucks were not good enough, a statement which applies as much to their narrow loss in Indiana on Friday as it does their overall playoffs hopes, which would now seem all but officially lost. Despite trailing by double digits for long stretches of the third quarter, the Bucks rallied behind the once-forgotten Corey Maggette (13 pts in the second half) and Brandon Jennings (20 pts, 8/18 fg, seven rebs, three ast) but once again came up just short in the end.
There was no collapse this time--if you don't have the lead, you can't choke--but in the end that seems fairly academic. Jennings and Salmons made big shots down the stretch to keep the Bucks close, but they couldn't get over the hump and could manage only a desperate heave by Drew Gooden at the final horn. That curious effort came following a timeout with 2.7 seconds left, which Gooden tried to explain after the game.
"I was the last option, and it just called for me to pop back out if nobody was open. So I got it. All I could do is fling it up there. I tried to get some contact on the arm and maybe get a call, but you saw the result. Just hit the back of the rim."
No, the disappointing finish wasn't what the Bucks had hoped for--neither the result nor the attempt itself. But in that sense it offered a logical summation of the disappointing 74 games that preceded it.
Neither team looked sharp in the early going, combining for 14 turnovers in the opening stanza alone. It could have been the nerves of playing in a big game, though the cynic in me is tempted to call it a perfect summary of the three-legged sack race for the 8th spot. Thankfully for the Bucks, Indiana turned it over more than they did (9-5), and Milwaukee began to find some offensive rhythm behind a 4/4 start from Bogut.
A pair of free throws and then a long two from Redd extended the Bucks' lead to 26-15 early in the second, but it wouldn't last. Brandon Rush scored eight straight points and the Bucks began to labor on both ends, missing their customary array of jumpers but also getting beaten on alley-oops and backdoor cuts defensively. Skiles favorites Salmons (1/5) and Delfino (0/4) couldn't buy a bucket in the first half, and Hibbert (4/5 fg in the half) began to have more success against Bogut, who missed all three of his attempts in the second.
The Bucks then stumbled out of the gate in the third, as Hansbrough opened the period with a floater before two layups saw the Pacers go up 52-39. Jennings lobbed a lazy pass that his own man just caught (Collison) and then easily brushed by him in the open court for the finish. Seeing his team on the verge of getting blown out, Skiles went with the nuclear option, dusting off Maggette, Gooden and Earl Boykins in a desperate attempt to shake things up. Maggette jumped right into action, drawing a pair of quick fouls, but the Bucks could only claw back to within nine at the end of the third and needed a red-hot 8/10 start to the fourth to once again make it a game.
Corey Maggette. Only Scott Skiles can explain how a guy with Maggette's skills could only play two minutes in the Bucks' last seven games, but something tells me we'll never really get a straight answer. Yes, he's often a black hole offensively, and he doesn't do any of the little things that Carlos Delfino does. But Maggette will attack defenses and score points--statistically he's clearly the most effective guy on the team in that sense--and he did it when the Bucks needed it most in the second half, reeling off 13 points on six shots in just 22 minutes. He also seemed to be making the extra effort to keep the ball moving on offense, perhaps as a statement that he can indeed play nice with others.
Brandon Jennings. Jennings' defense was even more subpar than usual in the first three quarters, but he took his benching in stride and responded with nine points in the final seven minutes to spearhead the Bucks' comeback. The Pacers let him get a head of steam going to his left on a handful of occasions, including twice down the stretch when he drove and finished past Pacer defenders to keep the Bucks close.
Andrew Bogut. Hibbert and Bogut more or less battled to a draw, a quite acceptable result given the Big Aussie spent his afternoon getting pumped full of two IVs at the hospital. Bogut started brightly, disappeared in the middle and finished respectably before fouling out late, and his absence was clearly missed on Hibbert's dunk with 1:09 left that made it 89-86.
-15. The Bucks started and finished surprisingly well, outscoring the Pacers by eight in both the first and fourth quarters. But a lackadaisical second quarter that was seriously lacking in both defense and shot-making proved too difficult to overcome, as the Bucks never led in the second half.
22. Maggette's minute total was his highest since he got 28 minutes against Phoenix way back on March 4. He scored 21 along with nine rebounds in that one, which only further underscores the bizarre nature of his fall from grace.
0/4. Delfino had played 42+ minutes in five of the past seven games, but missed a couple threes early and never made an impact thereafter. At one point he looked a bit dazed after diving for a loose ball, though there was never any mention of his late-game absence being injury-related--hopefully that's just me being paranoid.
Bogut's flu game. It wasn't Jordanesque, but you still have to tip your cap to Bogut for gutting out a respectable effort just hours after leaving the hospital. You can question Bogut's durability, but never his toughness.
Curtains. The Bucks have been disappointing us since opening night, so on the one hand there's nothing abrupt or shocking about falling short of the Eastern playoffs--as modest as that goal may be. But it's a huge blow given the franchise's conscious decision over the summer to "win now" came at the cost of overpaying Salmons and Gooden while committing over $30 million to Maggette through 2013.
It's difficult to speculate on how the Bucks will approach the offseason given the continued uncertainty over a new CBA, but odds are they're stuck with both Salmons and Gooden for at least another season, and it's not clear what they'll be able to do with Maggette either. There's no legitimate tactical reason for Maggette to be racking up DNPs on a team like the Bucks, but if Skiles refuses to play him there's also zero reason to keep him around making $10+ million over the next two years. Don't expect the Bucks to get a lot of quality in return--the rumored Trevor Ariza deal that New Orleans may have offered before the deadline is a good example--but for $10 million you have to get somebody who's actually going to play. I'd love it if Skiles could figure out a way to make it work, but it's tough to say if that's even a reasonable possibility at this point.
Intensity. The Buck rarely have an issue with effort, but they do tend to come out flat and lacking in urgency semi-regularly. You'd have hoped that would never be an issue in a game that meant so much, but there it was raising its ugly head in the middle quarters.
Swingmen. Salmons redeemed himself somewhat with a pair of clutch jumpers in the closing minutes, but combined with Delfino he managed just 3/14 shooting and 0/8 threes.