With one team fading into the lottery oblivion and the other more or less locked into their playoff seed already, the action in Orlando on Tuesday felt like it had all of the intensity of a preseason game in LaCrosse or Tallahassee. Not that players weren't trying, but with nothing to play for, both teams seemed to be lacking that edge and urgency that's difficult to quantify but usually plain to see. Still, with both teams struggling to score there was just enough Dwight Howard (18 points and 17 boards) and not nearly enough Brandon Jennings (3/15 fg, 1 ast, 5 to), Andrew Bogut (1/4 fg, 2 pts, 6 rebs), and company to steal a road win against one of the East's few legit teams.
A night after Butler gave NBA snobs plenty of reason to laugh at the college game, the Bucks started their evening in Orlando looking hell-bent on making the NCAA bridesmaids (and their 18% shooting performance) feel better. Then again, to say the Bucks looked "hell-bent" on anything is inaccurate; sleepwalking through the first five minutes, Milwaukee's starters missed their first eight shots, didn't grab a single offensive rebound, and found themselves sitting on the bench down 14-0. Good or bad, there was little conviction to be found anywhere.
Scott Skiles justifiably went for the full line-change at that point, and it didn't hurt. Then again, it couldn't get much worse. Howard was immediately called for goaltending on Drew Gooden's drive, ending the shutout, and Keyon Dooling drilled a pair of threes and a long two to help the Buck claw back into the game. Not that it was suddenly easy making the orange ball go through the hoop--Howard actually goaltended two of the Bucks' five baskets in the opening quarter. The Magic's apparent indifference helped as well--they were slow to exploit Howard's advantage down low, missed boatloads of good looks from the perimeter (2/21 threes), turned it over all too easily (21 to), and showed little of the killer instinct you'd expect from a team that started the year with legitimate title aspirations.
As a result, the rope-a-doping Bucks found themselves down just nine at the intermission despite the starters finishing the first half 3/20 from the field. Orlando's early dominance seemed to lull both the Magic and the fans into a slumber, and the Bucks began to move the ball and continued to chip away throughout the third before drawing even on Jennings' high banking layup with 9:22 remaining. Alas, there would be no breakthrough. Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu would come up with big jumpers in the final two minutes and the Bucks went quietly, going scoreless over the final two minutes as Jennings hoisted a pair of three point misses and Delfino another.
Drew Gooden. With the starters scuffling, Gooden provided a needed spark off the bench and his 18 points (7/12 fg) were nearly twice the next best Keyon Dooling's total of 10. Though he hit a couple jumpers--including an improbable and-one that was a foot on the line away from being a four point play--he also had pretty good success putting the ball on the floor and made a few alert (really) defensive plays as well. When Howard got deep position he had little chance, but so it goes.
Corey Maggette. Do I have to pick three? The awful work by the starters meant early minutes for Maggette, who did reasonably well with 3/5 shooting and eight points in nearly 17 minute of action.
Keyon Dooling. It's pretty sad when a guy who scores 10 points with five turnovers is among the Three Bucks, but that was reality tonight.
21. As in the number of Orlando turnovers and three point attempts. Orlando entered the game leading the league in both threes attempted (25.6/g) and made (9.4/g), so their lack of accuracy provided a golden opportunity to steal one.
11/45. None of the Bucks' starters cracked double-digits, and as a group they shot a paltry 24%--barely better than the kids from Butler.
-40. While Orlando's starters racked up 68 points, the Bucks' group managed a regrettable 28.
Ping pong. Yep, we've reached that stage of the season where even the anti-tankers like me can see the bright side of losing a close game. With the loss, the Bucks are now just one loss behind the Clips (who actually shipped that pick to Cleveland in the Baron Davis deal) for the 8th spot in the lottery. Contain your excitement.
Bench. As bad as the starters were, the bench helped salvage a respectable (or at least competitive) performance. In contrast to his usual all-starters-all-the-time approach, Skiles went to his bench early and even gave Maggette and CDR some burn. Maybe not enough, but...
The building blocks. Regardless of where you stand on the tanking debate, we can all agree that there's nothing positive about watching Bogut and Jennings slog their way through one of the worst combined performances we've seen from them all season. Orlando hedged Jennings well on screens, pushing him laterally and offering him few opportunities to get a head of steam going into the lane--not that it's easy to finish with Howard patrolling the paint. That left him to spend much of the night shooting jump shots poorly (3/15 fg) and ineptly running the offense (five turnovers, one assist), though in fairness I should mention that Mbah a Moute's bad hands alone cost him about three assists.
And then there's Bogut, who look banged up, tired, and completely ineffective against the best center in basketball. Despite coming in with a couple days rest, it just didn't seem like Bogut had any energy from the outset--it reminded me of a couple months ago when he was suffering from that mystery virus--so there was nothing particularly tragic about his low shot total (1/4 fg). The Magic doubled him consistently in the first half, but honestly he didn't look likely to do anything against Howard no matter how much he touched it. Perhaps nothing summed up the night better than when he was called for a foul after Howard more or less body-slammed him as Jameer Nelson drove in for a layup. One of those nights.
Double dose. The Bucks have just 24 hours to lick their wounds and prep for a matchup with the Heat on ESPN. Is this a good thing? Considering I get to watch every game anyway, I'm not sure extra publicity for the Bucks' struggles isn't the highest priority in my book.
Starting and finishing. The Bucks shook off their brutal start but then came up empty in the late-going, providing appropriately futile bookends to an otherwise winnable game. Give credit to the Bucks' bench for helping them scrape back into what probably should have been a blowout, but keeping it close was almost more cruel given the predictable lack of execution in the final couple minutes.