No rest, no Nene, and apparently no ability to make layups. Not exactly George Karl's typical recipe for success, but against a sloppy, unimpressive Milwaukee squad it didn't matter.
Mark it down as a major missed opportunity for the Bucks, who had every opportunity to steal a precious road win against a short-handed opponent playing its third game in as many nights. Instead, Scott Skiles watched the Nuggets outwork the bigger Bucks on the boards (49-38), while Denver's aggressiveness in transition and off the dribble earned them a +14 advantage at the line and +24 in points scored at the rim.
All told, Denver's best players soundly outplayed their Milwaukee counterparts and in the end that made the outcome feel about right. Ty Lawson (16 points on 13 shots, six assists, one turnover) bettered Brandon Jennings (5/16 fg, 12 pts, 3 ast, 6 to), Danilo Gallinari was steady and efficient with 21 points and 10 boards on just 12 shots, and Al Harrington (17 points on 12 shots, eight rebs) ran circles around the bigger Andrew Bogut and everyone else the Bucks threw at him. Not the way the Bucks wanted to kick off their five game Western road trip, but they don't have much time to dwell on it with a game in Utah on Tuesday night.
With their Brazilian big man sidelined with a sore foot, the Nuggets went conventional in the early going with former Ohio State big man Kosta Koufos lining up next to Russian seven-footer Timofey Mozgov to start. While Koufos was solid, the Nuggets' big lineups seemed to suit the Bucks just fine: Milwaukee didn't turn it over in the first and led by six after one quarter thanks in large part to 11 points off seven Nuggets turnovers.
Milwaukee extended to a nine-point lead midway through the second, but then the Bucks started to get sloppy themselves. Seven turnovers in the period allowed the Nuggets to up the tempo, with run-outs, penetration and ball movement leading to plenty of wide-open looks. Most of them seemed to go awry for Denver--heavy legs don't help jump-shooting--but they still managed to claw back to an even 48-48 at intermission. The Nuggets then went back to their starters coming out of halftime, but the Bucks shook off their recent third quarter troubles with a solid 26-20 effort in the period.
So in the fourth Karl did exactly what George Karl would do: go small. Really small. With his team trailing 77-71 with 10 minutes remaining, Karl subbed Danilo Gallinari in for Chris Andersen and shifted Harrington to center, despite the five inches and 20 or so pounds he would be surrendering to Bogut in the middle. Not surprisingly, Harrington's quickness and ability to step outside caused problems for the Bucks' defensively, as he twice lost Bogut for dunks and scored eight in the period. It also drew Bogut away from the hoop and opened up more driving lanes for the Nuggets, who struggled to finish all night but got enough chances to make the Bucks pay.
Even so, the Bucks' bigger problems were perhaps predictably on the other end, where the sharp ball movement that served them so well in the season's first week abandoned them down the stretch. Harrington also showed terrific strength on the block against Bogut, who struggled to back down his smaller defender and missed his only two shots in the game's final nine minutes.
That was an unfortunate theme for the Bucks, who had four chances to take the lead or tie the game in the final 76 seconds. Following a step-back three from Delfino and a jumper from Jackson to cut the Denver lead to 87-86, Jennings missed a good look at a three, Jackson front-rimmed another clean look, and Bogut came up well short on a hook from the right baseline, each of which would have given the Bucks the lead. To make matters worse, Ersan Ilyasova seemed unaware of the clock situation on Bogut's last miss, failing to foul the Nuggets in the backcourt and instead letting Ty Lawson eventually get an uncontested layup to stretch the lead to three.
Despite that, the Bucks still had a chance to tie with 11 seconds remaining and Delfino inbounding from sidecourt, but Jennings opted to shoot an immediate three from straight away rather than pass back to Delfino on the left wing. Ilyasova again forgot to foul immediately, but Gallinari's cinching free throws made it academic.
Carlos Delfino. Carlitos was a late addition to the starting lineup but also the only Buck starter who didn't disappoint. With Mike Dunleavy out due to illness, Delfino followed up his strong debut on Friday with 14 points on 11 shots, a team-high nine rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocks and just one turnover in a game-high 42 minutes.
Jon Leuer. The former Badger started brightly by hitting his first three shots (all mid-range jumpers) and made 4/5 on the night, the only Buck to hit better than 50%. The problem is that Leuer has become Bogut's de facto backup, so when Bogut came back for the final nine minutes it also meant Leuer became a spectator. It's understandable that Skiles wanted Luc Mbah a Moute on the court to defend Gallinari at PF for much of the fourth, but you also wonder how many quiet games Ilyasova (who reappeared down the stretch) can have before he loses more of his minutes to Leuer and Luc.
Beno Udrih. Never a good sign when two guys who played fewer than 15 minutes make the "Three Bucks" section, but these things can happen when the starters are as lackluster as they are tonight. Udrih managed seven points and four assists in his 12 minutes of action, but didn't see the court in the final 15 minutes after taking a bodycheck to the shoulder from Andre Miller off the ball. His lack of footspeed likely would have played a role in Skiles' hesitation to match him up with Ty Lawson, but you still wonder if he might have been able to do something to help stop the bleeding in the fourth quarter.
25/45. Tired teams typically settle for more jump shots, so maybe the Nuggets weren't tired after all? Denver took a staggering 28 more shots at the rim than the Bucks (25/45 vs. 13/17) in addition to attempting 16 more free throws, making up for relatively shoddy finishing by getting to the rim time and time again.
12. The Bucks' offense did them no favors in the fourth, as they scored a measly 12 points and missed their final five shots.
49-38. Perhaps my biggest concern with the early season Bucks: they've now been outrebounded by nine or more in three of four games.
Luc returns. The Bucks weren't short on forwards to begin with, but it's obviously still very good news to see Luc Mbah a Moute on the court rather than in a suit. Mbah a Moute was his usual versatile self on the court, grabbing six boards and blocking a pair of shots in addition to six points on six shots in 21 minutes.
Mbah a Moute's return and Leuer's continued refusal to play like a rookie also meant another limited night for Drew Gooden, who was the first man off the bench but played just six first half minutes. Depth is nice, but you have to think the Bucks will be listening to offers from teams in need of power forward depth, with Ilyasova and Brockman presumably the most obvious candidates to be dealt for a pick or a legit center.
Depth. The Bucks expect to get Dunleavy back tomorrow and will no doubt benefit on this trip from having a bunch of bodies available up front and on the wings.
Starless. Not a good night for the Bucks' biggest names.
Jennings was at his best late in games last week, but he came up empty when it mattered most tonight. Meanwhile, Lawson was steady and continually set up teammates for good looks, even if Denver couldn't hit a jump shot most of the night (1/10 on long twos, 4/19 threes).
Then there's Bogut, who ate up Mozgov on the game's first three possessions but couldn't figure out Harrington late. Even with two supposedly healthy arms, the Aussie once again couldn't find his rhythm in the post and has yet to shoot better than 50% from the field in a game this season. One would think it's only a matter of time before Bogut starts dropping in hooks shots at a more respectable rate, but after four games we're still waiting.
As for Stephen Jackson, he led the Bucks with 17 points but needed 18 shots to do it. While it was encouraging to see him taking it to the hoop more regularly and he also added four assists, Jackson also took a number of those step-back jumpers that defenses love to concede. He's been taking that shot for years and probably feels no inclination to stop, but that doesn't mean we don't have the right to complain, right?
Missed opportunities. The Bucks couldn't have asked for a better set of circumstances heading into the game, but they let the Nuggets boss the tempo for much of the game and didn't execute down the stretch.
Settling. While the Nuggets pushed the tempo and got to the hoop at will, the Bucks were the ones looking a bit tired and willing to settle for jump shots for most of the nights. Afterall, playing up-tempo is only fun when it's not the other team doing all the running and gunning. Overall, Milwaukee took 25 more shots between 10 and 23 feet and connected on just 14/37.