Just 24 hours after finding no excuses for losing against a tired and under-manned Nuggets team in Denver, the Bucks found out just how quickly the tables can be turned. No Mike Dunleavy (again), no Beno Udrih (shoulder contusion), and most importantly, the Bucks also found themselves without Andrew Bogut due to undisclosed personal reasons. Coming off the Bucks' uninspiring performance in Denver, confidence in Milwaukee's ability to churn out a much-needed win couldn't have been much lower, and apparently the Bucks felt the same way.
Reprising their struggles from a year ago, the Bucks stumbled through their offensive sets early and often, happily settling for long jump shots much of the evening with occasional forays to the hoop rendered mostly ineffective by a long Utah front line that blocked 12 shots and closed down passing lanes around the hoop.
Starters Brandon Jennings, Stephen Jackson, Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino shot ineptly from start to finish, while the Jazz got just enough from Al Jefferson (26 points on 17 shots) to brush off a second half surge that saw the Bucks crawl back to a 62-59 deficit with 10 minutes remaining.
The Bucks' offensive struggles began immediately, as Milwaukee missed its first six shots en route to a mere 7/29 fg in the first quarter. Still, Utah led by just six after one period, with Al Jefferson having his way with Drew Gooden and the rest of the Bucks' big men in the first half (19 on 11 shots). That offset a scoreless (0/2 fg) half from the Jazz starting backcourt of Raja Bell and Devin Harris, though the reality is that it didn't particularly matter given the Bucks' own problems. Milwaukee shot just 27.5% in the half and 30.5% for the game, but managed to stay within striking distance thanks to offensive rebounding (23 second chance opportunities) and the Jazz's wastefulness with the ball (24 to).
Drew Gooden. Gooden had his hands full with Jefferson down low, but it's tough to fault the Bucks' $32 million man too much on a night when he mostly matched Utah's leading scorer shot for shot while adding a game-high 12 rebounds to boot. Seven of those boards came on the offensive glass, and when he wasn't doing damage on putbacks he was settling for--but generally hitting (6/11)--those mid-range jumpers he fell in love with last season. Either way, he was the only guy who made at least 50% of his shots and accounted for 12 of the Bucks' 29 field goals.
We can be cynical and point out that of course Gooden's best game would come in an ugly loss, but I suggest we save the cynicism for the players who didn't play well--as in, pretty much everyone else.
Larry Sanders. There was nothing remarkable about Sanders' 16 minutes off the bench tonight, but the threshold for making our "Three Bucks" feature tonight was fairly low: just don't embarrass yourself. Sanders did that mostly by looking like the only Buck physically capable of offering some resistance around the hoop, swatting a pair of shots and getting another couple wiped out by other guys' fouls.
One of the interesting storylines of the season has been Skiles' willingness to give Sanders regular burn after a rookie year in which Skiles seemed consistently underwhelmed by the former VCU star's positioning and basketball IQ. The Bucks have still been bad with him on the court this season, but Sanders has finally begun to rebound and apparently he's not finding himself out of position as regularly as he did last year.
Tobias Harris. Harris once again did not suit up for the Bucks, and for that reason he was one of the Bucks' most useful players tonight. I don't like being this cynical, but it's 100% true--and I would love to see Harris back on a basketball court sooner rather than later. Besides, I can't pick an injured Michael Redd now that he's joined the Suns, can I?
50-48. The Bucks were outrebounded for the fourth time in five games, in spite of hauling down a whopping 23 offensive boards.
11/52. Bucks starters not named Drew Gooden missed 41 of 52 shots (21.1%). To put that in perspective, Yuniesky Betancourt's batting average last year was higher (.252).
Uh, Defense? No matter how listless they look on offense, the Bucks always seem to scrape together a respectable effort defensively, don't they? The Jazz's carelessness was a big part of it as well, but the Bucks stayed in it by forcing 24 turnovers, the kind of figure you don't manage without the defense doing something right. Easy to overlook and/or take for granted, but there's a reason the Bucks had a more than vague chance of winning this game.
Gooden! I find it surprising how much outright hatred Gooden seems to inspire among Bucks fans--I get that people may not like his game and no one should like his contract--but let's agree that he was by far the most useful Buck on the court tonight.
Excuses. Chalking up a loss to excuses isn't terribly satisfying, but it's basically the only way the Bucks can rationalize what would have otherwise been an extremely winnable game against a young Utah team. The only positive is that none of the missing players seem to have major injuries, providing hope that the Bucks will shortly be back to full strength.
Aspects of basketball that involve having possession of the ball. We've gotten fairly used to it over the past year, but that doesn't make another unwatchable offensive performance any more palatable. We know Jennings and Jackson aren't bashful about launching wayward jumpers, but tonight they took it to new levels (9/36 combined) and unfortunately had plenty of company (Delfino/Ilyasova 1/8 each). The Bucks' two Oak Hill grads had their moments in other phases of the game (Jennings 6 rebs, 6 ast, 4 stl and Jax 6 rebs, 5 ast, 2 stl), but the more lasting image will be of them missing shot after shot, inside and out.
The Bucks tried to move the ball at times, with Gooden and Jackson flashing some surprising two-man game chemistry on a handful of occasions. But there was mostly just a sad resignation in the way Jennings in particular continued to hoist shots, as though he knew they weren't going in but he had to try anyway. You hoped that he might shake out of it early in the fourth when he flew in for a rare putback bucket, but it just wasn't happening--from near or far. While Jennings' 0/7 night from three jumps out from the box score, he also missed his last six attempts at the rim, at least two of which were point-blank gimmes.
No love for Leuer. Jon Leuer had his worst game as a pro, missing all four of his shots in a scant nine minutes. And yet you couldn't help but feel a bit frustrated watching Sanders and Ilyasova getting critical frontcourt minutes in the second half when the Bucks clearly needed someone to give them an offensive shot in the arm. Odds are Leuer wouldn't have inspired the Bucks to victory, either, but he's been the Bucks' most effective scorer to date and couldn't have hurt a unit that could do nothing to get going offensively.
Missing in action. No details yet on why Bogut missed the game, but you know it's not a good thing when a gamer like Bogut decides he has to leave the team for personal reasons.
Jennings said he found out on the bus to the arena that Bogut would not be with the team when the Bucks center called him.
"He said he had a personal problem going on back at home," Jennings said. "You hope he's OK. I think it caught everybody by surprise."
The biggest fear is that it's something back at home in Australia, in which case Bogut would face the unfortunate decision of whether to stay in the States or make the long trek home to be with his family. We can only hope it ends up not being as serious as feared, but in the meantime we'll cross our fingers for Bogut.