The Milwaukee Bucks continue to prove they are a bad road team in the 2011-12 NBA season, dropping all six road games so far this season, but this loss to the Phoenix Suns has a special historical significance that slices open a franchise scar that runs decades deep.
The 109-93 loss marks the 24th-straight road loss for the Bucks in Phoenix, a dubious streak that dates back to February 21, 1987, and also ties a Suns franchise record for consecutive home wins over a single opponent. Whether you are upset about the inauspicious start to the season or the direction the franchise has been drifting over the past 20 years, the Bucks provided something for all dissatisfied Bucks fans on Sunday night.
You can't spell torched without the letter d, but you sure as heck can get torched without playing D. Keeping it close has been a small victory for the struggling Bucks so far this year, but Steve Nash and the Suns blew this one wide open by the middle of the third quarter. Nash absolutely destroyed Brandon Jennings and the Bucks defense in simple high pick-and-roll offense with Marcin Gortat from the word "go," recording assists on 9 of the first 10 made baskets by the Suns. The other make? A 15-foot leaner Nash decided to score himself when Jennings tried to trail him on a pick-and-roll. By the time the smoke cleared on the first half on play, Mr. Nash had already claimed 12 assists to go with 6 points on 3-5 shooting, and the Suns had managed 58.5% shooting from the field as a team.
Even though the Bucks only trailed 57-47 after those first two quarters, the game already had a certain stench on it that dedicated fans know all too well. It would have been inaccurate to say the Bucks were still in it at that point, but the phrase "they weren't yet out of it" feels just about right to capture the moment. The only Bucks starter shooting over 50% from the field at the intermission happened to be Stephen Jackson (huh? what?), while every Suns starter except Jared Dudley shot over 50% in the opening half.
When taking in Suns basketball during the Steve Nash era, the team always feels either (a) an 11-3 run from being right back in the game, or (b) an 11-3 run from putting the game away. Watching the Bucks during the Scott Skiles era makes any such offensive run feel like an utter impossibility on a nightly basis. With the score still vaguely respectable at 70-55 with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter, the Suns made that 11-3 run over the course of the next three minutes to push the margin to 81-58. By the end of the third quarter the Bucks faced a 25 point margin that could make even the most optimistic Bucks fan reach for the remote.
Some points in garbage time helped the Bucks mask the Suns' dominance, but the proof is in the final line. Nash finished with a whopping 17 assists, 10 points and only 3 turnovers, the Suns shot 55.8% as a team and 45.5% from three and every Suns starter shot at least 50% from the field. As for the Bucks, no starter shot over 50%, only Ersan Ilyasova scored in double digits (11 points) for the starting five and the team as whole stumbled to 43.0% on field goals and 20.0% on threes. In other words, just another loss in Phoenix.
Shaun Livingston - Nearly everyone who has been watching the Bucks takes notice of Shaun Livingston and makes a mental note that he should see more minutes. His combination of elite size, a visible desire to consistently attack the rim and a well-developed post package make him a bright spot on a team that lacks most of these traits from most of the positions in the lineup. Livingston shined once again tonight, finishing with 12 points on 6-9 shooting to go with 4 assists, 2 steals and 0 turnovers in 28 minutes. The problem is that he only played 10 minutes in the first half and did most of his damage in garbage time against reserves, but this is just another performance that proves he should be getting more burn on a nightly basis. I still want to see him get a shot at a pure PG role where he can use his size to isolate smaller players on the block like Chauncey Billups used to do in his prime with the Pistons, but the presence of Jennings and Udrih makes that more of a pipe dream than anything else. I can still hope.
Tobias Harris - After making his long-awaited debut last night against the Clippers and getting only 8 minutes and 39 seconds on the court, the Bucks' first-round pick logged 23 minutes and made them all count against the Suns. Whether slashing to the rim, banging on the block or working the mid-range game, Harris kept most of his opportunities in quality zones on the court and wound up with 10 free throw attempts to show for his trouble. His 15 points on 4-8 shooting and 7-10 from the line continues to provide hope that he can make positive contributions to the team early in his NBA career. His +11 differential may be a bit misleading, considering the bulk of his minutes came when the game had already floated beyond the grasp of the team, but he left no reason to doubt his abilities in his first extended look in a regular season NBA game.
Jon Leuer - Another fan favorite on a team full of players that otherwise tend to irritate close observers in more than one way, Leuer earned the title of first man off the bench (came in with 4:03 remaining in the first quarter) and quickly got to work with an isolation pinch-post look against Gortat that he converted into a made mid-range turnaround jumper. His first half line of 4 points and 2 rebounds doesn't look great, but Leuer continues to do the right things on the floor and finished up with 11 points and 6 rebounds.
24 The Bucks have now lost 24-straight road games against the Phoenix Suns. It's just...terrible. Look out Golden State Warriors, your highest active NBA streak of 27 straight road losses to the San Antonio Spurs can't go on forever. We're coming for you!
0-5 The Bucks finished their west coast road trip with five losses and zero wins. After a disappointing loss to the Nuggets sans Nene, a blah loss to the blah Utah Jazz, an epic collapse against the lowly Sacramento Kings, a respectable loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and a laugher against the Phoenix Suns, the Bucks are staring 2-6 in the face and find themselves bumming around with the bottom feeders of the Eastern Conference. Yuck.
17 Steve Nash ran high pick and roll so well against the Bucks that he racked up 17 assists before the third quarter ended and got to watch the rest of the game with a towel around his neck. Milwaukee's offensive ineptitude actually came in handy tonight, because if they had been able to keep the score close I may have been reporting on Scott Skiles' single-game record of 30 assists being broken. The only thing that stopped Nash on Sunday night was professional courtesy.
February 21, 1987. The Bucks last beat the Suns in Phoenix on this date by a final score of 115-107, and I just so happened to do a retro game recap of that win in anticipation of this loss. Go check it out to see a much happier time in Bucks history.
Sportsmanship and professional courtesy. As noted above, the only thing that stopped Steve Nash from setting records and embarrassing the Bucks in some indelible fashion is the fact that Alvin Gentry didn't allow him to play a full minute load once the game reached blowout status in the third quarter.
This recap format. A great aspect of this recap format is that if you watch the game and can't come up with legitimate contenders for the Three Bucks and Three Good segments, you know the team didn't deserve to win the game. Leuer may have been a bit of a stretch on the Three Bucks, so I will make sure I bring clarity to the recap by focusing on the absence of a third good thing from the game. Make no mistake, the Bucks did not deserve to win this game at any point.
In case you didn't know by now, the Bucks have lost 24 straight games in Phoenix and they have all been bad. Maybe next year...Am I talking about breaking the streak in Phoenix or the 2011-12 team? I really don't know any more.