A fourth quarter surge. A fourth quarter collapse. And, finally, a little overtime redemption.
The Bucks' third win over the Celtics this season likely left some frayed nerves in Bucks Nation, but if that's the cost of dispatching an occasionally bitter Eastern rival, so be it. Looking for an encore to their opening night blowout win over the Celtics in Boston, the Bucks had to play catch-up for much of the night before starting the fourth quarter with a 12-2 run that appeared to send the Bucks on their way to their 14th win of the season.
Leading by an 88-81 margin with 42 seconds remaining, it was tempting to begin cataloging the numerous positives to be culled from a hard fought win: energetic and surprisingly potent offensive nights from Larry Sanders (8/10 fg, 17 pts, 20 rebounds!) and Luc Mbah a Moute (20 pts on 8/15 fg, his usual hard-working defense); a nice bounce-back game from Monta Ellis following his awful night in Memphis on Wednesday (27 pts, 9/21 fg, 7 reb, 5 ast); and a career-high 11 rebounds plus eight assists from Brandon Jennings.
Naturally, the Bucks had to make it harder than it seemed. Two missed free throws and a bad pass under pressure from Jennings set the table for Paul Pierce to drill a wide open three to tie the game with just 2.5 seconds left, as the Bucks seemed ill-equipped to handle the Celtics' trapping defense and compounded things by missing 14 free throws on the night (22/36, 61%). And after a poorly executed final play saw Sanders of all people leaning in for a 22-foot jumper that only traveled about 20 feet, the Bucks found themselves playing five extra minutes that they really didn't think would be necessary.
But after Rajon Rondo gave the Celtics their first lead since early in the fourth quarter, the Bucks rediscovered their composure behind Ellis. After a Sanders tip-in tied it, Ellis swooped past the Celtics for an acrobatic layup to give the Bucks the lead and then added to it by calmly draining a long corner two on the following possession--you know, the kind of shot we all bemoan Monta taking. He had been 0/5 on shots outside 15 feet up until that point, but I suppose timing is everything, right?
Unfortunately, Pierce and Garnett would sandwich jumpers around Jennings' seventh turnover to tie the game at 94 with 36 seconds remaining, but Ellis drew a fairly cheap foul on Courtney Lee on the ensuing possession. Ellis made the first and missed the second, but he ultimately came away with the ball after a tense scramble along the baseline that featured a well-placed Ersan Ilyasova elbow to Jeff Green's cheek. Jennings sunk both free throws to put the Bucks up three, and Sanders would ice it by first deflecting Pierce's potential game-tying three and then racing down court for a wide open dunk off Jennings' eighth assist of the night.
Scott Skiles emphasized before the game that the Bucks needed more urgency and energy offensively following their disappointing effort in Memphis on Wednesday, but it was Boston which came out gunning behind Pierce. Coming off a 40-point night on Wednesday, Pierce drilled 5/6 shots for 13 points in the opening stanza, helping Boston to a 25-17 lead after one quarter. The Bucks then cut into the lead before halftime behind Ellis, who looked more intent on driving than settling for jumpers (hooray!) as he scored eight in the period to key a 10-3 run to end the half. Unfortunately, the third quarter bore all the signs of another Bucks offensive collapse, as Milwaukee shot a not-so-robust 29% in the period and trailed by eight heading into the fourth quarter.
Larry Sanders. Three weeks after setting new career-highs in points (18) and rebounds (16) against the Celtics at the Bradley Center, Sanders was once again exceptional in hauling in a new career-best 20 boards while nearly matching his best with 17 points on a tidy 8/10 shooting. Just one of his 10 field goal attempts came outside ten feet--the aforementioned long jumper on the Bucks' botched last play of regulation--and that's a big reason why he shot 80% on the night while his idol KG was misfiring (6/22 fg).
Luc Mbah a Moute. We've seen a refreshingly more aggressive Mbah a Moute since he returned to the lineup three weeks ago, but this was really the first game where it translated into big offensive numbers. We could do without all the long jumpers (1/5 from 16-23 feet), but he made up for it by connecting on 7/10 shots inside ten feet, all of which were assisted. He also earns kudos for his tireless work hounding Pierce down the stretch--as hot as Pierce was, it could have been even worse without Mbah a Moute coaxing a couple misses out of him in OT.
Monta Ellis. The way things have been going for Ellis of late, a 9/21 shoot night feels like a hot one, but to his credit he was also aggressive enough to earn a season-high-tying 11 free throw attempts. Two big hoops and a free throw in OT carried the Bucks offensively in the extra frame.
7/37 fg. Jason Terry had an Ellis-in-Memphis night and then some, missing 14 of 15 shots, while Garnett was also misfiring for most of the night. Garnett bricked 16 of 22 shots including 15 of 19 from outside the restricted area. Good defense was part of it, but so was luck (for the Bucks at least).
29-12. The Bucks' 23 turnovers nearly cost them the game, leading to 29 Celtics points compared to just 15 Boston turnovers and 12 points for the Bucks. Jennings' seven turnovers were one short of the career-high eight he had against the Nets on November 18, 2009 and matched the seven he totaled against the Warriors on January 25, 2010. They won both of those games, too.
20. Sanders' improvement in the rebounding department can't be understated: he's now 11th among all players in defensive rebound rate and 15th in overall rebound rate.
Master and pupil. Sanders bested Garnett for the second time in three weeks, which is saying a lot considering how well the 36-year-old Garnett has played this season. Thankfully, Sanders is realizing more and more that he can be a damn good player without trying to play in the same style as KG. Whereas Garnett's offensive arsenal allows him to be deadly from any spot on the court, Sanders has been doing more by doing less: fewer jumpers, more staying around the basket. Hint: it's working.
Ellis Island. Should Monta Ellis shoot as much as he does? No, especially not from outside. But that shouldn't take away from his box score-stuffing effort tonight, which stabilized the Bucks in OT and helped deliver a critical win following Wednesday's disappointment in Memphis.
Conference call. Only the Knicks (13-3) have more wins against conference opponents than the Bucks (12-5) right now, and the Bucks have rolled up an impressive 8-4 record against the top nine teams in the East. All those wins against teams they're jostling with for playoff positioning is doing them plenty of good in the standings, where they're just one game back of the Bulls for the fourth slot and the Central lead.
Three Two Bad
Under pressure. The Bucks' sloppiness with the ball started well before the final two minutes, but man did they look nervous against the Celtics' trapping defense. Jennings' crucial turnovers and missed free throws nearly turned a good win into an excruciating loss. On the positive side: half of Jennings' eight assists led to layups.
Bricks. How often are Terry and KG going to combine for 7/37 shooting? The obvious answer is not often, and the Bucks can feel a bit fortunate that they didn't bring their A-game tonight.