The Milwaukee Bucks were inching closer and closer to the vaunted 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. Monday night's matchup against the New York Knicks seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch up; the Bucks were only 1.5 games behind the Knickerbockers, have a far more favorable schedule going forward, and just completed a trade to bring in scoring (Monta Ellis) and defense (Ekpe Udoh). The Knicks were also missing Amar'e Stoudemire (who seems to be at risk of missing a lot more time with a bulging disc) and Jeremy Lin.
It was another chance to gain the upper hand in the playoff race with 18 games to go. It was another chance to show that a Brandon Jennings-Monta Ellis backcourt could work against a playoff-caliber opponent. It was another chance to validate the latest big move from GM John Hammond, who annually makes a transaction that makes most of us nod our heads and say "I think I get it..."
Instead, the Bucks fell flat on their face at Madison Square Garden, Jennings and Ellis looked miserable, and Hammond's latest fix looks inadequate. The more things change, the more they stay the same...
Three One Buck
Mike Dunleavy. Let's get one thing straight: Mike Dunleavy was BALLIN'. El Pollo Loco had put up one of the most efficient first halves I've ever seen: 24 points on 9/10 shooting, incuding 5/6 from downtown.
He did fall back to earth in the second half, making only one more shot while taking only four total. Still, his +11 was a team high (assuredly from his first quarter explosion against the Knicks' reserves).
8-36. The combined shooting numbers of your starting backcourt, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. The misses were coming from everywhere, from layups to poorly-chosen midrange jumpers to long-range tries (a combined 0-9 from three).
Since the trade, the team has been buoyed by the following things: Ersan Ilyasova's gritty success, Dunleavy's scoring proficiency off the bench, Beno Udrih's capable game management off the bench, and Luc Mbah a Moute's catch-and-finish ability. But the thing nobody (i.e. me) wants to talk about is just how awful Jennings and Ellis look together. Part of it is the new environment (I hope), as Ellis' shooting percentage has dropped a whopping 9 points since the trade. He's also been useless from behind the arc (18.2%), sub-par at the free throw line (70.4%) He has shown off some great court vision and put up nice assist totals, but that's supposed to be a secondary contribution from him.
And Jennings has not been much better. Since Monta joined the team as an active player, Jennings has been shooting slightly less. But his shooting percentages have been below acceptable, even from him. He can't seem to find any success with three-pointers, which are his best weapon. He hasn't consistently gotten to the line (which might not be a surprise, but it is a continuing problem). He hasn't done anything beyond what he's worst-known for, and it's all come at the worst possible time for this season's playoff hopes.
-9. The differential in personal fouls between the Knicks and Bucks. While the refs usually play no role in a game's outcome, there were a lot of touch fouls called against the Bucks and a lot of hacks missed against the Knicks. In any case, a few extra whistles might have helped, given that the Bucks are 3rd in the league in free-throw percentage.
Three What's Good?
Out of principle, I refuse to try to find any "silver lining" from this loss. Missing two major players, the Knicks were in prime position to be taken advantage of. Brandon Jennings has the reputation of a Knicks-killer. Monta Ellis has the reputation of a credible offensive threat. And now what?
At the risk of twisting everything around, we have to be fair and blame the rest of the team as well. Save for Dunleavy, nobody really came ready to play tonight. Ersan and Drew Gooden were largely ineffective, and neither of them played for more than 20 minutes. With four of the team's top five offensive players having a bad day, who's left to pick up the slack? We would have all loved to see Dunleavy go off for 40, but that's not his game.
We've seen it before, but I'll say it again: this team's offense is worse than anybody's if the jumpers are not falling. The reliance on mid-range looks is heavy because we have good shooters, but when the shots aren't dropping, what is the alternative? Is that the players' fault for being too one-dimensional? (Yes.) Is that the coaches' fault for not adjusting the system to something that works better? (Yes.) Is that the GM's fault for compiling a group of redundant skill sets that succeed only against lesser opponents? (Yes.)
And with Andrew Bogut gone, the hopes of defense winning games like this (the Knicks did shoot quite poorly, somehow worse than Milwaukee from the field) are gone. The plan was to score more than the other team could handle. Now barring a miraculous turnaround and a jarring stretch of ineptitude from the Knicks (always possible), we're on the outs again, back in NBA purgatory. Be Milwaukee.
Cabezon's groin. Feel free to take that out of context, but Delfino tweaked his groin and was unable to return to the game. No telling on how long the injury will affect him.
Up next... The Bucks play the Atlanta Hawks at the Bradley Center tonight. The Hawks are a winning team, and the Bucks struggle against winning teams.
+/- 2.5. The Bucks are now 2.5 games behind the Knicks for the 8th playoff seed, and 2.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 9th non-playoff seed. Lovely.