One team took a big step toward advancing past the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs Thursday night. The other one might have finally coughed up its chance at just getting there.
With the Bucks' desperation at its highest level of the season, a crucial road win against a top conference opponent was not to be had, despite 27 points from Brandon Jennings and 23 points from Mike Dunleavy. The Pacers have done everything the Bucks tried to do a year ago; only the results are different. With the victory, Indiana wrapped up home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs a year after battling Chicago in a tough opening-round series. The Bucks, who followed a surprising playoff appearance with a disastrous season, dropped still further behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the chase for #8. The success of two years ago seems so very far away these days, with even modest plateaus of achievement just out of reach.
Three games back with four to go. True, one of those games is against those very Sixers, but boy, sure feels like it's over, doesn't it?
Here's the truth: I didn't/couldn't even watch the game. I still have a few days left at my second-shift job, which means soon I'll finally be able to watch Bucks games regularly--except there won't be any left. It's unfortunate that Milwaukee fell short of its goals this season, even if those goals were questionable in themselves. That's been the dominant discussion for weeks, and will likely be the most important topic going forward as the Bucks, once again, try to regroup. But know that there are people out there who would praise this team for fighting the good fight, for putting in the effort to win every game they play, for providing those loyal fans who fill [isolated sections of] the Bradley Center every time the ball tips. It doesn't mean the reality of the situation is lost on them. No Bucks fan is content with the current situation (though at time we might wonder if the same can be said for management), but not all have forsaken the ancient sporting ritual of rooting for one's team to win.
But even that joy has now left, and in its place? Heartbreak and confusion. When a team that had been patching up its lifeboat with wins over bad teams drops one against the Washington Wizards, things have most definitely gone horribly, horribly wrong. The Bucks were sucking oxygen from a canister. The Wizards took it away. The Pacers just threw it out the window. Here are a few ways in which things went badly:
- Brandon Jennings did his best to keep the Bucks in the game, then missed all seven of his field goal attempts in the fourth quarter. He finished with 27 points on 8-23 shooting, buoyed by a perfect 10-10 at the foul line. What could have been a sparkling night turned middling in seven and a half minutes.
- Larry Sanders went and got himself ejected again, and Twitter called it a fake tough guy act. It's nice to see Larry showing a little personality, but it sucks that it's most visible when he's getting knocked around by bigger, better players.
- Danny Granger didn't shoot particularly well, but made up for it by hitting four three-pointers and sinking eleven free-throws, finishing with a game-high 29 points. He was one of three Indiana starters to crack 20 points, the others being David West (21 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists in just 32 minutes) and George Hill (22 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists and only 1 turnover).
Considering the circumstances, I'll forgo the usual style and just say this: the Bucks lost a game tonight to a team that is doing things right. The disparity between Indiana and Milwaukee is debatable: Danny Granger has been the Pacers' best player for some time, and he's not quite on the superstar level as the guys leading those team considered to be favorites for this year's title. But the Pacers also have young, efficient, and versatile role players, a center with imposing size and an improving skillset, and the sleep-well-at-night feeling of knowing that their take-the-next-step summer didn't completely blow up in their faces. I'd say the Bucks could "learn something", but I think they already know it. They just didn't do it very well.