Even two states away, the Indiana Pacers keep finding ways to dim the Milwaukee Bucks' playoff hopes.
Fresh off a deflating 0-3 week that featured two rather contentious defeats to the Pacers, the Bucks finally got back in the win column with a necessary but largely unconvincing 106-95 win over the Nets on Saturday night, riding the hot hand of Brandon Jennings (30 points, 9/18 fg, 6 ast, 6 rebs, 4 steals) past a poor Nets team that was once again missing Deron Williams.
But while a win over New Jersey had to happen for us to even entertain the possibility of the Bucks sneaking past Philly for the eighth and final playoff spot, that premise was also banking heavily on Indiana winning at home over the Sixers.
Alas, it didn't happen.
That means the Bucks not only need to win each of their remaining three games (including Wednesday's home tilt against Philly), but the Sixers also now need to lose their two other road games in Detroit and (gulp) New Jersey. That probably won't happen, but let's be realistic--it's not as if the path to the eighth spot was anything but a long shot coming into the night either.
Putting aside the small details of the Bucks' poor week, everything else leading up to Saturday night's game suggested a Milwaukee win: Deron Williams was once again in street clothes (sore calf), the Bucks desperately needed a win, Milwaukee had beaten New Jersey in ten straight dating back to March 3, 2009, and the Nets could swing anywhere from 3rd to 9th in the lotto "standings" depending on the last week of the season. Considering that the Nets shipped their top three-protected pick to Portland for Gerald Wallace, there's no team in the NBA with more to lose by winning games right now.
And though it took a while, the Bucks did eventually get things going their way in the first half. After third string (but starting tonight) point guard Sundiata Gaines buried a three to tie it at 37, Jennings scored seven in a 16-5 run to close the half and give the Bucks a comfortable 53-42 halftime edge.
That scoreline would be unremarkable if not for how the Bucks got there. At halftime I asked Steve if the Bucks had actually hit a jump shot, and looking at the shot chart afterwards confirmed my suspicions. The Bucks hit three shots from around ten feet out but otherwise went 0/14 on shots outside the paint in the opening half; in the second quarter they managed to score 29 points without making a single shot outside the immediate basket area.
That would normally be a major issue if not for the Nets' complete inability to stop the Bucks from getting to the hoop, both in transition and halfcourt. Jennings found seams all over the Net defense in the second quarter, scoring at the rim or getting fouled virtually at will, while the Bucks high-low action created a series of easy hoops off baseline cuts.
You would have hoped that would be enough to catapult the Bucks to a comfortable win, but Gerald Wallace (9 points in the third, 18/11 overall) was a thorn in the Bucks' side and helped New Jersey claw back to within a single point with just under nine minutes left in the game. It never felt like the Nets were actually going to win; aside from Wallace, the Nets' offense mostly felt like an open audition for Gerald Green (16 points on 12 shots) with a heavy dose of difficult shots from MarShon Brooks (7/18 fg, 17 points). That certainly made the beleaguered Bucks' defense look a lot better, and to their credit they played a pretty physical game while limiting the Nets' second chances (7 OReb) and conceding just 15 free throws.
And while the Nets did make it competitive in the fourth, Milwaukee would eventually close the game out behind Jennings and Monta Ellis. The latter shook off an awful first three quarters to score eight of his 12 points in the final period, holding down the fort with Shaun Livingston before Jennings returned from an extended rest to bury three triples in the span of two minutes.
Brandon Jennings. Jennings' night largely summarized that of the Bucks. While his jumper was nowhere to be found for the first three quarters, he sprang to life in transition and piled up an impressive 16 points and five assists by halftime to help the Bucks to a double-digit lead after two quarters. Jennings exploited the Nets' half-baked transition defense with both nice passing and his own scoring, combining nicely with Ellis on at least three occasions to score easy buckets. Hell, he even had a right-handed layup and added an encouraging 9/11 free throws, the second straight game he's gone to the line at least 10 times. Now if only he could play against Sundiata Gaines and Armon Johnson every night.
Ersan Ilyasova. It wasn't quite the 29-point, 25-rebound night he dropped in New Jersey a couple months ago, but another 17 points and 17 rebounds will do quite nicely. Ersan was up to his old "tip it five times to himself" routine on the boards, did his cutting and moving thing on offense, and generally outdueled Kris Humphries (12 points, 6/11 fg, 7 rebs after 30/18 last time these two met) in a battle of solid-power-forwards-who-might-get-overpaid-this-summer.
Shaun Livingston. Livingston took Beno Udrih's second half minutes and helped steady the Bucks' ship with 12 points (4/5 fg) in 17 minutes, with eight of them coming in the fourth quarter as the Bucks weathered a dry spell to hold off a not-so-fierce Nets comeback. Capped off the win with a pair of nice dunks cutting in from the baseline.
33. The Bucks average 14.0 fast break points per game (10th in the league; Denver leads with 20.0) but exploded for 33 tonight. Who needs jump shots when you're playing the Nets?
43. With Carlos Delfino sidelined by a groin injury, Luc Mbah a Moute played a season-high 43 minutes, the first time he's played more than 36 this season. A so-so box score, but not surprisingly the defense felt tighter with him playing the majority of the night. By the way: Luc is averaging career bests in scoring (13.2 pts/40), fg% (51.0%), true shooting (54.4%), and turnover rate (10.8%). Now if only he would abandon jump-shooting altogether (22% on long twos).
30. Jennings cracked the 30 point mark for the eighth time this season and for the first time since scorching the Nets for 34 on March 12--the last game before the Monta Ellis/Andrew Bogut trade. In case you're wondering, the Bucks re 5-3 in games where Jennings tallies 30 or more.
Brandon. It's not clear what his long-term future may hold, but credit Jennings for putting his forgettable February behind him and playing some of his best basketball since Ellis' arrival. After notching 20.5 ppg, 5.9 apg, 2.1 to and 43.4 fg% in March, Jennings' numbers have held steady in April (20.9 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.2 to, 46.0 fg%) as the team has fully embraced the run-and-gun style that Jennings is best suited to playing.
While Ellis has also had his moments, Jennings has clearly been the more consistent and productive of the two since the trade, which along with Brandon's relative youth and preferable contract status (he can't become an unrestricted free agent until 2014 while Ellis can leave in 2013) make him the more obvious choice for the Bucks to hang onto for next season. It's not to say Jennings is untouchable or that the Bucks have to trade Ellis this summer, but it's much easier to make a case for Jennings as a long-term piece at this point. Something tells me we might be talking more about this once the season ends...
Run-and-fun. OK, silver lining time. While no one will be happy with a ninth place finish, anyone still watching the Bucks should agree that this year's edition has been a far more enjoyable team to watch than the 35-47 team of a year ago. And while they didn't blow the Nets out of the water on Saturday, they again played the sort of up-tempo, aggressive offensive game that last year's team was wholly incapable of producing.
BrewHoopers are real people. It was all a bit last minute, but it was still great meeting a number of regular readers/posters last night before/during/after the game. Among others, Alex, Steve and I met up with Brandonh981 (Brandon and his wife Amanda), TommyR (Tom), MadTown Hoops (Sylvan), and 808bucks (Joe) in addition to our buds Jake McCormick from Behind the Buck Pass and Ian Segovia from Bucksketball. Partial team picture here. We'll try to schedule it further in advance next year--and preferably while the Bucks still have a decent shot at the playoffs.
No help. Did I mention my disappointment in the Pacers yet? So it goes.
Closing time. The Bucks' inconsistency at home has been one of their more vexing qualities over the past few months, and their inability to close out the Nets on Saturday offered another example.