Just two days after eliminating them from the playoffs with a victory over the New Jersey Nets, the Sixers knocked off the Bucks in Milwaukee's home finale and kept their own playoff seeding in question for one more game. There was once a time when the Bucks had hopes of fighting for even that not-last playoff spot. Instead, we can probably say with confidence that the two teams ahead of Milwaukee, the ones who will be playing into May, have earned their spots. Frankly, we can probably say the same thing about the Bucks.
Then again, tonight's was a very different Milwaukee squad than the one that battled for the playoffs the last few weeks. With most of the big names (relatively speaking) sidelined by injuries or otherwise, tonight functioned largely as an exhibition of Milwaukee's newbies. Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer started, with Harris logging a career-high 37 minutes. But with youth comes inexperience, and all the predictable hallmarks thereof. Passes were forced, rebounds were missed, that sort of thing.
It's hard to find the word to describe such a game taking place on fan appreciation night. Unfair? Appropriate? Irrelevant? Bucks fans who attend a late-season post-elimination game are invariably the loyalest of fans, and you'd sure like to send them off with a win, or at least some strong performances from your teams' top players. Then again, we're all looking toward the future at this point, and the future is presumably what we all saw tonight. Whether that's encouraging or scary is another question, but we're sure to see plenty of changes before the future arrives. In fact, the roster might not be the only thing with a different look next season.
After the final horn sounded, TV commentators Jim Paschke and Jon McGlocklin praised Milwaukee's fans while also commenting on the negativity so many of us have been spouting lately. The message was one of reassurance: there are still those who value this team, who come to the Bradley Center time after time to support a team regardless of direction or performance. True, the fans seem much more loving and supportive when they're clogging up a basketball court than sparsely populating an arena. And true, those two aren't exactly at liberty to go all Network on us after a frustrating season. And true, driving a spike of distinction between fans who "blindly" support a team and those who lament its mistakes is an oversimplification in this age where fans are more connected and informed than ever before. BUT STILL, a little reassurance can be comforting. A functional lie, perhaps, serving more as propaganda than anything else, but placating. Then again, that such a message is necessary might only fan the flames, especially when it's one we've all grown so uncomfortably familiar with.
Tobias Harris. Got the start, played a team-high 37 minutes, and responded with his first-ever double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds). For a player who carried some conditioning concerns into the draft with him, Harris looks remarkably quick on the court. Maybe that's just enthusiasm of the sort NBA vets set aside in late season games with little at stake, but it's his most powerful tool right now. He finds creases in transition, slips around defenders under the basket, and chases down loose balls like coaches beg rookies to do. And yet, we still don't really know what or who he is. But tonight was encouraging, especially against a tough defense like Philadelphia (and trust me, they were playing some defense for much of the night). Hopefully we see more of the same tomorrow in the season finale.
Larry Sanders. He returned from his suspension a changed man, or something. Instead of taking out his aggression on opposing players, he did what he does best: block their shots. Another five blocks tonight, plus a couple big dunks. A while ago I wondered aloud what it was that Sanders was doing better this season. I mean, he's definitely better, it was just tough to describe exactly how. Tonight, I decided it was an improvement in how he utilizes his length, which is perhaps his greatest tool. When you can't score on any shot other than a dunk, being able to stretch out and slam it Michael-Jordan-in-Space-Jam style becomes a useful/vital ability.
Brandon Jennings. Racked up five assists in his first seven minutes of game time, then one more in his final 23. I'd bet that's the fastest he's ever earned five assists in his career. He didn't shoot exceptionally well but did make 3 shots from behind the arc. More than anything else, Jennings deserves some credit for playing at full speed, for smiling, for taking things seriously in a meaningless game in a toss-away season. Maybe giving a player credit for doing such things--things that should honestly just be givens--is dumb. Probably, in fact. Still nice to see from the de facto face of the franchise after yet another disappointing campaign.
3. Nine players hit the court for Milwaukee tonight. Only three of them were on the roster last season.
21. Milwaukee turned it over 21 times tonight. The Bucks were one of the best teams in the NBA at taking care of the ball this year, but with a bunch of anxious newbies whipping passes around, the ball wound up in the stands more than a few times. That's what happens when you anticipate your teammates doing things they aren't actually going to do.
35.6%. Those 21 turnovers bear most of the blame for this loss, as the Sixers shot a measly 35.6%. Both teams actually made the same number of shots, but Philly made 5 more free-throws (13-18 to Milwaukee's 7-9).
Film, finally. The Bucks appear to be heading towards some serious franchise restructuring, or rebuilding, or whatever you want to call it. Unfortunately, that decision was only locked in two days ago, so the preparation is...lacking. One of the first priorities is gauging the talent currently on the roster, so getting an extended look at some of the young guys is helpful. We can only hope they've properly valued the rest of the crew as well.
Tanking for Twelve. The Bucks' loss locks them in to a worse record than Phoenix or Houston, making the 12th pick a near-guarantee. That sounds terrible unless you consider that the 13th and 14th picks were still in play before tonight.
Insult to injury. There's plenty of bad stuff to talk about, obviously, but it's all been said before, and we were all thinking about it before we said it, and we're probably going to say it a lot more for good measure. So for now we'll just sigh at the feeling of getting bullied by a team that's better than ours, that just ruined our organization's best, if misguided, hopes, and decided to come and rub our faces in it by winning a game in which Evan Turner took 29 shots and a former Buck blew up in a new jersey. Jerks.