The best way to describe the Milwaukee Bucks in the fourth quarter tonight? Overwhelmed.
Leading by 20 midway through the third quarter, the Bucks appeared far too hot offensively to allow the 11-win Cavs back into the game. Brandon Jennings (14 pts, 5/19 fg, 12 ast), drilled four threes after a scoreless first half, Ersan Ilyasova was on his way to a third straight terrific game (30 points, 7 rebs), Larry Sanders (14 pts, 11 rebs, 2 blks) was hitting jumpers and even Luc Mbah a Moute hit a three. So yeah, things were going well. But this is the NBA, and these are the Bucks, and so...well, things happen.
In this case, "things" include Kyrie Irving (35 points on 17 shots) reiterating that he's a better basketball player than Jennings (sorry!), Shaun Livingston haunting his former team with terrific fourth quarter play, Dion Waiters tallying more points than shots (16 to 12!) and the Bucks looking all kinds of frazzled in the face of an energized Cavalier defense and rowdy Cleveland crowd.
Both teams looked disjointed early on, combining for 12 turnovers before the first quarter was even over. But the Bucks slowly took control of the game in the second behind behind the red-hot Ilyasova, who poured in 15 second quarter points to help the Bucks claim a 59-50 lead at intermission. Tristan Thompson and the Cavalier big men consistently showed hard on the Bucks' P&R, allowing Beno Udrih, Ellis and Jennings to consistently find an open Ilyasova on the perimeter (5/6 threes).
It wasn't just Ilyasova, either; Milwaukee racked up a season-high 34 assists and stroked 14/28 threes, but they had less luck inside. The Bucks were worse inside the arc (29/64) than outside it and converted just 8/13 from the foul line, while Thompson (18 points) and the Cavs piled up a 52-40 edge in the paint.
After leading 82-63, the Bucks' offense slowed down while Irving and Thompson began to heat up, combining to score the Cavaliers' final 18 points of the third including an Irving jumper that narrowed Milwaukee's lead to 90-81 going into the fourth. The Cavs quickly put the Bucks on the ropes to start the fourth, but Dunleavy's wing three made it 95-89 to stop the bleeding momentarily.
Key word: momentarily. Livingston's banker and buckets from the newly acquired Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington completed the Cavalier comeback, and capping a 13-0 run that staked Cleveland to a 102-98 lead that they would never relinquish. The Bucks looked a step slow defensively for much of the night and it hurt them more and more as the game went on, as the Cavs fed off their crowd's energy and managed an unacceptable 32, 31 and 32 points in the last three quarters. To state the obvious: that's not going to cut it. On the other end, Jennings would miss all four of his threes down the stretch, forcing at least three of them in a desperate bid to claw Milwaukee back into the game. Meanwhile, Irving would close the game out with a pair of pull-up jumpers and four game-icing free throws in the final three minutes.
It marks the second deflating loss in a month to Cleveland, which previously beat the Bucks handily in Milwaukee just before Christmas after losing the first two games of the season series. Is it possible to be relieved about not having to face a 12-32 team again? Sadly, that's how I feel right about now, though the Bucks won't have much time to dwell on it. They return home tonight to take on Steph Curry and a streetclothes-wearing Andrew Bogut on Saturday.