Last Saturday, a lopsided home loss to the Bobcats had Larry Drew talking about big changes for the Milwaukee Bucks. One week later, another easy win for the Bobcats and an eleventh straight loss for the Bucks feels like...well, let's call it the new normal.
This time around the Bucks put up a better fight, but once again Milwaukee just seemed too small defensively and too hopeless offensively to give Steve Clifford's troops more than a few nervous moments in a 92-76 Bobcat win in Charlotte. Al Jefferson took the Bucks' frontline to school in the second half with 19 of his 23 points (11/18 fg, 12 rebs), but the Bobcats had seized control of the game well before that.
Milwaukee endured a rough start with three airballs and two missed layups in the first three minutes, but stayed in the game early thanks to an unlikely source: Brandon Knight. Four straight jumpers from Knight, all from the right side, had the Bucks looking respectable on their way to a 19-16 first quarter lead, though even then there was problematic writing on the wall for the Bucks. Ersan Ilyasova missed his first six shots before sitting out the second half because of a hamstring injury, while O.J. Mayo missed six of his first seven shots on his way to a 2/11 night.
Not that the Bucks' bench offered much help. Two quick fouls each from Giannis Antetokounmpo (in one minute of action) and John Henson (in six) started a Bobcat procession to the foul line, while Gerald Henderson (5/8 fg, 12 pts) and Ramon Sessions (3/3 fg, 10 pts) found little resistance in repeatedly getting to the rim during a 21-5 run that extended Charlotte's second quarter lead to 37-24. Meanwhile, Bismack Biyombo (12 rebounds in the first half) and the rest of the Bobcats had the opposite end on lockdown, as Charlotte outscored Milwaukee in the paint by a whopping 26-6 margin. Mind you all this came with Jefferson seeing just eight minutes of action (2/3 fg, 4 pts) due to foul trouble.
Even with the Bobcats beating up the Bucks down low in the first half, Drew went back to his small-ball zone to start the third: Gary Neal joined Knight and Mayo in a three-man backourt with Middleton replacing the injured Ilyasova at the 4. And it worked...for about five minutes. A pair of jumpers from Middleton brought the Bucks to within 56-50, but three straight post buckets from Jefferson highlighted an 11-1 Charlotte run that basically ended it. Charlotte's 58% first half shooting slowed to just 44% by the final horn, but the Bucks' 33% shooting and Charlotte's 54-38 rebounding advantage basically told the story.
- In the silver linings department, the Bucks showed some signs of defensive life with a John Henson/Giannis Antetokounmpo/Ekpe Udoh fronline late in the third and early in the fourth, highlighted by Henson's six blocks and a pair of steals and a block from Giannis. Unfortunately, too many Bobcat offensive rebounds and the brick-laying backcourt of Luke Ridnour and Nate Wolters meant the Bucks never were able to make up much ground.
- If you're wondering why Giannis was actually playing in the first half, it's because Caron Butler was out with a swollen knee. No indication it's a serious injury...you know, in case you were concerned.
- Henson found Giannis (2/3 fg, 4 pts, 2 rebs, 2 stls, 1 ast, 1 blk in 13 minutes) running the baseline (where else?) for a dunk early in the fourth, minutes after the rookie had found Henson for a transition layup late in the third. Giannis later airballed a long three with the shot-clock expiring and added a garbage time layup after getting a piece of Janero Pargo's jumper to ignite a fast break.
- The Bobcats' ability to gunk up the paint kept Henson from finding many open looks around the basket (3/9 fg, 7 pts), though his season-high six blocks did prevent things from getting even uglier inside in the second half. One play that kind of drove me nuts: in the second quarter Henson caught on the right block and predictably drove middle to set up his preferred lefty hook. But a quick ball fake and pivot opened up a clean angle to step through and finish with his right hand. Did he do it? Of course not. Instead he faked the move he should have made before pivoting back to a contested lefty hook. You're gonna need to develop a counter-move at some point, John.
- Two nights after struggling against the Wizards, Knight was the Bucks' most efficient player with 17 points (7/11 fg, 1/3 threes, 2/3 ft), 3 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl, and 2 turnovers while generally outplaying Kemba Walker (10 pts, 3/10 fg, 5 reb, 2 ast, 6 to). He once again was aggressive in pushing the pace whenever possible and finally looked confident with his jump shot as well. A couple careless turnovers in the third looked a bit too familiar, but in general this was a step in the right direction for the beleaguered third year guard.
- We haven't seen a Bucks team rely on the zone this much since the Larry Krystkowiak era, which kind of makes sense since that's the last time the Bucks were this bad. That may change once Larry Sanders is back on the court, but for now it just seems like the Bucks are resigned to being incapable of defending man-to-man consistently. The problem is that zones are notorious for conceding offensive rebounds, something that the Bucks are having issues with no matter how they defend.