New faces, same result.
After 42 minutes at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Saturday night, the Milwaukee Bucks found themselves in a rather familiar and fortunate position: leading the Atlanta Hawks 93-83 and appearing primed for a much-needed win against one of the teams they're chasing in the East. But once again the Bucks got complacent, or nervous, or they lost focus, or simply went into one of those funks that they always seem to find in fourth quarters. Maybe some combination of all four. And with 48 minutes in the books, the Bucks found themselves in another familiar but rather unfortunate position: on the losing end of another close game, their third in five days.
Now whether the Bucks' latest three-game losing streak is cause for frustration or all-out panic is debatable, but for now I'd favor the former. After all, when the Bucks have been good, they've never been that good. And now that the going is rough, it's more agonizing than it is unwatchable (late fourth quarters not withstanding). Which isn't to say that there's little to be improved upon. Atlanta's backcourt of Jeff Teague (23 pts, 9 ast, 8/15 fg) and Devin Harris (21 pts on 11 shots) humbled their Milwaukee counterparts despite new addition J.J. Redick flashing strong signs of what he's capable of (16 pts, 4/9 fg, 7 ast, 2 to), and even Larry Sanders showed moments of vulnerability on the defensive end, allowing the ever-reliable Al Horford to bully down low for the go-ahead layup with just under six seconds remaining.
Not that it ever had to come down to one possession in the first place. Milwaukee led by double digits twice in the final seven minutes, and when Brandon Jennings' jumper made it 100-93 with 3:30 remaining you would have thought the Bucks had the game mostly in hand. Well, provided you hadn't seen the Bucks squander leads time and again over the last month.
And so bit-by-bit the Hawks chipped away. Harris buried an open three to make it 100-96. The Hawks' pressing defense forced a shot-clock violation (made all the more agonizing by Ersan Ilyasova's swished three that came a split-second too late). Almost-Buck Josh Smith made an uncharacteristic catch-and-shoot three to make it 100-99. Continuing his string of late-game blunders, Jennings tossed a ball out of bounds following a miscommunication with Ellis. And with 1:28 remaining Atlanta completed its comeback when Smith and Horford confused Sanders and Ilyasova with a big-man P&R, Smith lobbing a pretty alley-oop for Horford to flush over Ilyasova for a 101-100 Hawks lead.
The teams then traded empty possessions before Ellis appeared to have atoned for bad plays late in the Bucks losses earlier this week. Taking a high handoff from Ilyasova, Ellis bravely darted right and got just enough of a step on Smith to send a gorgeous scoop high off the glass and through the net, restoring a one point Buck lead. But Ellis' move came so quickly that it left Atlanta 10 seconds to retake the lead, and with the Bucks out of timeouts they went to Horford against the normally stout Sanders, who gave up ground too easily and couldn't combat Horford's forearm shiver as he cleared space and converted a simple banker.
But the Hawks' bucket also came almost too quickly, affording the Bucks--now without timeouts--almost six seconds to drive the length of the court. Predictably it was Ellis drawing the task, but he couldn't summon another bucket out of his bag of tricks, sending a running one-hander from the foul line off the back iron as time expired.
J.J. Redick. Redick found himself in a non-Magic jersey for the first time in seven season NBA seasons, and he looked to be pressing a bit early as he tried to get his bearings in the Milwaukee offense. Redick missed his first four shots, but scored five from the foul line before ripping a side-stepping corner jumper. He then finished the third in style, dishing a gorgeous no-look bounce pass to set up an impressive Dalembert reverse slam and capping the quarter with a catch-and-shoot wing triple to give the Bucks a four point lead after three. All in all, an as-advertised debut from Redick, who despite lacking practice time with his new team did his best by running off screens, making quick decisions (7 ast) and generally keeping the ball moving.
Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova couldn't miss for three quarters and finished with 19 points on 9/15 shooting to lead the Bucks, though there's nothing new about that. Ilyasova has now scored 15+ points in 12 of his last 16 games, offering a friendly reminder that for all the understandable excitement about a possible Josh Smith deal, the Bucks already have a pretty solid starting power forward.
Larry Sanders. Weird night offensively from Sanders, who found a putback dunk early in the first quarter, buried what has to be a career-high four jump shots and made no shots in the game's final 22 minutes as he finished just 5/12 from the field. He also allowed Horford to get the better of him late, letting the former Florida man beat him down the court for an alley-oop inside five minutes and then getting bulled by Big Al on the final Hawks possession.
58-41. The Bucks fell just two rebounds shy of their season-high in dominating the boards (+17).
14/28. The Hawks made more threes than the Bucks attempted (4/12), which helped them erase a five point deficit from the free throw line and a 46%-43% Bucks shooting edge.
8. Ersan Ilyasova hit his first eight shots from the field, bettering Brandon Jennings' 7/7 feat against the Nets on Wednesday.
Code Redick. A warm ovation welcomed Redick to Milwaukee after Jennings' second foul and technical sent him to the bench at the halfway mark of the first quarter, and Redick found his rhythm as the game wore on. Nothing mind-blowing about his numbers tonight, but he'll win his share of games for Milwaukee over the next 28 games.
Henson. The rookie had his hands full defensively against both Josh Smith and Al Horford at times, but he was active around the bucket (4/6 fg, 3/5 ft) and had a pair of terrific feeds to Sam Dalembert in the fourth quarter (Sam even caught one of them). In return, Dalembert had Henson's back when he took a pair of rough fouls from Zaza Pachulia in the second and fourth quarters.
Teague of their own. All the talk before the game was about the Bucks' new three-guard rotation, but Teague and Harris were the best guards on the floor tonight. Jennings was a complete non-factor, Monta was solid running the offense and Redick found his groove as the game went on, but Atlanta's guards (Harris, Teague and the sharp-shooting John Jenkins) scored 53 points on 33 shots compared to 41 on 35 for the Bucks' triumvirate. Kyle Korver's lack of physicality at small forward also allowed the Bucks to use a number of three-guard lineups in the second half, though it's not clear how much the Bucks will be able to get away with that going forward.
Jennings' night was particularly rough, drawing two fouls and an early technical for complaining (understandably) about a non-call on Teague and then struggling to find any rhythm thereafter. Between the fouls and non-descript play he totaled just 30 minutes on the night, trailing both Ellis (44) and Redick (35) and raising an obvious question of where exactly his head will be at for the remainder of the season. Was he unhappy with all the trade deadline chatter surrounding himself and others? Was he unhappy not to be traded? Is he annoyed with having to share some of the spotlight with Redick? Was he just frustrated with the officiating? Speculate away.
Closing out. Once again the Bucks had every opportunity to put away an opponent but failed to do so, and dropped to two games below .500 for the first time this season.
Lining up. It was a bit academic given the final Hawks play only really involved Horford and Sanders, but I have a hard time understanding why Jennings, Ellis, Redick and Ilyasova would all be on the court when a stop would have won the game for the Bucks. Sure, the Bucks didn't have any timeouts with which to stop play and make offensive substitutions if they got the ball back, but with just 10 seconds left why would you even expect to get the ball back in time for a good look? That it worked out the way it did was more luck than rational strategy. So how about putting your best defensive lineup in the game and winning it on the Hawks' end?
Redick's inclusion in the closers' lineup also cost the Bucks a chance to set up a final play, as the newest Buck had to burn Milwaukee's last timeout when he couldn't pass the ball inbounds with 15 seconds left. It's not an ideal spot to put a guy in who is just learning the playbook, and begging the question of whether Mike Dunleavy should have been brought in for his familiar inbounding role instead.