Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
After starting with one of their best halves of the season, the Bucks utterly fell apart down the stretch against a high-energy Nuggets team that won its seventh straight game behind a 33-18 fourth quarter. Perhaps most worryingly for the Bucks, Larry Sanders was forced to leave the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent back injury.
The Bucks just can't lose conventionally, can they?
It's totally understandable for middle-of-the-road teams like Milwaukee to lay their share of eggs on the road, but the Bucks just seem to have a flair for making losses...well, aggravating. Collapsing down the stretch is usually the main source of aggravation, but losing Larry Sanders to injury on top of it? Well, that's a problem much worse than losing any individual game.
And so it all went horribly wrong in Tuesday night's loss in Denver against the red hot Nuggets, who after sleepwalking through the first half made the Bucks look, well, like a bunch of frightened high schoolers down the stretch. With Sam Dalembert exploding for an out-of-the-blue career-high 35 points (17/21 shooting!), the Bucks dominated the first half and still led 100-93 with six minutes remaining--an impressive 42 minutes against a Nugget team that has lost just thrice in 23 home games all season.
But all that simply served to make the Nuggets' switch-flipping final six minutes all the more impressive, or from a Bucks perspective, more painful. While the Bucks looked spooked by even the hint of perimeter ball pressure (five turnovers in the last 4:16), Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson (22 points each) inspired a 19-4 game-ending run to earn Denver its seventh straight win and send the Bucks to another head-scratching loss. To make matters worse, the Bucks suffered a major scare early in the period when Sanders hit the ground hard after challenging a Kenneth Faried shot. Sanders was eventually helped off the court but would not return due to a lower back injury, and the Bucks have listed him as questionable for Wednesday's game in Utah.
And while the Bucks' collapse was a team effort, Brandon Jennings' awful second half deserves special mention. After spearheading a 20-8 run to end the first half and generally distributing the ball well in the first three quarters (10 assists), Jennings missed all seven of his field goal attempts and three of five from the foul line in the second half, adding a pair of bad turnovers in the final two minutes. In contrast, Lawson scored seven points in the final 3:05, offering a subtle reminder why the Nuggets handed him a $48 million extension last summer while Jennings was left empty-handed. Monta Ellis wasn't much better, bricking 15 of 21 shots including 0/5 from three. The only reason the Bucks even had a chance was Dalembert, who hit his first nine shots and 16 of his first 17 to blow past his previous career-high of 27 points late in the third quarter. Turnaround jumpers, tip-ins, monster dunks--basically Dalembert turned into Hakeem Olajuwon for a night. And it still wasn't enough to offset another wayward shooting night from Ellis and Jennings.
The Bucks couldn't have asked for a better first half, dominating Denver inside on their way to 61% shooting and a 66-51 halftime edge. Sanders scored eight quick points inside to set the tone, but the real story of the first half was Dalembert, who exploded for 21 points on 10/11 shooting in under 10 minutes of action. Jennings and Ellis were able to consistently draw the Nuggets' bigs into no-man's land and create easy looks for Sanders, Dalembert and Ilyasova, who rarely encountered any further help defense on their way to the bucket. The Bucks racked up a ridiculous 42 points in the paint in the first half alone (FYI they average 46 ppg), though Denver kept it close until a Jennings-inspired 20-8 run to close the second. Jennings twice drove and scored over Kosta Koufos in P&R going to his left, picked Lawson's pocket for a layup, and then added a fourth layup on a long outlet from Ilyasova.