Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Like a white dwarf star, the Milwaukee Bucks started Tuesday night's game against the Dallas Mavericks blindingly hot, before burning out just as quickly halfway through the second quarter. It was a game of one really high, one really low, and a lot of vintage Bucks meh.
A spectacular opening sequence, not short on explosives, preceded underwhelming plot developments, finally culminating in a lackluster showdown with the villain du jour. Only this time, Vince Carter (23 pts, 6-10 fg, 4-6 3fg, 7-7 ft, 3 asts, 3 rbs) played James Bond, and the Bucks were cast to meet the same fates as Francisco Scaramanga, Hugo Drax, and Max Zorin.
Over the game's first 16 minutes, the Bucks built a nine point lead doing everything that has made them a joy to watch over the past two weeks. Milwaukee made twice as many buckets as Dallas (20 vs. 10), stacking up 16 assists in the process and pummeling the Mavericks inside (30 vs. 6 points in the paint).
Monta Ellis (32 pts, 12-24 fg, 2-6 4fg, 6-6 ft, 9 asts, 2 stls) and Brandon Jennings (4 pts, 2-7 fg, 5 asts, 5 rbs) dished passes like Santa throwing candy from a Macy's Parade float (combined 8 asts, 8 pts). Scoring was as balanced as balance could be (eight players had at least three points), and the Bucks had more defensive rebounds than the Mavericks had total rebounds (17 vs. 13).
Then we got into the meatier part of the game's progression. Players gradually moved into typecast roles as chuckers and defensive traffic cones, and the Mavericks used a 15-0 second quarter run to take a lead they would never relinquish.
The Bucks won the second half by a 53-52 margin, but the Mavs' 27-10 close out to the first half, Carter's 13 points in the game's final six minutes (including three treys), and the Bucks' lethargic defense helped Dallas exact revenge for Milwaukee's surprise road win less than two weeks earlier.
Monta Ellis. Ellis' 32 points on 24 shots contained the usual Chex Mix of questionable jumpers, lightning quick drives (6-12 at the rim), superb body control that forced contact, and forbidden three pointers. With that said, his shot selection was more good than bad, and his best attacks came with the team against the ropes in the second half (22 pts, 8-13 fg, 2-5 3fg, 4-4 ft, 4 asts). After the game, coach Jim Boylan touched on Ellis' newfound shooting stroke:
"To me, his legs look better than they did early in the season. If you watch his jump shot his elevation has increased. What do you credit that too? I'm not sure exactly what it is, but certainly in the last two or three weeks, he has looked more energetic out there. He's playing with a great burst of speed, and a lot of intensity on both ends of the floor.
Brandon Jennings. It feels like these two are always 67% of our "Three Bucks," right? Well it's hard to argue against it, considering how big their roles are in both wins and losses. In Jennings' case, he was removed from the game with 8:32 remaining and the Bucks down 12. Fueled by the small ball, drive and kick-happy lineup of Ellis (6 pts, 3 asts), Mike Dunleavy (6 pts, 2-2 3fg, 3 rbs), and JJ Redick (7 pts), Milwaukee finished out with a 22-17 advantage. Jennings' departure, after a game to forget, definitely played a role.
"I didn't feel like the rhythm of the game was going real well, and I needed to pick it up a little bit, change some things," Boylan said. "I felt like we could make a little bit of a run."
Ekpe Udoh. I'll bet you didn't know Udoh (14 pts, 6-9 fg, 5 rbs, 2 asts) made his first four shots of the night, and matched a career high streak of two straight games with double digit points. Two of his baskets were on cleanups, while the other two involved legit post moves. Pretty much anything above two points is a decent night for Udoh, but even more amazing, his best play came on a no-look bounce pass to a cutting Larry Sanders (13 pts, 5-11 fg, 12 rbs, 2 asts, 4 blks), who threw down much to the crowd's elation.
54-36. The Bucks actually bested the Mavs in paint points. Ellis' penetration and overall solid interior passing played a huge role in the small victory. I really don't remember the last time Milwaukee lost a game where they were +18 in paint points, but that's what makes the Bucks' predictable unpredictability so exciting!
11-29. Dallas was bombing from long range for much of the night, thanks in part to Milwaukee's subpar perimeter coverage and hastened collapses inside. The Bucks could've used Luc Mbah a Moute, as Marquis Daniels (-8) wasn't much of a defensive upgrade over Dunleavy (18 pts, 7-12 fg, 4-5 3fg, 6 rbs) or Redick (17 pts, 7-13 fg, 1-6 3fg, 3 rbs).
13. All but two of Milwaukee's 15 first quarter buckets were assisted. The Bucks are easily at their peak of watch-ability when the ball is flying around the perimeter and forcing defenses to constantly change direction.
"We moved the ball well. We had a little stretch kind of in the second quarter where we didn't move it quite as well, we were holding it. Instead of catching and holding, which lets the defense get set, you beat them on the catch and get into the seams and make your plays," Boylan said. "We've been preaching that for the last couple days real heavily, and I thought we did a good job of that, but over the course of the game, that holding of the ball creeps back in, so we have to try and eliminate that."
The unbearable blindness of consistent inconsistency. Eight games after holding the Mavericks to 90 points in Dallas en route to a tough road win, the Bucks allowed 115 points and a slew of open looks everywhere except the restricted area (all together now: Thanks Larry!). The Bucks are equally as susceptible to blowing sizeable leads (in this case, 9 points in the first half) as they are to rallying from big deficits. Nothing speaks to fan frustrations better than high highs and low lows.
Defense. Forgive me for deferring to Boylan quotes once again, but damned if I'm not happy to transcribe a coach that gives substantive, lengthy answers regardless of a win or a loss:
"(Vince) gives them another option. I thought that some of their guys coming in off the bench were significant factors. We had a little trouble handling Brandan Wright's game around the basket, and I think we gave them a bunch of extra points. In the first half, a lot of walk up threes, a lot of easy looks in transition. We've been pretty good in that area over the last six or seven games. ... Tonight we were just a little bit lax."
Lost ground. With the Atlanta Hawks (7th seed) and Boston Celtics (6th seed) losing their respective games Tuesday night, the Bucks had a golden opportunity to close the Eastern Conference seeding gap. Every team's "biggest game" is the next one on the docket, so calling a non-conference loss "huge" from the playoff race perspective is a bit dramatic. With that said, a loss is still not preferable if the end goal is to avoid playing the Miami Heat in a seven game series.
Three Two Good
First quarter. Over their previous three games (prior to Tuesday), the Bucks were averaging 27 points-per-game in the first quarter. Against the Mavs, Milwaukee set a new season high with 35 points in the opening frame. The Bucks shot 62.5% from the field and hauled in 14 rebounds.
Ellis-Redick-Dunleavy. Two lineups that featured these three vets registered +5 and +7 scoring differentials against the Mavs, and both shot above 50%. I know: small sample sizes, yada yada yada. But there is something to be said for Ellis' playmaking and penetration ability meshing well with two crafty spot up shooters that rarely make stupid mistakes. It certainly shouldn't change the team's priorities this offseason (remember, John Salmons), but it's nice to see a Bucks lineup capable of producing good looks from a half-court set.