Oh, those pesky third quarters.
After failing to claim a halftime lead in any of their 15 January games, the Bucks did just that for the third straight game in Denver on Wednesday night, which in the grand scheme of a 9-40 season qualifies as...progress?
Alas, the Bucks' problems came shortly thereafter, as Milwaukee suffered through a 33-20 third quarter bludgeoning that ultimately dug too deep a hole to overcome. Big nights from an energized Larry Sanders (career-high 25 pts, season-high 15 rebs) and Khris Middleton (25 pts) helped the Bucks stay in the game and narrow the Nugget lead to just three on a Giannis Antetokounmpo jumper inside two minutes, but Wilson Chandler (25 points on 11/19 fg) answered the bell with eight straight points down the stretch to seal it.
Denver dominated the inside on both ends, outscoring the Bucks by 10 in the paint and blocking a season-high 12 shots as Milwaukee limped to a 38% shooting night. But 19 offensive rebounds and a parade of trips to the foul line helped the Bucks stay in it, with Sanders' clean-up work inside and Middleton's lights-out perimeter shooting carrying a Bucks team that got precious little from anyone else. Things came more easily for the Nuggets on the other end, as Ty Lawson (18 pts, 13 ast) killed the Bucks from midrange with his jumper while setting up plenty of dunks and open threes with another exquisite passing night. Randy Foye (20 points, 5/10 threes) and J.J. Hickson (19 pts, 7/11 fg, 10 rebs) were the most common beneficiaries of Lawson's efforts, and all too often the Bucks couldn't muster much of a challenge to stop them.
The first half was a strange back and forth affair that ended with Milwaukee claiming a narrow 52-51 advantage. Neither team seemed capable of making layups, but the Bucks collected so many of their own misses that it didn't really matter, while the Nuggets made hay with 7/13 shooting from deep. Sanders was the most active Buck inside with five offensive boards and a surprising 15 points on 13 shots, though he had a couple chippies swatted by Nugget defenders early and could have easily been ejected after a couple testy non-calls. The first earned him a technical only four minutes into the game, and he easily could have been sent to the showers after angrily yelling "AND ONE" following a made layup in the second quarter. Thankfully the refs let it go, and he calmed down enough to put together his best game of the season by far.
In the end this won't go down as Denver's best effort by a long shot; most notably, they couldn't keep the Bucks' bigs off the offensive boards and they allowed the Bucks back into the game late with sloppy execution on both ends. But Denver is a solid team and the Bucks put up a good fight, refusing to roll over despite off shooting nights from virtually everyone not named Khris or Larry. We can debate the merits of moral victories, but after watching the Bucks slog through a lifeless January I'll gladly take competitive basketball and genuine effort for the rest of the season.
- Brandon Knight (4/17, 16 pts, 8 ast) and Ersan Ilyasova (4/16 fg, 8 pts, 11 fg) had miserable shooting nights, earning Ersan a deserved seat on the bench for the duration of the fourth quarter as Larry Drew went with Sanders and Zaza Pachulia (15 pts, 11/12 ft) down the stretch. Zaza made a living at the line while Sanders had pretty much everything going--he started out with mostly putbacks before graduating to a couple jump shots and some actual post moves, hitting 5/6 in the second half overall.
- John Henson was back after a three game absence, but he looked out of sorts on both ends as he struggled to an anonymous 1/5 shooting night in 17 minutes.His right wrist was taped, but he also looked a bit stiff and short of energy--let's assume it's just a short-term thing after being out for over a week.
- Giannis didn't make a shot until his ballsy 20-footer late in the game, but he was certainly aggressive off the dribble and drew six or seven fouls, including three early in the fourth quarter that helped the Bucks get into the penalty. On the downside, he had a hard time slowing down Chandler, whose inside-out game kept Giannis off balance throughout.
- Is Larry Sanders finally rediscovering his old caps-locked self? Maybe...hopefully. Sanders has now posted 13.4 ppg and 10.4 rpg over the last five games while generally looking far more active and confident than before, though his bouts of referee rage are as noticeable as ever. Either way I'll take it.
- The altitude generally makes Denver a bad place to go with a short bench, but injuries gave Larry Drew limited options and he settled for just an eight-man rotation after losing Luke Ridnour to a sore back in the first half. Miroslav Raduljica and Gary Neal (natch) were DNP-CDs despite the absence of Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo, Ekpe Udoh and the ghost of Carlos Delfino.
- Nate Wolters was a question mark for most of the day due to illness, but he once again started and played a so-so 27 minutes (4 pts, 2/7 shooting, 4 ast, 0 to).
- Middleton hit one corkscrewing lefty layup in transition, but otherwise had another poor finishing night around the hoop. Thankfully those issues didn't extend outside the arc--Middleton hit 5/8 threes to go with his less-impressive 5/13 inside the arc, extending his double-digit scoring streak to nine games including 22 ppg in the last two games. Good to have you back in the starting five, Khris.