For the second night in a row, the Bucks scored 104 in a game they led by double-digits in the second half. And for the second night in a row the game was decided by just a single field goal. Unfortunately, this time around their softening defense caught up to them as the suddenly resurgent Timberwolves downed them 106-104 at the Target Center.
I missed the game live (my second night in lovely but frigid Montreal), but looking at the Bucks' side of the box score it's tough to see what went wrong: Redd and Jefferson scored 61 points on 22/39 shooting, Bogut returned with a tidy 14/7 including 7/8 shooting in 27 minutes, and the Bucks overall shot 52.6% from the field.
Unfortunately, Minnesota's half of the box score was slightly better, as the defense couldn't lock it down late. Rodney Carney had a surprising 22 (7/11 fg) off the bench and Kevin Love added 12 boards in 22 minutes. But the big difference maker was Randy Foye, who scored 10 of his 11 in the final quarter.
The Bucks had a golden opportunity this week to claw above .500 but lost three times to sub-.500 teams (Charlotte, Philly, and Minnesota) and as a result find themselves at 18-21, still 8th in the East but just a half game up on Philly. While the Bucks aren't good enough to dismantle every lesser opponent they face--especially on the road and/or without Bogut--they led in the late going of both the Philly and Minnesota games but simply couldn't get it done.
In looking at the Bucks' bad recent losses, Ty rightfully notes the Bucks' crumbling perimeter defense. Early in the season I remember seeing the Bucks actually leading the league in three point defense, but the Bucks have now sagged to middle of the pack (35.6%). Are teams now simply taking advantage of a weakness that had already been there? Perhaps.
Back when teams weren't hurting the Bucks from deep, I remember an opposing team's commentators saying that the scouting report on the Bucks was that they brought help on drives more than usual, effectively daring teams to beat them from the perimeter. It surprised me a litte bit because I knew the Bucks hadn't been getting beat that way, but perhaps the Bucks were also getting a bit lucky as well. Besides, the Bucks weren't going to improve defensively simply by playing better man-to-man, so it's natural that much of the Bucks' improvement has come from better knowing when to switch, hedge, etc. That willingness to collapse has also helped the Bucks rank second in turnovers forced per 100 possessions.
But in the last week the Bucks have tasted the downside of that style, getting hammered by three point barrages, as three straight opponents connected on better than 50% from deep. Philly came into the game as the worst in the league from distance but made 8/15, the Nets put on a show with a staggering 16/30, and Minnesota made 13/22. Ty probably expresses the problem best:
I'm just going to ask rhetorically... why in the world are Richard Jefferson and Michael Redd and Charlie Bell sucking into the lane so damn much? What purpose does it serve for them to leave their men open outside the arc? None of the three ever cutoff penetration; none of them rebound worth a damn... so, please STAY OUTSIDE ON YOUR MEN YOU M%^%#@F#$#$%RS!!
The most notable example of that was in the New Jersey game, when Jefferson inexplicably left Bobby Simmons all alone to hit his fifth three of the game with nine seconds remaining--despite the fact that the Bucks were up three and should have been willing to concede a two-pointer over an open three. Skiles is as good a defensive tactician as you'll find, so you can bet the Bucks will be addressing these breakdowns in practice, but it also goes to show that it's a game of tradeoffs. Especially for a team like the Bucks that lacks stellar individual defenders, breakdowns will happen and focusing on limiting chances in one area comes at a price. Now it's up to them to adjust.