MILWAUKEE - They aren't the defending conference champs for a reason; they are the defending conference champs for many reasons. Unfortunately, 16,128 saw just enough of those reasons at the Bradley Center tonight, where the Bucks lost for the second time this season, for the second time in a way that hurts all the way home.
The Bucks hosted a road team that entered Milwaukee with wins in Boston, Atlanta, and Toronto (twice) already this season. Those three at home against other teams? 19-2.
Orlando wins the pregame matchups when everyone is ready to roll, but: Howard + Carter - Bogut - Mbah a Moute = Abject Inequality. Still the Bucks raced to a lead, and not just a lead, a double digit advantage that ballooned all the way to 17 in the third quarter before Jason Williams and Vince Carter popped that balloon with threes and dunks like it was 1999, or thereabout. The YouTube wonderbackcourt of years past combined for 16 points in the final six and a half minutes of the third.
A back-and-forth fourth quarter ended after Ersan Ilyasova and Luke Ridnour both missed shots with less than a half minute and the Magic up two. But Ilyasova and Ridnour were more heroic than scapegoats despite the misses, and the shorthanded Bucks were more impressive than anything else despite the loss...
Ersan Ilyasova. Milwaukee's Man of the Match missed a free throw late and then a potential game-winning three with half a minute to go, but there's no faulting someone who earned a (partial) standing ovation for a single offensive rebound -- especially when it was one of seven reeled in off the offensive glass.
Ilyasova hauled in a rebound of a missed three pointer by Brandon Jennings in the third quarter, earning a roaring approval from the crowd as Milwaukee called for time. The Bucks missed five shots in a row in that series midway through the third quarter, but Ersan kept possessions alive all night.
His day in the late-game sun will come; he's too good of a shooter to keep coming up short in the clutch. But for now I'm fully satisfied with his Howardish 20 points and 16 rebounds and un-Howardish zero turnovers. Would anyone rather have Charlie Villanueva right now?
Luke Ridnour. The vet, backup point again outplayed Jennings tonight, but let's keep him coming off the bench, where he's thriving. I continue telling myself (and you) that he can't shoot like this forever, but Ridnour's aim remained very on for at least another night. He was easily the team's most efficient offensive player with 20 points on 9-15 from the field, and he made his only free throw and three pointer.
But like Ilyasova, he missed at the end. And that decision to shoot a tough, fadeaway jumper with a new shot clock available and 27 seconds remaining in the game was certainly questionable. But he wasn't worrying about degree of difficulty the whole night, and they were mostly falling until then. Both he and Ilyasova gained the confidence throughout to attempt those decisive shots, and that's nice. So is 20 points, 6 assists and a couple steals from the backup point guard.
Hakim Warrick. Four straight 15+ point games for Warrick, who is forming a rather sufficient power forward duo along with Ersan. Hak belongs around the basket. He can start his dunk from just about anywhere inside the perimeter and make it happen. That's high percentage, even if he misses a dunk, like he did once tonight (those two points would've been nice). And he usually has that one-track-dunk-mind. So it was a bit strange to see three falling-away jumpers look so very clean in the first half.
I like that he made those jumpers, but even on a good night like this one he only made 3-7 on shots outside the paint. Warrick is one of the few Bucks who is capable of getting to the line (led the team in making a modest 4-4 free throws tonight) and he gets there when aggressive. Diversifying the offensive portfolio is great, but right now he can drive to the basket with authority like no other Buck, so let's focus on that, cool?
6. The Bucks committed just six turnovers in the entire game, the same number as Dwight Howard had all by his lonesome. The starting backcourt of Jennings and Bell combined for just a single turnover in 70 minutes.
8-9. Milwaukee made 8-9 three pointers to start the game, helping push them to an early lead. Ultimately they couldn't sustain shooting threes like that, or not-so-coincidentally the lead. But they still outshot the three-point-happy Magic from outside, making a marksmanlike11-19 in the game compared to 8-22 for Orlando.
56.0 %. A game after facing the league's most accurate from the line in OKC, the Bucks faced the NBA's worst free throw shooting team, and the Magic lived down to the billing by hitting just 14-25 (.560) from the line. Combined with Milwaukee's hot outside shooting, this one was ripe for the taking.
Happy home. I don't know (or maybe I don't want to know) how close to .500 the Bucks can play on the road, but all indications are that they will post plenty of wins at home. The only two losses so far came against a very good Mavs team on a Dirk overtime buzzer-beater, and now tonight against the (improved) defending Eastern Conference champs by a couple points. Milwaukee had chances to win both games, and opponents haven't looked very happy following pre-game warmups at the BC this year.
Not a bad home performance yet among eight, and attendance reached a season-high 16,128 tonight... feelin' like a legit home court advantage.
Supersubs. Missing three usual starters in Bogut, Redd, and Mbah a Moute, Milwaukee's bench realistically shouldn't be so hot. Especially compared to a very good, deep team in better health. Ryan Anderson, J.J. Redick, and Brandon Bass lead one of the finest seconds units in the league, but the Bucks' bench was better tonight. The aforementioned Ridnour and Warrick were stars and scored a dozen more points (36) than the entire Magic bench.
And with Dan Gadzuric accurately deemed helpless against Howard (4 fouls in 4 minutes), Kurt Thomas assumed the unenviable task of guarding the superstar for almost 30 minutes. He slowed, even frustrated Howard some, and pulled down a few offensive boards in a solid run off the bench.
Care. Skiles has spoken often recently about the Bucks turning the ball over too much. Just six turnovers tonight. And after a couple weeks having trouble while facing tremendous defensive pressure and specific gameplans targeting him, Jennings didn't commit a single turnover against a good defensive team, ranked 5th in the NBA coming in.
Leads to losses. Going into this game, the Bucks had no business winning, but once you accumulate a lead as big as 17, it's yours to lose. And they lost it. The Magic are really good, and if this was something new, it would be more understandable. But after so recently blowing the Hornets game, it's not new at all. And they crashed pretty hard against the Bulls to start this month, too. I don't see the Bucks coming back from big deficits to win, so there is really no evening out here.
The Bucks led by 17 points with under three minutes in the first half after a three by Jennings. Even against a premier opponent like the Magic, that's a healthy lead. But Milwaukee quite quickly gave it up, as Orlando closed to within nine by halftime.
In fact, the Bucks closed quarters poorly all night. After allowing that game-high 17 point second quarter lead dwindle to nine, they finished the third quarter even worse. Up 70-58 with four and change left in the third, the Magic went on a 15-2 run to take a lead into the fourth quarter. And we know how that quarter ended...
The end. Skiles maintained that it was the correct decision to play straight-up defense down by two on the final possession.
"I would foul if it was a bad foul shooter, but we've got to be able to make a stop right there, get the rebound, take a timeout, and have another chance," Skiles said.
But with 27 seconds and thusly a three second difference between the shot and game clock, the Magic could and should have waited until the last second to shoot, which would have left maybe a second if the Bucks secured the defensive rebound... which obviously was never meant to be anyway. Not sure I'm comfortable with that defensive philosophy though. Okay, I am sure. That I'm not.
Hurting. If Redd was perfectly spritely the past few games, that would be a bigger problem than any. So it's reassuring in some ways that Mike is still hurting; at least we can assume he will eventually play better, which shouldn't be too difficult. But the fact the team's two biggest, pre-Jennings names never seem quite right is a real worry hanging over the franchise even while the rest of the club plays so admirably in their absence.
It doesn't help that Mbah a Moute, who was originally considered day-to-day, doesn't physically appear ready to return right away.