If you were fortunate enough to miss the Bucks' latest uncompetitive loss, then let's start with a blunt assessment of the big picture. The final scoreline in Charlotte may have been vaguely respectable, but don't let it fool you: the Bucks continue to plow full-speed into the abyss of mediocrity, and with a trip to Orlando on Wednesday and a six-game Western swing starting next week, it may be a while before we know what rock bottom really is.
Not content with back-to-back double-digit losses at home, the Bucks showed that the closed-doors team meeting held last weekend was just that: talk. And after a ho-hum first quarter, the dam broke rather quickly in the second. The Bobs outworked and (predictably) outscored the Bucks in the second 33-14, with Flip Murray scoring 11 of his 17 in the period.
Michael Redd (0/4 fg, 2 pts) and Andrew Bogut (1/6 fg, 0/2 ft, 2 pts) did nothing in the first half, but Scott Skiles made his point in the second, benching both of his big money men for the final 24 minutes. Larry Brown didn't have the same problem, as his big gun Gerald Wallace dropped 21 and 14.
Skiles went with Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova and Kurt Thomas to start the third, and the desperation move started to pay off by the end of the period. Early in the third Jennings' began to make an impact against a Bobcat defense that was perhaps not as motivated with a 20+ point lead, scoring nine straight Buck points: a long jumper an acrobatic layup after splitting a double team, a long three and a floater.
However, the Bobs were still up by 18 when Jennings' binge ended at the six minute mark. They kept at it though, and Jennings' five assists helped the Bucks finally put a dent into the Bobs lead with a 15-8 run that included two threes apiece by Ilyasova and Ridnour. Some late freebies from Augustin pushed the lead back to 12 after three, but the Bucks had at least put themselves vaguely within striking distance with a more active defense and by pushing the ball more consistently in transition.
As it turns out, that was about as much as the Bucks' makeshift lineup could muster. Jennings started the fourth with a nice drive and bucket, but Stephen Graham--yes, Joey's bro--scored seven straight Bobcat points by attacking the Bucks' front line of Elson, Warrick and Mbah a Moute. The Bucks seemed to run out of gas and Skiles opted against reinserting Bogut and Redd, as the Bob lead swelled to as many as 18 before a small Bucks surge in the final minute.
Brandon Jennings: 41 min, 24 pts, 9/18 fg, 2/5 threes, 4/6 ft, 7 ast, 2 rebs, 5 to
Hello, silver lining. Anything is possible in the 2010 East, but I think most of us agree that far more important than the Bucks' playoff aspirations is the development of their 20-year old point guard. And on that front--and pretty much only that front--we had something to smile about tonight.
While much of his damage--15 of 24 points and five of seven assists--came in the second half with the Bobcats protecting a big lead, the game also started off promisingly for Jennings. Jennings didn't take a shot in the first six minutes (sound familiar?), but then sprung a baseline drive and reverse lay-in, a mid-range jumper, and a straight-away triple in a 62 second span. Ah yes, hope springs eternal.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute: 36 min, 9 pts, 3/6 fg, 3/4 ft, 10 reb, 3 to, 2 blk, 1stl
If he doesn't start in Orlando on Wednesday I'm not sure he ever will. Mbah a Moute wasn't great--Wallace still got his number--but Luc at least offered a typical workman-like performance.
Luke Ridnour: 23 min, 17 pts, 6/10 fg, 2/6 threes, 3/4 ft, 0 ast, 1 reb, 2 stl, 4 to
Ridnour was basically a shooting guard most of the night, failing to register an assist but continuing to shoot well with 17 points on just 10 shots. He unfortunately was a bit loose with the ball as well (4 TO), but the Bucks were their most dangerous when he was sharing the backcourt with Jennings in the third.
33-14. The Bucks won the third and fourth quarters by a combined 12 points, and only dropped the first by a 23-20 margin. Alright!
But yeah, the second quarter...not so much. It's not that the Bobs just shot the lights out, but they didn't have to: in attacking the paint they found plenty of easy shots, while the Bucks were thrilled to shoot a lot of jumpers--some contested, some not--and miss pretty much all of them. Missing shots is one thing--I don't think Delfino, Meeks, Bogut and Redd are now putting up bricks simply because they're not trying.
But when things started to go south the Bucks folded defensively as well. And that's something you worry about. With six minutes remaining the Bucks were down 38-26, so things were starting to go against them. But in the final six minutes of the quarter they surrendered six layups--some contested, some not. Besides, even a contested layup means somebody blew an assignment somewhere, and Bogut came up with a couple of terrific blocks to prevent two others. We know from the Bucks' poor record in close games that they haven't reacted well to pressure, but judging from this past week they don't seem to react well to adversity either.
38.5%. It's not that the Bucks were playing particularly selfishly, but they simply couldn't make shots. A 50-point second half masked it a bit, but sub-30% shooting in the first half was not surprisingly a big part of the Bucks' inexcusable 22-point deficit. Aside from Bogut and Redd's combined 1/10 effort, Carlos Delfino continued to struggle with a 1/5 night in 11 minutes, his only make coming on a tip-in. He's now 4/21 in his last four games (he's started all four, btw).
Jodie Meeks meanwhile continues to do a lot of things well--except shoot (1/7 fg). Pretty bizarre when you consider most draft experts thought shooting was the only thing he would ever be able to do in the NBA. In any case, I've been thinking about doing a separate post about this, but was hoping that his nice shooting performance against San Antonio might be the harbinger of something good. Nope. Instead, Meeks played respectably (seven boards, two assists, no turnovers in 25 minutes) but again couldn't find any rhythm on his shot. It's at least encouraging to see Skiles giving the kid a shot.
5. Consecutive points in the second quarter by DeSegana Diop on back-to-back "and one" plays. He missed one of his free throws, but watching a guy who averages less than 1 ppg beat Bogut on consecutive possessions energized the Bobs and stretched a 40-28 lead to 45-28. It also seemed to send the Bucks reeling--both on the scoreboard and in terms of body language. "Here we go again..."
Jennings. This was a big bounce-back game for the rookie, who was coming off by far his worst two-game stretch of the season. Jennings had played the entire second half when he finally went to the bench with under two minutes remaining in the game, visibly angry with himself and swinging at the air in disgust after missing a layup. No questioning the rookie's effort or heart tonight.
One slump ended...? Aside from Jennings, Ilyasova was the only other Buck to start both halves, and in making 5/10 field goals (2/4 threes) hopefully showed signs of breaking out of his recent slump. Ilyasova had been just 4/24 in his previous three games, matching Delfino brick-for-brick in that span.
A little dignity. There ended up being no escape from the 22 point halftime deficit, but at least the guys who played in the second half salvaged some respect by playing hard in the second half. Not a lot mind you, but...anyway, here's Skiles' take:
"I thought in the second half, we were much more like ourselves. We played very good defense. We moved the ball and at least gave ourselves a chance. It's unlikely you're going to come back and win that game against an NBA club, but we gave ourselves a chance. I was proud of the guys in the second half. It looked like we were trying win instead of just showing up to play."
Same starting five. Anyone else surprised to see Skiles stick again with the same starting five? I should begin by saying that the Bucks' starting five didn't hurt them in the first period--the game was tied at 12 when Skiles made his first substitution, bringing in Meeks for Redd. But there's still something to be said for changing things up with a team that has struggled executing on both ends.
What might Skiles have done differently? Jennings and Bogut are obvious starters, no arguments there. And it seems like Redd is almost a given at the 2 now that he's healthy, though you could certainly argue he hasn't earned it on most nights.
But given the Bucks' desperation mode it was a bit interesting to see Skiles stick with his starting forward pairing of Delfino and Ilyasova. To be clear I don't think Warrick is the answer at PF, but Ilyasova has't been able to do a damn thing the past week. Even an Ilyasova fan like myself wouldn't have begrudged Skiles the right to bench him temporarily, though Ersan thankfully repaid Skiles' trust (at least relative to everyone else) with a decent performance. So score that one for Skiles...I guess.
We can't say the same of Delfino, whose shooting slump--and streak of games started--continues. I would argue that giving Mbah a Moute a start at SF is an obvious move at this point, but then again I've been hoping for an Ilyasova/Mbah a Moute forward pairing (however flawed it may be) since the preseason. What's strange is that Skiles hasn't hesitated to pull Delfino from games early, yet he continues to start him. He played Mbah a Moute 36 minutes tonight, so it didn't take him long to figure out who his best option was at SF, but why not go for it from tip-off, particularly with Gerald Wallace lining up for the other side?
Shooting woes. It's easy to get pissed off and start questioning players' effort, but the fact is that the Bucks were never likely to win a game where they shoot this poorly. And as has been noted this isn't the start of the problem; Not even solid shooting nights from Jennings and Ridnour could outweigh clunkers by primary options Bogut and Redd, the continued struggles of Delfino, and bad shooting nights by Meeks (1/7) and Bell (0/4) to boot. Some of this stuff is just bound to pass, though it should be noted that Meeks and Redd--arguably the best two shotmakers on the team--haven't shown any consistency all year.
The long road ahead. It's off next to Orlando, followed by a home game against OKC and then a couple of more or less must-wins: @New Jersey followed by a home game against Chicago. After that it gets really tough with a six game Western swing that features five winning teams. All told, if things hold to form the Bucks would be looking at falling to something like 14-25 before they return to Milwaukee for a home-and-home with the Raptors January 20 and 22.