Let's not kid ourselves. When your team has dropped eight of its last nine, there's no such thing as a moral victory, even if it's a hard-fought game on the Celtics' home floor. But let's at least say this: the Bucks' rather predictable loss in Boston at least had more to do with the Celtics being damn good than the Bucks simply being bad.
Unlike Sunday, the Bucks were playing catch-up early but this time held their composure for about 44 minutes. A big reason was Andrew Bogut, who settled the Bucks early on by dropping a series of hooks with both hands en route to 12 first quarter points. Brandon Jennings again had a slow start, missing three shots before heading to the bench midway through the first, but came back in time to toss a tough runner high off the glass going to his left for a three point play to end the first. Improbably, the Bucks not only were in it, but had a one-point lead.
The second quarter was largely the same story from a flow perspective. Both teams rested their starters for longer stretches, and Bogut was held shotless with two turnovers, though he also notched three assists. But as much as the Celtics made short spurts, they couldn't put together the consistency needed to put the Bucks away. The Bucks again finished respectably, as Delfino buried a late three and Jennings dropped in a floater near the buzzer to bring the Bucks within a point at the half.
Kevin Garnett (25 points, 9/13 fg) started to get on a roll in the third, burying four open jumpers as Rajon Rondo (11 pts, nine boards, 13 ast) used P&R to get in the lane and kick to open teammates seemingly everytime down the court. But Bogut answered with eight of his own and the Celtics' role players had less luck--Eddie House and Brian Scalabrine among those missing open looks that had the Garden crowd ready to explode.
Unfortunately, in crunch time the Celtics simply played like the Celtics. And the Bucks, well, they played like you'd expect the Bucks to play on the road against the league's best defense. After Delfino found Ilyasova surprisingly open for a layup to tie it at 86, Rondo (40% ft shooting coming in) hit a pair of freebies and stuck a mid-range jumper shortly thereafter. It was the capper on a big quarter for Rondo, who scored all 11 of his points in the decisive period, including 5/7 from the stripe. Bogut then turned it over on consecutive possessions, and Garnett dumped a righty hook over Ilyasova to extend the Boston to lead to 93-86. Ballgame.
Andrew Bogut. Bogut finished the game with an unsightly seven turnovers, but that shouldn't overshadow the fact that he was miles better than he's been the past three games (25 points, 11/17 fg, 14 rebs, five assists, two blocks). It was mostly what we expect of Bogut at his best: when he posted deep he finished with both hands, and when further out he was able to put the ball on the deck and get equally good looks. He even had one improbable turnaround fadeaway with the clock running down and made each of his three free throws--one of those nights apparently.
Ersan Ilyasova. Garnett was able to take it to Ilyasova on the rare occasions he got the ball on the block, and Ilyasova's shot generally wasn't falling from outside. But otherwise the Turkish Delight held his own about as well as could be expected against Boston's best, scoring 19 (6/17 fg, 2/6 threes, 5/6 ft) to go with eight boards, and three steals in 43 minutes.
Carlos Delfino. Jennings (7/19 fg, 17 pts) had a flashier night, but Delfino provided both some shooting (12 points on 5/10 fg, 2/4 threes) and passing (team-high five assists). I'm not sure I like Delfino orchestrating the offense too much, but it's tough to complain when Delfino plays Ray Allen (13 pts on nine shots) to a draw.
52.2%. Though the Celtics couldn't crack the century mark, it's not to say the Bucks defended particularly well--Boston ended the game right around their averages with 108.9 pts scored/100 possessions and 98.9 pts/100 allowed. They came out looking to pound the Bucks inside, and eventually found their mid-range groove as well.
The Bucks certainly worked hard, but Rondo was seemingly able to draw the extra defender at will, forcing the Bucks to leave either Perkins open under the basket or Garnett open on the perimeter. And even though Rondo was basically no threat to score himself most of the night, he made almost no mistakes finding his talented teammates (13 dimes, one turnover). Whether it was the screener or someone setting up shop in the corner, Rondo's vision was tremendous and he's got the teammates to make him look good.
14. The Bucks got after it on the offensive glass and it helped keep them in the game--14 offensive and 45 total boards helped offset the Bucks' 43% shooting.
17. Turnover differential has generally been one of the Bucks' saving graces the past two seasons, but not tonight. The Bucks coughed it up 20 times--a whopping 17 on Boston steals--as the Celtics simply gave them no margin for error. The Celtics are just impressive all the way around on defense: they defend one-on-one, they take away passing lanes, they hedge/recover on P&R, they close out on shooters when you move the ball. The Bucks might not have seen the Celtics at their best tonight, but they probably saw enough to know why they're once again one of the league's toughest teams.
The Anchor. Technically Bogut's been back for over a week, but it's been three games since we saw the Bogut we want to see. As is so often the case, Bogut's ability to finish around the hoop was closely correlated with everything else about his game, and it was nice feeling like the Bucks had someone they could count on to create scoring opportunities whenever the crowd was starting to get into it. Turnovers not withstanding, this is the Bogut that we need to see every night.
The Prince. If practice made perfect, then Luc Mbah a Moute's development as a jump-shooter wouldn't be progressing so miserably. But as much as the Prince has struggled with his shot, his work-rate and footwork on defense is still a sight to behold. Paul Pierce didn't have a terrible line tonight (15 pts on nine shots, five turnovers), but thanks to Luc, he was among the least of the Bucks' problems.
Bouncing back. Unlike most of their recent losses, the Bucks at least didn't have anything to be ashamed of tonight. It was a road game, the Celtics are good, they were in it until late, blah blah. And tomorrow night the Bucks get a chance to bounce back quickly against a Calderon-less Raptors team in Milwaukee. No excuses.
Closing time. It's no secret that the Bucks don't have proven scorers they can rely on in crunch time--a void that was all the more obvious when you watch the Celtics with KG, Pierce and Allen all ready to drop daggers when the Celtics need a hoop.
Sure, Jennings has made some big shots, but he's had even more misses and turnovers--a theme that continued tonight as he misfired on a pair of late threes. Tonight Bogut fell victim to the turnover bug as well, coughing it up twice in the last four minutes as the Celtics made their surge. So while we used to always complain about Mike Redd's one-track mind late in games, I wouldn't mind having an 04/05 or 05/06 Redd around to make life easier at this point. Sadly, I'm not counting on it.
Bench. Luke Ridnour and Hakim Warrick have typically been reliable bench scorers of late; maybe not both at the same time, but typically one of them has provided a shot of energy to the second unit. Not tonight. Ridnour didn't make a field goal before going down with an elbow injury in the third quarter, and Warrick was a complete non-factor in 13 minutes. All told, the Bucks got just nine points on 2/11 shooting from the short bench of Ridnour, Warrick, and Bell.
Rondo'ed. It was a matchup of contrasting roles and styles for Jennings and Rondo. While the more trigger-happy Jennings is already carrying the burden of an entire franchise 20 games into his career, Rondo has steadily developed into one of the league's best all-around PGs while sharing the stage with three all-stars. I doubt either team would want to trade their guy for the other one--the Bucks need to roll the dice with a potential superstar and the Celtics need their more experienced jack-of-all-trades. On the positive side, Jennings showed some creative shot-making around the hoop...but he also missed all eight of his jumpers outside 15 feet. Live and learn.