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Pistons 103, Bucks 89: Milwaukee hits rock bottom in Central

So let's just put this out there: the 10/11 Bucks--the guys that we've seen playing actual NBA basketball games thus far--are not a good team. 

More specifically, they are not the team we hoped they would be, but rather a 5-10 team with significant work to do in order to get back to the levels expected of them a month ago. And while there are certainly extenuating circumstances which help rationalize some of that--injuries to Andrew Bogut and Carlos Delfino come to mind--we also need to be realistic about the hole that they are digging themselves at this still early stage of the season.  The season is long--remember the 12-18 start a year ago--but starting slowly and losing against the teams you're supposed to beat only narrows the margin of error with the remaining part of the schedule.

That hole continued to get deeper on Friday, as they officially took over the title of worst team in the Central following a fairly one-sided loss to the normally mediocre-at-best Pistons. Detroit looked sharper, more talented, and significantly more confident, and even the Bucks' usually stingy defense could do nothing to stop them for more than a few possessions at a time. It wasn't so much a matter of effort as it was focus and consistency, the same plight that has thus far doomed them on offense as well. 

It didn't take long to see it, either, as Rodney Stuckey, Rip Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince set the early tone for their effiecient scoring nights by splashing in mid-range jumpers to stake the Pistons to an early 22-12 lead that the Bucks never really recovered from. While Stuckey didn't exploit Brandon Jennings on the block as much as he hoped, the Pistons consistently moved the ball and found makable shots. 

Overall, Detroit shot exceptionally well (56.2%), and some of that was certainly independent of Milwaukee's defensive effort. But the Bucks were also making the kind of mental miscues that greatly simplify things. Poor weakside rotations twice allowed Jason Maxiell to spring free for dunks early on, Tayshaun Prince similarly waltzed in for an early dunk, and the Pistons caught the Bucks' transition defense napping on a number of occasions as well.

At 29-15, the Bucks looked well on their way to their fifth straight loss, but they dusted themselves off and Jennings went to work with a handful of drives through the Pistons' poor P&R defense. The lead was just 33-30 when Ersan Ilyasova (14 pts/11 rebs) splashed in a long jumper, but the Bucks shot themselves in the foot shortly thereafter. Crashing back down to earth after his 18 point effort on Wednesday, Keyon Dooling saw a speculative 20-foot bounce pass intercepted, compounding the error by committing a clear path foul on Ben Gordon going the other way. The sentiment was right, but the outcome was rather wrong. Not only did Gordon hit the throws, but Stuckey then drove to the hoop for a three point play, capping a five point possession that helped assure the Pistons a double-digit lead at the half.

The Bucks then showed an early sign of life in the third--Detroit's Achilles heel thus far--but it proved fleeting. John Salmons, underwhelming as ever up to that point, wriggled past Ben Wallace on the baseline to finish an and-one on the reverse, Jennings then sprinted through the PIston transition defense to find Mbah a Moute for a layup, and Drew Gooden drilled a baseline jumper to make it 55-50.  The Bucks had begun to show some energy with Ilyasova, Mbah a Moute and Gooden combining to deny Maxiell and Prince around the hoop, but it was seemingly gone in a flash once the Pistons calmed down. Over the next four possessions, Hamilton made one jumper and assisted on three other hoops, restoring the Pistons' commanding lead and making the final 18 minutes of the game fairly academic.

Three Bucks

Ersan Ilyasova. It hasn't gotten the headlines, but Ilyasova's struggles have been yet another key cog in the Bucks' engine of disappointment. So it was certainly nice to see him come in and immediately start making shots in the second, helping the Bucks claw within a 34-30 margin that suggested they still had a good shot at turning the game around. Ilyasova got the better of Charlie Villanueva early on, but Villanueva hit an open three in the third and then piled up eight more points with the game in hand in the fourth.  

Brandon Jennings. Jennings' 25 points were pretty hollow in a statistical sense--he needed 22 shots and 11 free throws to get there, which translates to a well-below average 47% true shooting figure. But from the start Jennings was aggressive and attacking the Pistons' soft P&R defense, getting the vast majority of his shots in the immediate basket area and looking like the only Buck capable of creating anything offensively. Many of his attempts also had a fairly high degree of difficulty thanks to shot-blockers like Wallace and Maxiell, which is also why he shot such a low percentage in spite of the proximity of most of his shots (6/14 at the rim).

But from a qualitative perspective it was actually an encouraging, aggressive performance, particularly after his miserable night in Cleveland on Wednesday. For some reason the Pistons' bigs didn't show hard on P&R, often forcing Stuckey and Bynum to go under screens to track Jennings, who by that time usually had the crease he needed to get to the rim. That's the kind of defense you'd hope to see more of if you're the Bucks, though the Pistons seemed to catch on in the second half as they began to show/recover more consistently. With the Bucks' other options continuing to struggle, Jennings took an increasing offensive burden as the first half wore on, and he was a big reason why the Bucks trailed by only 10 at the half. Should he have passed more once he got into the lane? Well sure, it'd be great if he could mix it up more on nights when he's not making a high percentage, but looking around at his options I don't feel strong condemnation is in order.

Jennings also got Stuckey in foul trouble, but the bigger Piston was also vastly more efficient, using his length and strength to post an excellent 8/12 shooting line for 18 points along with seven assists in just 28 minutes. 

Larry Sanders. I'll downplay Sanders' offensive contributions since half of his four field goals came in the waning minutes when both teams had lost interest in defense, but overall it was a second straight encouraging performance from the 15th overall pick. Sanders emphatically blocked two shots and altered a slew of others, defending the paint admirably with Bogut absent, and he also logged his first double-figure rebounding game in a well-deserved 31 minutes. Probably the most notable thing about Sanders' game the past week has been his ability to position himself better defensively and avoid fouling every time he gets near the ball--the kind of thing Skiles is no doubt weighing heavily in his increased utilization (aside from Bogut's obvious absence).   

Three Numbers

56.2%. I'll go out on a limb and say there's zero chance the Bucks win a game right now surrendering 56% shooting to their opponents. 

21. Another night of bricks from the Bucks helped lead to a season-high 21 offensive rebounds, matching the Bucks' season high from a year ago. Which, strangely enough, also came in a loss to the Pistons.

28. The Pistons tallied a season-high in assists, including a surprising nine dimes from Rip Hamilton. Overall it was just a nice performance from Detroit, which ran their screen plays diligently, finished around the rim (17/26), and also made more than their fair share of jump shots (7/9 from 10-15 feet, 10/20 long twos, 7/14 threes). 

No Good One Good

Ball control. So I took another look and I think I found something!  With only nine turnovers, the Bucks actually took care of the ball much better than we've seen so far this season, an issue that we've highlighted on a number of occasions as a contributor to the Bucks' offensive struggles. Unfortunately, a couple of those turnovers were especially memorable--Dooling's aforementioned bad pass in the second and Jennings' careless fumble near halfcourt that allowed Villanueva to swoop in for a dunk in the third. And despite taking better care of the ball, the Pistons were somehow credited with more points off turnovers (23-22) than the Bucks. Hey, I didn't say the transition defense was good...

Three Bad

Defensive execution. Odds are the Pistons would have scored pretty well on anyone tonight, but the Bucks didn't consistently do the little things correctly most of the night. Maxiell's early dunks were a good example, and had little to do with effort and all to do with one team executing better than the other.

Missing Carlos. The Bucks never made fewer than three triples in a game last year, but they were again held below that figure with their 2/14 effort tonight. With Bogut sidelined, Carlos Delfino out and everyone else laying bricks (principally Jennings, Dooling, and Salmons), the Bucks become rather easy to defend, don't they? What's especially worrying is that we're beginning to hope that Delfino and CD-R will somehow provide a magic tonic once they return.  No doubt they'll certainly help, but the fact that the Bucks have lost to teams missing more important players (Durant/Green with OKC and Iguodala for Philly) suggests there's a lot more to it than just missing one guy who can hit three pointers.

More important is for Bogut to get on the court and begin providing some semblance of a threat in the post, while Salmons and Maggette need to score more consistently. Jennings making shots obviously helps as well, but we saw last spring the Bucks can win without Brandon scoring consistently so long as he defends and runs the offense effectively.    

The hole. The Bucks are now 5-10 with a winnable home game against Charlotte Saturday followed by some tough matchups on the road in Utah and Denver before a return home against Orlando. Beyond that, there's another West Coast trip in late Like last season, it's very possible the Bucks finish the calendar year well below .500 and need a major surge in the New Year to scrape back into the thick of the playoff picture, though it's also worth pointing out that just making the playoffs in the East won't exactly require a Herculean effort.