SAN ANTONIO -- Just when it looked like Milwaukee's Texas two-step was about to earn another step, Manu Ginobli nailed a fall-away jumper as time expired to save the San Antonio Spurs and their (now) six-game winning streak. Milwaukee, after an awful first half in which they shot 36% to the Spurs' 58, had fought all the way back with a combination of timely tip-ins, absurdly athletic plays, and what seemed like an endless string of rejections by Andrew Bogut. Even after everyone knew what was coming, even after Manu waved off the Duncan screen drawn up on the sidelines, stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was powerless to stop Ginobli's shot, a shot that seemed to be taken while he flew horizontally through the air.
The first recap I wrote for this site was after Milwaukee's disappointing loss in Boston, where a few late-game free-throws by Paul Pierce stole back what would have been an impressive victory from the Bucks' hooves. This game had the same feel, but there was a greater feeling of opportunity tonight. For all of Milwaukee's struggles; for all the focus on struggling acquisitions and offensive ratings and historically bad shooting, they had just knocked off an elite Western Conference team and were this close to doing it again.
Once again though, defeat is a difficult pill to swallow. You were cheering for the Bucks simply because they had made the game interesting. You were cheering because you know, despite his nearly indescribable defense, Andrew Bogut will not get the credit he deserves at All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. You and I both were cheering because this is what Milwaukee is capable of, every single night. If that locker room didn't know it before, they do now. The sad truth is that tonight, whatever they mustered up wasn't enough, and there's no guarantee it will be enough when the Jazz stroll into town on Saturday.
Many (myself included), were fully prepared to write the Bucks off after their dreadful first half. Granted, Milwaukee faced an even greater deficit against Dallas than they did in San Antonio, but their struggles seemed different tonight. Milwaukee was sloppy, but always seemed to be running the court. They drove to the basket seemingly at will, but the end result always seemed to be a fast-break layup for their opponent. It wasn't just missed jumper after missed jumper; there didn't even seem to be an effort to get jumpers.
Yet for the second game in a row, the Bucks showed a raw intensity after the break that made one wonder if chemical stimulants were employed. But even this intensity was different. Against Dallas, it was formulaic and structured: Dallas stopped hitting shots, Milwaukee started making them, and the game had about-faced before you knew it. This comeback was as ugly as it was enthralling. San Antonio seemed for a time content to alternate horrible turnovers with effortless drives to the hoop by Manu. Brandon Jennings blew past Tony Parker and George Hill like he was on roller blades, only to have the ball knocked from his hands by a towering opponent. Each team clawed at each other, and Milwaukee dug in deeper than I would have ever thought possible had I not seen it two days earlier.
The 4th quarter play-by-play almost seems fake, looking back. At one point, Bogut had blocked three of the Spurs' last four shot attempts. "Chris Douglas-Roberts makes 2-foot two point shot" should read, "Chris Douglas-Roberts collects what is left of ball after Bogut block, weaves across halfcourt, goes left right left right left right again, slings ball through rim with full extension righty-running-hook shot."
It was a game where the spectator follows a familiar progression of viewing: start reclined in a desk chair, casually keeping an eye on your fantasy team and flipping back to the Celtics/Knicks epic taking place simultaneously. At halftime, you heat up the remaining slices of a Tombstone Garlic Bread Supreme pizza. As the second half proceeds, you inch the desk chair closer to the TV and tell your roommate to stop playing Call of Duty and turn the freaking Bucks game on. Soon you're running back and forth between bedroom and living room because the feeds are a half-second out of sync. Eventually you're stuck standing in front of the big screen, hands folded on top of your head, wondering if Manu Ginobli's own Texas three-step should have drawn a whistle.
Andrew Bogut: Statistically, this wasn't quite at the same level as Andrew's gem in Dallas (other than the block total), but when Bogut entered the game at 9:42 left in the fourth, he basically erected a brick wall around the basket. From that point on, the Spurs made one layup, while Andrew rejected 5 of their shots. It was enough to make Jeremy over at Bucksketball wonder about the accepted hierarchy of interior defenders these days
Chris Douglas-Roberts: CDR has arrived. He flashed moments of excellence from the first day he hit the court in a Bucks uniform. Tonight, he often looked like an offensive star, twisting around the bucket and finishing great drop-off passes from Bogut. More than once, a crisp half-court set for the Bucks delivered the ball to CDR for an open three, which he happily swished through the net. It was a welcome sight from a floor spot that has frequently plagued Milwaukee's offense.
Drew Gooden: Gooden quietly had an excellent night and made one of the biggest plays of the game, tipping in a Jennings miss to tie the game with under a minute left. He finished with a 20/11 double-double, played good defense, drew fouls, and made his freebies. Gooden is quickly removing himself from the conversation on Milwaukee's struggling newcomers.
7: Andrew Bogut has 2 blocks entering the 4th quarter. He finished with 7. Every single one gifted strength to Milwaukee and sapped it from San Antonio. Bogut might be a better shot blocker at the rim than anyone else alive.
5: Total number of minutes for Corey Maggette and John Salmons combined. Salmons sat out with back spasms, while Maggette picked up two fouls and a pair of rebounds in limited time. Both were acquired to do one thing: score points. Tonight, neither did, and Milwaukee lost by two against the team with the best record in the NBA.
22: Fast break points for San Antonio. This was primarily an issue in the first half, when the Bucks saw just about every one of their own misses translate into a long outlet pass and Spur layup. The Spurs average an NBA-best 19 fast break points per game, and Milwaukee really cracked down late, but the problem I highlighted in the most recent "What's Working, What's Not" was largely responsible for the hole Milwaukee had to dig out of.
Two-Man Game: In more than one way, the Bucks had their pick and roll offense rolling tonight. Brandon Jennings really couldn't buy a shot, going 4-of-18 from the floor (his two threes came at the end of the first half when nobody was really paying attention), but his quickness terrified the Spurs into blanketing him off every screen. He finished with 7 assists, most coming in the second half as he and Gooden worked a nice looking pick-and-pop game. But the really pretty stuff featured Bogut and CDR, who played a give-and-go set on the low block that looked polished and exciting. It was a great sight for a team who's designated playmakers were M.I.A or struggling to score.
Three-Point Shooting: The Bucks kept their hot shooting alive, going 6-11 from deep. The floor spacing benefits when those shots are falling cannot be overstated. It's nice to see every starter except Bogut drain a trey.
Confidence: I said it after the Boston loss, and I'll say it again: at the end of the season, valiant defeats are as valuable as blowout-losses. And, like then, I'll ignore it and harp on how proud this team should be of what it has accomplished in the past few days. No doubt the players were just as tired of hearing about offensive ineptitude and underachieving as the fans, and while consistency remains an issue, everyone knows what they're capable of now. Keep it going, gentlemen.
Slow Start: The Bucks were terrible in the first half. They couldn't defend the Spurs anywhere on the court and they couldn't get anything going on offense. Frankly, it was surprising that the Spurs never distanced themselves more. While this poor start granted us the chance to watch an incredibly exciting game, the outcome of these games isn't likely to change unless the Bucks can get things started from the opening tip.
Manu being Manu: Ginobli had a phenomenal night. 26 points on 13 shots and the game winner says that pretty effectively, but it was more than that. Until Octo-Bogut arrived in the 4th quarter, Manu could not be stopped as he euro-stepped his way through the lane time after time. He's a great player who absolutely showed up tonight, and while Milwaukee minimized the offensive damage from most of the Spurs' lineup, Manu killed them beginning, middle, and very, very end.
Missed Opportunity: All the confidence in the world still feels cheap when you're 10-14. That's where Milwaukee sits, halfway through a tough December. Hopefully these stretches of excellent play become the norm.