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Bulls 90, Bucks 77: Rose, Boozer and Deng too talented for shorthanded Milwaukee

For those hoping the Bucks can get back to where they were a year ago, I have good news and bad news. 

The good news is that the Bucks after 30 games are exactly where they were a year ago: 12-18. Yay. The bad news? Well, it's becoming increasingly difficult to foresee the Bucks getting anywhere close to the level that saw them finish the 09/10 season on a 34-18 tear.

The Bucks' 90-77 defeat in Chicago in many ways epitomizes what's right and ultimately wrong with the current club, some of it the product of unfortunate circumstance, but much of it self-inflicted. Informed prior to the game that Earl Boykins would be suspended for nudging an official against Atlanta, the Bucks were down to a single point guard against one of the league's best at the position, which only added to the usual injured suspects: Brandon Jennings, Carlos Delfino, Drew know the drill. But the Bucks mucked it up long enough to hang with the division-leading (and Joakim Noah-less) Bulls before the presence of Rose (18 pts, 12 ast, Carlos Boozer (24 pts/9 rebs), and Luol Deng (24 points on 15 shots) overwhelmed them down the stretch. It's not exactly a desirable outcome, but given what we know about this team--and everyone that's missing--it's beginning to feel strangely acceptable.  

A blowout seemed like it could be in the offing early on, with the Bucks getting off to an 0/7 start from the field that saw them trail 9-0 less than four minutes into the game. On the one hand you kind of figured the Bucks would somehow manage to scrape their way back into the game--after all, they were crashing the boards, working hard, and this is what they do. But it also speaks volumes about the state of the Buck offense that they can start off missing everything and regular viewers like us don't bat an eye. 

Bogut missed a chippy on the Bucks first possession and that became a theme of the evening, as our old friend Kurt Thomas had disappointingly little trouble keeping Bogut from getting buckets despite ample opportunities around the hoop. Though he was once again a major factor on the boards (16 rebs) and as a help defender (4 blk), Bogut struggled offensively for the second time in as many nights, following up his 7/19 night against Jason Collins and company with a Chris Dudley-esque 2/12 night (and 0/2 free throws) that featured two tip-ins and a bunch of awkward, challenged shots inside 10 feet. 

But the Bucks' ugliness seemed to lull the Bulls to sleep for extended periods, no more so than in the second quarter when the Bucks somehow outscored Chicago 30-17 to claim a completely illogical 45-44 halftime lead. The Bucks' much-maligned wing duo of John Salmons and Corey Maggette were a big part of it, getting after it off the dribble and combining to score 11 straight for Milwaukee, which managed to spell Dooling at the point with an awkward combination of Salmons and Douglas-Roberts. The Bucks' renewed energy was also reflected in their frequent trips to the line--10 of their 18 free throws came in the period.

The Bulls started the third with an 8-0 run, and while they couldn't put the Bucks away their recipe for success had been established. Skiles decided Bogut was the only guy he could trust to defend Boozer, but the bigger, slower Aussie had to play slightly off the quicker Boozer and could only watch as he rained in mid-range jumpers much of the night.  Meanwhile, Dooling and the Bucks had a clear plan to shepherd Rose into the corners and try to force him into a playmaking role. Dooling shaded Rose to the baseline most of the night and relied on a help defender to force Rose into passing, but the former #1 pick accepted the challenge and found cutters and open shooters enough to keep the Bucks honest (12 ast, 2 to).  He didn't score at his usual clip (18 points on 17 shots), but overall he did more than enough.   

Maggette helped keep the Bucks in it by scoring their final six points to close the third, but the Bucks still found themselves down five to start the fourth, and it was clear the game was slipping away even while the scoreboard said otherwise. After a 1/7 first half that featured five of his shots swatted inside, Chris Douglas-Roberts' baseline floater salvaged a disjointed Bucks possession to score the first points of the fourth, and Bogut brought them back within three a couple minutes later on a tip-in to close another near-disastrous possession.

But their luck finally ran out midway through the fourth when a 12-2 run blew it open. Boozer sized up Bogut and dropped a pair of jumpers over top of the NBA's leading shot-blocker, Korver drained a catch-and-shoot midrange jumper, and Korver and Rose put the nail in the coffin with a pair of long threes.

Three Bucks

Luc Mbah a Moute. This one's pretty easy because he was the only guy who actually played well. Mbah a Moute's work on the offensive boards gave the Bucks a shot of energy in the early going, and he mixed in a couple jumpers and some nifty slashes to the hoop in one of his better offensive performances of the season. Back in the starting lineup, and he deserved to be.

Corey Maggette. I feel weird endorsing Maggette's play tonight--yes, he was pressing and sloppy at times with three turnovers in 26 minutes--but 15 points on 8 shots (6/10 ft) is like manna from heaven on a team as offensively horrendous as the Bucks. He provided a clear boost when the Bucks made their move in the second quarter and kept them alive late in the third as well. He ran out of gas in the fourth, but he had plenty of company.  

Keyon Dooling. We already talked about Bogut's Jekyll/Hyde night, but Dooling deserves mention if only because he was the only Buck point guard who actually suited up. He wasn't asked to lock down Rose by himself, but gamely chased the Bucks' floor leader around the court and did about as well as you could hope given the circumstances. His offensive numbers were modest (11 pts on nine shots, six assists) except for an uncharacteristic four turnovers.

Three Numbers

19. The Bucks' surprising Achilles heel of late has been allowing opponents a ton of second chances, but tonight they hung with the Bulls for 42 minutes purely because of it.  Bogut and Mbah a Moute grabbed six offensive boards apiece as Milwaukee racked up a 51-42 rebounding edge on the strength of their 19-6 edge on the offensive glass. It didn't always seem like the Bucks had a ton of guys crashing the boards, but the ball seemed to bounce their way for a change and one guy often seemed to outwork a handful of Bulls to get the Bucks their much-needed reloads.

24%. Salmons and Bogut combined for 7/29 from the field...these are your go-to guys, ladies and gentlemen.

30. The Bucks fought back to take a surprising halftime lead thanks to a rather unforeseen 30-point second quarter. Ten free throws played a big part of it, as did a couple of made jump shots.

Two Good

Energy. If the Bucks had been able to bring this kind of energy last night against the Hawks they might have salvaged at least one win out of the week; nevermind that they probably would have lost tonight's game by 40 without it. Nineteen offensive boards were crucial to keeping the Bucks in it and they also looked better on the defensive end, limiting Chicago to six offensive rebounds.

Time off.  The Bucks get three days off before taking on the Mavs at home on New Year's Day, so let's hope they use the time to get a bit healthier (and who knows, maybe some more shooting practice). Word is also that Drew Gooden may be ready to return against Dallas on New Year's Day following a cortisone shot to his injured heel--that would at least shore up the Bucks' frontline a bit.

Three Bad

No O. Is it just silly that we're expecting the Bucks' offense to maybe-kinda-possibly turn around?  Even just a little?

With the current injuries it's clear that 90 points is a major victory--and on most nights good enough for victory--but injuries don't explain Bogut and Salmons struggling so mightily from the field when they're needed most. Not that they're alone. Ilyasova continues to lay bricks (4/13) and Chris Douglas-Roberts' invisibility continued for the fifth straight game (2/11), getting packed five times in the first half alone. Hey, shooting 32% requires a team effort.

Old reliable. Jeremy made a good point in his preview about the reliability of the Bulls' stars and the complete unpredictability of everyone on the Bucks. Even when Jennings was healthy, you never felt comfortable relying on anyone to give you 15-20 ppg with healthy efficiency, and that's really the essence of the Bucks' offensive issues. While you expect better, it's not really shocking for Bogut to score four points on 2/12 shooting, just as it's not surprising for Salmons or Maggette to be largely ineffective any given night.  In many ways the problem boils down to the Bucks having a bunch of guys that are neither great shooters nor great athletes.

Bottoms out. The Bucks once again hit six games below .500, a dangerous position with the Mavericks, Heat (home and away), and Magic up next. It's very conceivable the Bucks could fall to 12-22 before they get a winnable road game in New Jersey, and even that is followed by games in Atlanta and a home tilt against the Spurs. I wouldn't put it past the Bucks to steal any of those games, but I can't help but wonder what happens if the Bucks end up around 13-24 once the schedule finally begins to soften up.  That certainly wouldn't kill off the Bucks' playoffs hopes--heck, they're still in the eighth spot as we speak--but the bigger concern is whether you can keep the team working hard while the losses mount. This club has been very resilient in that sense so far, but you can only hope it continues.