OK, so how do you want to take this one?
If you're an optimist, then consider that the Bucks took the league's best team down to the final 10 seconds for the second time in as many tries in Cleveland. John Salmons helped the Bucks weather some blistering Cavalier shot-making in the early going, and the Bucks' reserves helped Milwaukee fight back from a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter. It wasn't just that the Bucks were hanging around--they were actually leading by four with three minutes left at the Q. And all that despite some refereeing that was, well, not exactly doing the Bucks any favors.
Consider yourself a pessimist? Well, there was plenty to gripe about as well. As much as we might complain about the refs, there's no question Cleveland was the more aggressive team all night long, though they also helped the Bucks out by missing four straight free throws at one point in the final minutes. And for every big shot the Bucks made in the middle of the fourth--Ilyasova knocking down a pair of jumpers in the corner and Stackhouse, Ridnour and Salmons all burying big threes--there were also plenty of missed opportunities late in the game. Bogut missed a layup that would have extended Milwaukee's lead to five with 2:25 remaining. Ilyasova missed a wide-open triple with 55 seconds left and the Bucks leading by two. With 13 seconds left and the Bucks down two, the Bucks curiously ran a play that trapped Salmons in the corner, where J.J. Hickson stripped the ball off Salmons' knee. And with the Bucks trailing by three and no timeouts, Ridnour squandered the final possession by meekly throwing a cross-court pass that LeBron James (who was merely good rather than great for the night) picked off to seal the Cavs' 33rd home win in 37 tries.
Either way, the Bucks played well enough to have their chances down the stretch--about as much as you can hope for in a gym like Cleveland's. For that they deserve some credit, but there's also no question that they didn't take advantage of those chances when it mattered most. Progress? Maybe. But with Miami just a half game back there's no longer much time for silver linings.
John Salmons: 43 min, 28 pts, 9/16 fg, 3/7 threes, 7/7 ft, 7 ast, 5 reb, 1 stl, 3 to
I've always viewed Anthony Parker as a solid defender, but then again I'm also not entirely sure how I got that impression in the first place. Wherever it came from, Salmons didn't have too much trouble getting wherever he wanted against Parker all night, slithering into the lane and around the cup with ease en route to another big scoring night.
Andrew Bogut: 33 min, 19 pts, 9/17 fg, 1/2 ft, 12 reb, 3 ast, 2 blk, 3 to
Bogut's struggles on back-to-backs are well-chronicled, so it's tough to complain too much about a 19/12 night, though the absence of Shaq and Anderson Varejao left the Cavs fairly shorthanded up front. Bogut dealt with a steady diet of double teams and wasn't entirely convincing even when single-covered, but he managed enough garbage buckets and got enough help from his teammates to put together a solid line.
Luke Ridnour: 29 min, 11 pts, 5/13 fg, 1/4 threes, 11 ast, 3 reb, 2 to
Brandon Jennings started promsingly enough, picking Mo Williams' pocket for a layup and burying a three in the game's first five minutes. Then he got hit for a couple unnecessary fouls on Mo and he didn't score again. Fortunately, part of that was because Skiles had the luxury of riding Ridnour, who contributed not so much with hot shooting (5/13 fg definitely doesn't quaify) but by marshaling the offense and keeping the ball moving against a Cavs team that looked a bit slower in their rotations than usual.
+36. The Cavs absolutely destroyed the Bucks at the line, going 36/45 from the stripe compared to just 8/9 from the Bucks. I'm not big on conspiracy theories, but I'll admit a handful of the fouls called against the Bucks were fairly frustrating. But let's not fool ourselves--referees alone can't come close to accounting for this kind of FT differential, and the aggressiveness differential between the two teams is a problem we've seen on all too many occasions this season.
42-27. The Bucks got a boost from their reserves, as Ridnour, Ilyasova and Kurt Thomas all cracked double digits en route to a +15 edge in bench scoring.
7. As we know from his days in Milwaukee, Mo Williams doesn't get to the line much. Well, usually. So it was symbolic of the night's struggles that Mo finished 7/8 from the stripe, the first time he's had more than five FTA in a game since Christmas Day.
Slammin' Salmons. Another big night from Salmons, who continues to look startlingly like a #1 scoring option. That should also pay dividends late in games down the stretch, though Salmons' couldn't conjure up enough late-game heroics tonight.
Consistency. The Bucks couldn't make enough plays in the final minutes, but in general it's tough to knock the effort level and execution they showed for the vast majority of the night. Cleveland has more than enough firepower to run most teams out of the building, but the Bucks--starters and reserves alike--kept their composure and gave themselves a chance to win it. It was in many ways similar to the Bucks' surprise victory in Denver--only Cleveland was better than the Nuggets and it showed in the final scoreline.
Mo'd down. After a brutal performance in Milwaukee that had Jennings chirping throughout, Mo got revenge with 21 points on 12 shots, six dimes, and no turnovers. He blew by Jennings with ease on a number of occasions and forced the rookie into two early fouls that seemed to completely derail his evening.
Missing Carlos. Charlie Bell valiantly worked to keep James from single-handedly destroying the Bucks, while Stackhouse hit a couple big threes and had the unenviable task of defending James in the final minutes. That said....Bell missed all five of his shots and Stackhouse was just 2/7 from the field in addition to his customary three turnovers in 25 minutes. Carlos Delfino may not be a world-beater, but the Bucks need him back in the lineup if only to limit the number of minutes demanded of Bell and Stackhouse.
Finishing. Though still probably their Achilles' heel, the Bucks' inability to finish games hasn't been too noticeable of late. But there's something about watching Lebron James and the Cavs which reminds you just how good you don't have it in late-game situations.