You can call the Bucks many things: frustrating, dysfunctional, mercurial, improving, regressing. Just don't call them predictable.
Two nights after slumping to a home defeat against the Hawks, the Bucks resumed their winning ways on the road with a bizarre come-from-behind win over the previously red-hot Rockets, snapping Houston's seven-game winning streak while extending their road streak to three games.
Unfortunately, part of what made the Bucks' win so unlikely could also spell bad news going forward. After helping the Bucks streak to a 12-0 start, Andrew Bogut sprained his ankle after landing awkwardly following a challenged shot. Though the big man limped off to the locker room under his own power, he was quickly ruled out for the rest of the game and his status remains unclear for Friday night's tilt in Chicago. Here we go again?
But let's ignore the potentially bad and focus on the good for now. After watching Kevin Martin (29 pts on 22 shots) help the Rockets surge to a 51-42 halftime advantage and lead by double-digits in the third quarter, the Bucks suddenly found their touch--and then some--at the end of the third. Riding the hot hands of reserves Mike Dunleavy (18 points on 11 shots) and Stephen Jackson (20 points on 16 shots), Milwaukee reeled off an absurd 20-0 run to lead by as many as 17 in the fourth before hanging on in the final minute.
And while Brandon Jennings (20 pts on 16 shots, 6 ast, 1 to) quietly outdueled Kyle Lowry (6 pts on 16 shots, 10 ast, 8 reb) in the game's marquee matchup, this win was really about the Bucks' depth outlasting the Rockets' superior starting five. Milwaukee's eight subs outscored Kevin McHale's short three-man bench by a staggering 66-15 margin, including 48-4 in the second half as the Bucks outscored the Rockets overall by a 63-48 margin.
It was neither predictable nor pretty, but for a Bucks team just trying to survive a brutal January? Just call it a win.
Following a hot start, Bogut's departure with 2:31 remaining in the first seemed to immediately deflate the Bucks, who struggled to contain Lowry's penetration as the Rockets began finding open looks all over the court. They missed most of them (39% in the first half), but 12 offensive rebounds helped fuel a 38-22 Houston run after Bogut's injury.
The Bucks didn't look particularly likely to turn things around early in the third, but Houston continued to struggle from the perimeter, and the Bucks continued to hang around thanks largely to three triples from Jennings. It still didn't seem like Milwaukee was a serious threat to actually win, but that mindset might have been Houston's undoing. Trailing 70-66, Dunleavy and Beno Udrih shook off their shooting slumps to bury their own threes and give the Bucks an unlikely 72-70 lead heading into the decisive frame. But could they actually hold on?
Surprisingly, yes. The all-reserve lineup of Udrih, Jackson, Dunleavy, Ilyasova and Larry Sanders (he played! and pretty well!) ripped off a further 14-0 spurt in the first 3:05 of the fourth quarter, and Jackson and Dunleavy continued to rain jumpers even after Martin and impressive rookie Chandler Parsons started to come alive for Houston. But the Rockets wouldn't be contained for too long; the Bucks seemed to go into a prevent defense of sorts (we all know how that works), and Milwaukee predictably became overly concerned with using up the shot clock at the expense of creating make-able shots.
Thankfully, the Rockets were still a bit too careless to complete their own comeback. Dragic's layup trimmed the lead to 98-94 with just 74 seconds remaining, but Drew Gooden (of all people) intercepted Dragic's attempted drive-and-kick and subsequently hit both free throws to help ice the game with under 30 seconds left.
Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy typically doesn't smile much (read: ever) on the court, but not even the usually stoic former Duke star could contain a smile and laugh after burying his first three of the game late in the third. Two earlier misses from deep had run Dunleavy's three-point futility streak to an incredible 0/15 since returning from injury last Friday, so finally seeing a shot fall seemed to serve as a weight off his shoulders. Mike scored 12 of his season-high 18 points in the game's final 12:33, including a trio of triples that had been a long time coming.
Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks were pounded on the boards for much of the night, including a 35-22 deficit in the first half. But Ilyasova kept things respectable all on his own, tearing down a career-best 19 rebounds in 28 minutes. Sure, we'd all love to see Jon Leuer getting more regular minutes, but at the moment Ilyasova is earning his time and then some. Drew Gooden... well, not quite so much.
Stephen Jackson. So maybe this bench thing could work out after all? A game after taking just a single shot against the Hawks, Jax scored nine of his 20 in the fourth quarter and diligently defended Lowry (with Jennings guarding Goran Dragic) for much of the fourth. That's now two wins out of three with Jackson coming off the bench, though the more important fact is that Jackson has closed out all three. Something tells me that--along with winning--is much more important to him.
14/29. The long ball won it for Milwaukee, which curiously made more triples than free throws (13/17) for the first time this season.
66-15. Jackson and Dunleavy did most of the scoring damage off the bench, but every Buck played and all but Leuer scored.
20. The Bucks' 20-0 run starting at the end of the third was the game's clear turning point. And four late free throws from Jennings helped the Bucks' scoring leader crack the 20-point mark for a career-high fifth straight game.
Depth. Jennings (33 minutes) was the only Buck starter who played more than 20 minutes, which worked out only because Skiles got starter-caliber performances from one-time starters Jackson, Dunleavy and Ilyasova.
Sticking it out. The rumormill will tell you that the Bucks are a dysfunctional bunch whose established leader/best player (I think Bogut still qualifies?) hasn't been seeing eye to eye with his coach. The standings will tell you that the Bucks are barely in the playoff picture with little chance of moving up much further than the 7th spot in the East.
And yet you couldn't help but smile while watching one of Skiles' more random combinations pull off an improbable fourth quarter run, stealing another road win against one of the league's hottest clubs. We can debate the true potential of the current Bucks' roster until we're blue in the face, but winning still seems pretty fun to me.
Streaking. The Bucks won four straight home games to start the season, but have now lost two straight at the BC. They lost eight straight road games to start the season, but have now won three straight. Go figure. The Bucks are now tied with the Cavs for the 8th spot in the East at 7-10, trailing the Celtics (7-9) by a half game and leading the Knicks (7-11) by a similarly narrow margin.
Bogut's health. Gery Woelfel tweets Bogut could miss a couple games with his latest injury, the latest in the ever-expanding list of injuries suffered by the Bucks' big man. Bogut is expected to have an MRI tomorrow, but his status for Friday's game in Chicago and Saturday's game against the Lakers at home are in major doubt.
Surviving January. The Bucks haven't done it yet, and losing Bogut won't make this weekend's games against Rose and Kobe any easier.
Youngsters. The only downside of a healthy roster? A sudden lack of minutes for the Bucks' youngsters. Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer have gone from regular (and positive) contributors to spectators in about a week, and it's anybody's guess when they'll be back in the mix.