You could use many words to describe the events that led to the Bucks' third consecutive defeat on their Western road trip, but let's begin with that one.
In a general sense, the Bucks losing by three on the road, even to a disjointed, disappointing Sacramento team, would hardly be shocking. Not with the way Milwaukee has started the season, and certainly not with Andrew Bogut, Luc Mbah a Moute and Mike Dunleavy missing in action for assorted reasons. The fact that Paul Westphal was fired hours before tip-off realistically shouldn't have hurt the Kings either, not with the way DeMarcus Cousins and company had seemingly given up on Westphal. And the fact that Sacramento was playing its third game in as many days? Well, we know the Bucks don't have a knack for taking advantage of that anyway.
But context matters, and for most of the night you could have forgotten (at least temporarily) about all the reasons why you shouldn't have bothered staying up to watch this game in the first place. Could the Bucks really lose on a night when they shoot a ridiculous-for-them 51% and score 100 points? And when they lead 58-37 at the half?
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Milwaukee rode its hot shooting, unselfish play, and a healthy dose of indifference from the Kings to a dominating first half and led by as many as 13 with eight minutes remaining, all of which made the outcome all the more disappointing. Up until that you would have been forgiven for allowing yourself a glimmer of optimism. Were the Bucks turning the corner a little? Getting the confidence (and a much-needed win) to help usher them through a difficult month?
It certainly looked like that for about 40 minutes. But the bad, deer-in-headlights Bucks then reared their heads. Sacramento began pressuring on the perimeter defensively, and even helping when the Bucks drove (imagine that). Turnovers, mostly of the should-have-known-better variety, and many of them courtesy of Stephen Jackson and Drew Gooden, denied the Bucks shots and handed the Kings opportunities to break.
And offensively Sacramento simply crushed the Bucks on the boards, collecting a mind-numbing 23 offensive rebounds en route to a 55-31 edge. It's one thing to get destroyed on the boards when the other team has a significant shooting advantage--defensive boards are much easier to collect--but to let it happen when the other team is the one missing shots? All the worse, and for the Bucks it was clearly a team effort. Milwaukee allowed too many shots in the paint, and those shots when missed inevitably seemed to end up in King hands. Blame it on the rebounders, but blame it on the defenders, too.
It started early, with the Kings snagging seven offensive bounds on their first 15 misses. Skiles yanked Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova in favor of Larry Sanders and Shaun Livingston after just four minutes with the Bucks down four, and it seemed to work. After his 0/7 night from deep in Utah, Jennings hit his first three triples to help the Bucks lead 30-25 after one, mostly thanks to an 11/17 effort from the field. As TheJay mentioned in the game thread, it was the fourth time in six games this season that the Bucks cracked 30 in the opening period, compared to just eight times in 82 games last season. Go figure. Sharing was the name of the game: Brandon Jennings was active using screeners on P&R (mostly Gooden) and picked up four assists in the period despite a couple of blown layups. Heck, even Larry Sanders was setting up guys for easy looks.
The Bucks then blew the game open (but not shut) in the second, carving up the King defense to the tune of 61% shooting in the half including 4/5 from three. Sacramento was lax in transition and lacked discipline in the half-court, allowing the Bucks clean looks that they thankfully took advantage of. Drew Gooden was at his weirdly effective best on the offensive end (14 points in the half), and even Stephen Jackson had his moments. Offensively, the Kings fell victim to plenty of ball-watching as Tyreke Evans (14 in the half, 26 points on 18 shots, 10 rebounds, five assists for the game) was the only interested party with a slew of nifty drives that Jackson, Udrih and Livingston (Jennings was guarding Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette most of the night) couldn't stop.
Every Kings turnover seemed to cost them points--either because it denied what might have been an easy look (see: Thornton turning a 4-on-1 into a turnover) or led to a Bucks transition opportunity the other way. The 12 points the Kings scored in the second was the fewest the Bucks have allowed in a quarter this season.
But the Kings started the third with more energy and the Bucks needed all of Jennings' play-making best to keep the Kings at arm's length. Thornton shook off a cold start and begain to warm, using pick and roll to get into the lane and find little resistance from 12 feet and in. Cousins continued to bludgeon the Bucks on the glass on his way to 15 boards. Jennings' long three in the final seconds of the third extended the Bucks lead back to a healthier 82-68, but the Kings were just getting started.
The Kings made six straight shots early in the final period, with only Jennings' eight points and two assists keeping them at bay. But as they did so regularly a year ago, the Bucks simply folded down the stretch--new personnel, old personnel, whatever. The Kings went on a 17-4 run after Jackson came in for Livingston with 6:24 remaining, and it was Jackson who fittingly bricked a difficult fadeaway with five seconds remaining and the Bucks down a point. For all his gumption and fearlessness, Jackson's the last guy who deserve to take a last-second shot at the moment, so it was strangely (predictably?) fitting that the Bucks' collapse was completed by their least effective offensive player.
Brandon Jennings. Jennings broke out of his three point funk in a major way, hitting 6/10 from long range en route to a season-high 31 points (12/23 fg), seven assists and five steals. He was the only constant for the Bucks all night and hit a wild right-handed scoop shot to give the Bucks a three point lead with 58 seconds remaining, but he also had his share of missed opportunities down the stretch. A pair of missed free throws after a steal with five minutes left. A bad pass that led to Sacramento free throws with 1:20 left. And a difficult but wayward shot off the inbound that could have tied the game at the horn. Jennings deserved better than to come away with a loss, but not even he was immune to the Bucks' customary late-game meltdown.
Larry Sanders. Despite his relative lack of scoring efficiency (19 points on 18 shots), Cousins was a force down low before fouling out in the late-going. But Sanders also played his role well (4/7 fg, 3 reb, 4 ast, 2 stl, 1 blk, 1 to) and it was no coincidence the Bucks finished +10 with him on the court. Yes, his bad hands cost him an alley-oop feed from Jennings early and a lost dribble in the third, but he generally did well finding open spaces, finishing around the hoop, rebounding his area and even made a number of smart passes that led to four assists (plus a blown layup from Jennings that should have been a fifth).
Shaun Livingston. I could have easily gone with Jon Leuer here (6 pts, 3/5 fg, 3 reb, 3 ast, 2 stl, +16), who teamed with Sanders off the bench and led the Bucks in net differential. But it feels wrong picking two frontcourt players in a game when the Bucks were annihilated on the boards, so let's single out Livingston instead (6 pts, 3/5 fg, 3 reb, 3 ast, 2 stl). Along with Sanders, he was the spark that turned around the game early in the first quarter, and you wonder if the Bucks might have won had Jackson not replaced him down the stretch.
23. The Bucks could point to Bogut's absence as a big reason for their rebounding struggles tonight, but the problem with that argument is that they've stunk in that department even with Bogut in the lineup. There's simply no way this team consistently wins games unless it can be a top ten defensive rebounding team, and right now they're not close--second to last in the entire league behind (drumroll...) Sacramento.
7. Jackson turned it over seven times after racking up six in Utah and four in each of the previous two games. Most of us were resigned to the fact that Jackson would take a ton of bad shots and shoot a low percentage, but the fact that he's also been a turnover machine has made him an absolute killer on the offensive end.
-24. It's not just the fourth quarter. Milwaukee was run off the court in the second half, allowing the Kings to walk all over them to the tune of a 66-42 advantage.
Three Two Good
Brandon bounces back. Jennings bounced back from two very disappointing efforts with his best all-around game of the season, and the vague hope that games like this might signify some sort of broader improvement in Jennings' game is the only real reason for casual Bucks fans to bother watching the Bucks' next game against the Clippers on Saturday. For better or (more likely) worse, I will be there in person.
It's early! I know it's a total copout to use this as a "good" thing, but perspective is important. There's a big difference psychologically between winning this game to go 3-3 and losing it to drop to 2-4, but either way the season is only 9% complete and all is not lost. The Bucks will inevitably blow more games this year, but they'll steal some too. The only problem is we've already seen two of the former and none of the latter.
Rebounding. The Bucks' offense is usually an easy target, but their inability to prevent second chances is killing them as much or more right now. That was especially true tonight: the Kings couldn't stop the Bucks from hitting better than 50% from the field, but they somehow got away with it because of their tremendous effort on the glass.
Choke artists. As a sporting culture we're strangely obsessed with the concept of clutch; players can dominate for 99% of the season, but mess up a few "clutch" at bats, throws or shots and everything else suddenly becomes irrelevant. It's often just a lazy, talk radio narrative--a cheap way for pundits and fans to parse blame and discredit and humanize players who are otherwise unassailable. But it also reflects the fundamental frustrations and joys of being a fan; in the clutch is where our emotions, good and bad, are magnified. So tonight Bucks fans should be forgiven for wanting to put a brick through their HDTVs and crying choke. We've watched the Bucks fail to finish off opponents enough times over the past year to call it a trend, and so far a new season is doing nothing to change that.
This was the easy game. There are no gimmes for the Bucks right now--especially without Bogut--but the maddening thing is that the Bucks are 0-3 on a road trip that presented them three very winnable road games to start. If they were going to win a game it would have been this one; instead they now have to pick themselves off the mat and face Blake Griffin and Chris Paul on Saturday.