Ah yes, the "respectable" loss.
After watching the Bucks blow leads in agonizing losses to the Bobcats, Nuggets and Kings, Milwaukee fans may have forgotten the sensation of losing in unoffensive, even comfortable ways. Not to take a defeatist tone just seven games into a season--and not to be confused with a moral victory or anything remotely satisfying--but in many ways the Bucks' defeat to the Clippers in L.A. was as tolerable as losing gets. So in case you've forgotten the anatomy of a respectable loss, let's review:
1. Best player and other key rotation players missing? That's a check--no Andrew Bogut (personal reasons), Mike Dunleavy (groin), Luc Mbah a Moute (knee tendinitis) or Beno Udrih (shoulder) tonight.
2. More talented opponent playing at home? With Blake Griffin (22 points, 14 rebs) and Chris Paul (a quiet 9 pts, 7 ast, 4 stl, 4 to) in the house: no doubt.
3. Competitive game but not so close to provide legitimate hope of victory? Indeed. The Bucks held a narrow lead early in the third but played from behind in the fourth, never trailing by less than four or more than ten in the final quarter.
4. Young players do some vaguely positive things to provide additional consolation? Brandon Jennings, Jon Leuer and Tobias Harris are here to help!
In summary, there was nothing terribly troubling about the way the Bucks lost their fifth straight road game to the start the season. It was predictable. Expected. Competitive, but without any real drama. And that could be a rather troubling sign itself.
Two days after choking away a 21-point lead in Sacramento, the Bucks made it four losses out of four on their Western trip with a relatively predictable (and thus painless?) loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles, and in the end it was the usual suspects doing most of the usual things for both sides. The Bucks' reliance on Stephen Jackson (18 points on 4/18 shooting, 4 to), Brandon Jennings (21 points, 9/21 fg, 7 ast, 6 rebs, 2 to) and Drew Gooden (18 points on 14 shots, 13 rebs) meant plenty of head-scratching shots, but it still took the Clippers 24 minutes to wake up and get their game in gear behind Griffin, Racine native Caron Butler (14 of his 20 in the third) and Chauncey Billups (19 points on 14 shots).
Milwaukee once again struggled offensively out of the gate (0/6 fg) as the Clippers strolled to an early 8-1 lead, but the Bucks' slow start also seemed to lull the Clippers into a sense of complacency. There were no high-flying dunks and strangely few Blake Griffin touches in the early going, and the Bucks also did their part by showing more resolve on the boards, limiting Clipper second chances and denying Paul his usual dominance in P&R. Facing one of the league's most potent offenses, the Bucks' defense seemingly put the Clippers and the Staples Center crowd to sleep in an 18-15 first quarter, and the Bucks took advantage by reeling off a 15-6 run to start the second.
But the Clippers slowly began to realize their advantages down low, as Griffin threw down a pair of vicious dunks on a mostly helpless Ersan Ilyasova and Butler provided a perimeter spark to the tune of 14 in the third. The Clips extended their advantage to as many as 12 late in the third, but the Bucks stayed in it despite never really looking like a threat to win the game.
Brandon Jennings. All in all a solid night for Jennings against one of the NBA's best point guards. Jennings' defense has been hit or miss so far this season, but he kept up with Paul as well as could be expected while balancing scoring with playmaking (seven assists vs. two turnovers) and added a season-high six rebounds to boot. Still, his 9/21 shooting line (a good-for-him 42.9%) wasn't particularly efficient due to a lack of three point accuracy (2/7) and free throws (his only free throw came on a defensive three second technical).
Jon Leuer. The Bucks' second rounder played a career-high 26 minutes and should have played about 35, and perhaps surprisingly it had more to do with his defense than anything he did on the offensive end. While Ilyasova spent most of the second half as a chalk outline in the Staples Center paint, Leuer held steady on the defensive end, with the highlight coming in a fourth quarter sequence where he kept Griffin in front of him one-on-one, deflected Griffin's shot, came away with the loose ball and then drew a foul on Jordan (he also had a block-rebound combo play in the third on Butler). Otherwise, Leuer's 3/7 shooting night was just his second sub-50% shooting night of the season, but he made up for it by snagging five of his season-high nine rebounds on the offensive end. In short: Jon Leuer should be starting right now.
Shaun Livingston. The former Clipper was a key part of the Bucks' second quarter turnaround and once again proved a steadying influence off the bench with nine points on seven shots and three assists in 25 minutes. Simple passes, good finishing and solid defense led to a not-surprising +11 differential. He again went to the bench in favor of Carlos Delfino with under five minutes remaining, but once again deserved to be playing ahead of Jackson down the stretch.
42-37. Following their embarrassing showing in Sacramento, the Bucks reclaimed some of their rebounding dignity with a solid night on the boards thanks largely to Gooden and Leuer.
34. It wasn't an outright collapse, but the third quarter was again the difference maker in a Bucks' loss. Butler and Griffin combined for 22 of the Clips' 34 points, the only period in which they scored more than 20.
44:44. Jackson barely looks like he can make it up the court half the time (probably his back), but Skiles still felt it necessary to play him a game-high 45 minutes while Delfino and Livingston each played 26 or fewer.
Three One Good
Youngsters. Jennings started slowly but overall acquitted himself well against Paul, the Bucks' two newest draft picks made good cases for additional minutes going forward and Darington Hobson also made his long-awaited debut with a brief cameo in the second. All nice little nuggets of consolation for the forward thinkers among the Milwaukee faithful. Harris' debut began inauspiciously when Griffin easily blocked his first shot 64 seconds after he entered the game, but the rookie bounced back quickly with a baseline jumper and nifty cut and finish moments later. He almost had another bucket in the second half after grabbing Jennings' airball and going up for another lay-in, but he was ruled out of bounds on the baseline.
On the down side, Harris looked slightly doughier than he did at the beginning of camp--quite possibly a side effect of not playing much since his bout with dehydration--and his somewhat waddling running style won't ever have him confused with a great athlete. But the 19-year-old was also a +7 in his first nine minutes of NBA basketball and didn't look out of place, which is quite the compliment considering he was the youngest player in last year's draft and missed virtually all of training camp. He'll figure things out.
Too much Jack. Unfortunately Jackson looks rather out of touch with his own limitations at the moment. He continues to fire up out-of-rhythm jumpers, make overly speculative passes (25 turnover in his last five) and his athleticism--which was never his strongsuit anyway--appears further compromised by the back injury that robbed him of training camp. Speaking of which, he appeared to reaggravate his achy lower back after getting badly stuffed at (OK, below) the rim by Jordan in the fourth. I realize the absence of Dunleavy, Mbah a Moute and Udrih is part of it, but how Skiles can justify playing Jax nearly 45 minutes is anyone's guess. He still has the savvy to draw cheap fouls (a hugely underrated skill) and annoy opponents defensively, but he seems to be pressing even more with the Bucks shorthanded. And it's not helping.
Phoenix in the wings. The Bucks haven't won in Phoenix since the Reagan administration, but they'll have to snap their 24-year drought in the desert in order to avoid the worst-case scenario of their road trip: 0-5.
Seeing red on the road. The Bucks lost for the fifth time in five road games, all of which according to my memory have been played in their not-so-alternate red jerseys. Because I'm sick of blaming the Bucks' struggles on real reasons (ie subpar play, injuries, lack of talent), I'll blame it on the jerseys instead. Totally rational.