We just bore witness to the first "One that got away" in 2012-13.
In the Milwaukee Bucks' Brandon Jennings era, it always feels like defensive intensity dominates the storyline when the Bucks matchup against the Boston Celtics. However, more often than not, the final result is a historical retread. Eight of the 12 Bucks-Celtics games over the past four years have featured margins of victory equal to or less than 10 (Boston holds a 9-3 advantage in the win-loss column, including Saturday's 96-92 Bucks defeat).
The Bucks filled the first 24 minutes of Saturday night's game with pick-and-roll plays that made Samuel Dalembert (who had four dunks as the roll man) look like Pau Gasol and defensive intensity that forced the normally iso-happy Celtics into shots more contested than a Florida election cycle.
But this was the Boston Celtics, with Doc Rivers captaining the basketball team equivalent of The Expendables; a bunch of All-Stars in the growing twilights of their careers, yet fully capable of understanding when push should meet shove and saving their best efforts for the brightest moments. At the end of the day, the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett combo got into a groove we've seen far too many times before, scoring 14 of the Celtics' final 18 points with a plethora of jumpers.
"We played pretty hard, they played hard. We played pretty good (defense) except for a few minutes in the fourth quarter, and they did most of the game," coach Scott Skiles said. "It kind of came down to who made the big plays and we couldn't find enough of them. They made a couple of big shots. Monta (Ellis) got it going there for us late, but we needed another guy or two to come in the game for us a little bit and it just didn't happen tonight."
Monta Ellis. Ellis wasn't spectacular early in the game, but he was the team's best bet for victory with the clock winding down. Brandon Jennings was invisible (4 pts, 1-10 fg, 1-7 3fg, 5 ast, 4 rbs, 2 stls), so Ellis hijacked the train and did his best to keep Milwaukee afloat during the Garnett/Pierce onslaught. His most entertaining highlights came off an over-the-back put-back dunk...on Ersan Ilyasova, and on a driving layup where Ellis was hit mid-air, still kept his body steady and touched the ball through the net for a three point play. Sometimes, Ellis looks like a franchise player, sometimes he looks like a rental property. Tonight was closer to the former.
Larry Sanders. Sanders continued the break-through season everyone had reserved for Tobias Harris (remember when that was a thing?) with his second straight double-double and fifth straight 10+ point performance. No one has captured the hearts and minds of the Bucks faithful like the VCU product, who elicited numerous "Larry! Larry!" chants for every timely dunk, timely block, and timely foul (we'll get to these later).
Brandon Jennings. Fun fact: Jennings has played one game this season where he's registered a positive plus/minus ratio (the season opening 99-88 win over the Celtics). He was clearly off Saturday night, spending the majority of his floor time chucking threes (1-7 3fg) and failing to get to the rim (0-1), as has often been a problem for Jennings this season (just 2.8 shots-per-game, compared to 4.7 last year).
At least in the first half, the Bucks were incredibly effective getting to the cup, registering 30 of their 42 first half points within the colored area (15-23 fg). Milwaukee also took 23 shots at the rim in the second half, but converted on just 9 attempts for 18 points. Essentially, the Bucks couldn't force a basket inside when they needed it most, which looks like more of a trend than an aberration.
16. The Celtics entered this game ranked first in the NBA in total rebounding rate, but you wouldn't know it from the box score. The Bucks snagged a ridiculous 16 offensive rebounds and for most of the game flexed a very lengthy frontcourt that often reached a loose ball before a Celtic could even graze its underbelly.
57.6%. The Bucks converted on 19 shots at the rim (including 7-10 shots from Ellis), which if averaged through the current NBA season, would place them fourth overall. However, they took 33 shots and finished with a conversion rate below their 26th overall ranking (59.5%). There's got to be some positive regression on the horizon, but it's pretty obvious through five games that Milwaukee can't score consistently within, or around, the circle.
Marquis Daniels. Expectations for the Bucks' final 2012 offseason acquisition are justifiably low, but Daniels looked very adept at playing quality minutes on Saturday night. Whether or not that is a direct result of his knowledge of the Celtics is unprovable, but Daniels played smart enough on both ends to warrant some increased playing time in the weeks to come.
Dalember-assing wordplay. If you want to change the current taste in your mouth, go back and read the Twitter timelines of myself,Bucksketball, and Alex Boeder. Retweet, enjoy, or send us hate mail. Either way, eye-rolling wordplay always helps alleviate regrettable losses.
Milwaukee has their Brian Scalabrine. And thy name is Larry Sanders. In all seriousness, Sanders is only Scalabrine-esque because he's hard-working and fans love him, despite his lack of star status. Other than that, Sanders has improved in all facets of his game, and should only get better as his minute allocation increases. Honestly, anything that excites the Bradley Center is a good thing for the Bucks.
Shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots. Neither team played a clean, compelling game. Both shot in the upper 30%'s, lower 40%'s for most of the game, the combined shooting percentage on treys was 23.5%, and both executed mid-range jumpers with all the grace of two six year olds playing Battleship. All in all, a loss to the Celtics is expected no matter their record, but the ghost of a "shoulda. coulda. woulda" victory serves as a sobering reminder of how far the Bucks really are from contender status.
Ersan Ilyasad. Once again, the Turkish Thunder was anything but thunderous in his impact. After the game, questioning Skiles, our esteemed colleague Jeremy Schmidt said "it looks like Ersan is struggling with his shot a little bit," to which a smirking Skiles responded, "a little bit?" Here was the rest of his response:
"He's got a lot of movement going on right now. Sometimes the best thing to do is leave him alone and let him work himself out. It gets in his head a little bit. But he's shooting the ball, his feet are moving, he's drifting all over the place, just not real solid right now. He's just got to make sure it doesn't affect other parts of his game and hope they start going in for him."
Game changers. Skiles, Sanders, and even Jason Terry acknowledged the Bucks exploited a big Celtics weakness on the weak side, but no matter how you spin it, Boston is a good, well-coached team that will adjust. They did, and the Bucks didn't counter. Milwaukee doesn't have the personnel capable of sustaining a working attack strategy against a good opponent. This obviously could change with time, but the question of the Bucks' ability to hang with playoff teams when the timing is right remains tentatively unanswered.