Get too excited about the Bucks, and they disappoint. Get too down on them, and they claw their way back to respectability.
It's been the pattern we've seen all year, and it continued in Cleveland on Wednesday with a gritty, often ugly, but ultimately satisfying overtime win over the shorthanded Cavs--the team that also happens to be chasing them for the East's final playoff spot. Perhaps just as importantly, Brandon Jennings put behind a turbulent week both on and off the court with a solid, aggressive night at the office (24 points, albeit on 23 shots, eight assists, five rebounds and just one turnover), looking less like the distracted, disengaged bystander he was earlier in the week and more like the assertive team leader he's been for most of the season.
Not that he didn't have help. Drew Gooden (18 of 19 points after halftime) and Shaun Livingston (11 of his 13 in fourth quarter and OT) carried the Bucks late, while Kyrie Irving's absence (concussion) and Anderson Varejao's departure (wrist) early in the second half also lowered the Bucks' degree of difficulty.
Then again, you wouldn't have known it from the game's opening five minutes, which saw Cleveland blitz the Bucks with a 17-2 run to start the game. It was hardly the start Scott Skiles was looking for after a less than convincing win in Toronto on Wednesday, but the Bucks' depth--namely Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova and Stephen Jackson--again helped them weather the storm and finish the first period on a 20-3 run.
Of course, just when it appeared the Bucks might be able to open up a decent lead, their energy levels hit another lull in the second quarter, needing a buzzer-beating three from Carlos Delfino to scrape back to within four at the intermission. There would be no breakthrough for the visitors in the third either, primarily because they had no answers for Antawn Jamison (34 pts, 14/21 fg). Showing off his obnoxiously effective mixture of jump shots and random post scoop and flip shots, the veteran destroyed Ilyasova (who started the third over Luc Mbah a Moute) and Jon Brockman to the tune of 18 points in the period. Why Skiles refused to deploy Mbah a Moute against Jamison was anyone's guess, but it wouldn't be up to him for long, as Skiles collected two quick technicals late in the third after a pair of questionable (though it appeared correct) calls went against the Bucks.
With Cleveland taking an 85-77 edge into the fourth, acting head coach Jim Boylan went big in the backcourt and small up front with Livingston, Delfino, Jackson, Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova, and it began to pay immediate dividends. Cleveland's small guards had difficulty handling the bigger Bucks, while Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova were surprisingly effective containing the Cavs up front. Mbah a Moute's thunderous drive and dunk (his first points of the night) tied the game at 93 with just under six minutes left, and the Prince uncharacteristically added the Bucks' final five points of regulation with a key three point play and two clutch free throws with less than a minute remaining. By the way, did anyone else notice Luc is shooting 83% from the foul line? Me neither.
In any case, both teams had chances to win in the final minute of regulation but came up agonizingly empty. With the game tied at 92 and five seconds remaining, Jennings' clean look from the right side caromed to Jamison, who appeared to call timeout with 3.7 seconds left. That would have been bad enough, but after a moment of confusion it was determined that the outside official had whistled Gooden for an over-the-back foul, sending Jamison to the line with a chance to win it. In truth, it did appear that Gooden got a piece of Jamison from behind, but why make the call in that situation when Jamison easily came away with the ball?
Thankfully, the basketball gods seem to have a sense of justice. After drilling shot after shot from every spot on the court, Jamison uncharacteristically bricked both free throws, gifting the Bucks another golden opportunity to steal a win. But just four days after failing to get a shot off on the final play of Tuesday's loss to the Suns, the Bucks again couldn't muster a shot. Livingston took a handoff at the top of the key and looked primed to raise for a runner as time expired, but he instead tried to hit Mbah a Moute crashing in along the baseline. The horn sounded as Mbah a Moute rose for the layup, and he missed it for good measure. Here we go again?
Mericfully...no. Gooden scored on the Bucks' first two possessions of overtime while Livingston and Jennings each slashed for layups thereafter, as the Bucks played from the front for the entirety of overtime. Playing against the team he once helped to the NBA FInals, Gooden owned the final minute as well, earning a questionable charge call against Daniel Gibson and then hitting two free throws that clinched the game with four seconds left.
Drew Gooden. Gooden was a non-factor early, but he came out gunning in the second half (two threes?!?), pouring in 18 of his 19 points after the intermission. Gooden was mostly content to fire up jumpers--3/6 long twos and 2/3 triples--but he hit them when they mattered most and also swatted an uncharacteristic pair of shots. Kudos, Drew.
Brandon Jennings.Not a great shooting night for Jennings, but more importantly it was an aggressive Jennings who led the Bucks in scoring and dishing while also adding five rebounds and turning it over just once. Jennings gave the Bucks a spark midway through the third with a pair of driving layups and a long three, and he added another quick five points when he returned early in the fourth. But his legs looked tired down the stretch, missing five straight to close regulation.
Defensively, Jennings looked a bit more eager in the early going against Sessions (4/16 fg, 12 pts, 16 ast, 5 to) but had a couple breakdowns marking Gibson late in the game. Perhaps a bit understandable given the importance of riding Gibson off the three point line, but still. In discussing Jennings' behavior against Phoenix earlier this week on WSSP, Boylan brought up the need for improved defensive efforts from the team's point guards, which seemed like a strong hint at Jennings' inconsistencies on that end thus far this season.
Shaun Livingston. Claiming a starting spot hasn't translated into many late-game opportunities for Livingston, but Boylan rode him in the fourth quarter and OT and was repaid for his faith with 13 points down the stretch. Two backdoor cuts led to Livingston dunks early in the fourth, and he kept it going with his customary assortment of drives and pull-ups from mid-range.
65% / 37%. The Bucks couldn't contain the Cavs in the first half, surrendering a blistering 65% shooting while making just 37% of their own attempts from the field. Thankfully, an 8-0 edge on the offensive boards kept the Bucks in it long enough for the Cavs to cool off from the field.
36. The bench scored 36 of the Bucks' 53 first half points, helping Milwaukee overcome deficits in both the first and fourth quarters.
16. The Bucks were rewarded for going under screens and containing Sessions' scoring (4/16 fg, 12 pts, 5 to), but he was still a handful as a creator, netting 16 of Cleveland's 33 dimes on the night.
The Old Brandon. Well, maybe we should say the new old Brandon. Despite his poor shooting line and difficult finish (1/8 fg to close the game), Jennings finally seemed to have his confidence back--and if we know anything about Jennings, it's that he's not much without his swagger. He also moved to diffuse some of the chatter that followed from his curiously timed "I'm keeping my options open" remarks the previous day (h/t CanadaBucks).
"It's nothing to be worried about," said Jennings, who is under contract through next season. "It kind of got blown out of proportion a little bit. I never said I was leaving. After being in this a couple years, I understand the business of basketball.
"I'm still going to be here playing hard every night and my focus is to get into the playoffs."
Alright Brandon, you've said your piece. Now let's move on.
Living Good. Drew Gooden's entire basketball existence is a double-edged sword, but there's no denying the big plays he made on both ends late in the game. Not to be outdone, Livingston also saved his best for crunch time, proving he's just as capable late as he is early. How about seeing more of that?
Bench. The Bucks' reserves outscored their Cleveland counterparts 45-30 and were essential to helping the Bucks' erase an early double-digit deficit. Though Boylan mostly went with the Bucks' starters down the stretch, Jackson was again involved early and often (10 pts, 4 reb, 5 ast) while Dunleavy and Ilyasova each added 12 points and six rebounds.
And how about Boylan himself? The Bucks trailed 83-73 when Skiles was tossed late in the third, but Boylan quickly found some lineups that worked and earned a crucial win in the process.
Energy deficit. With Bogut on the shelf and the undersized/spatially-challenged Gooden in the pivot, we know the Bucks will often struggle to contain opponents defensively, but that doesn't make it any less troubling to see the Bucks so frequently come out looking flat and uninspired to start games.
No rookies. Given the end result, I can't say I'm that broken up about Jon Leuer (five points in six minutes) and Tobias Harris (DNP-CD) playing sparingly, but my official stance remains that the Bucks would be well-served to more regularly see what both can bring to the rotation.
Windy City North. As of today, the Bucks would face the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. And considering what happened at the BC the last time Chicago "visited," that's not a scenario I'm particularly eager to see play out.