Sneaking out a win over the Sacramento Kings is usually nothing to write home about, but you can't blame the Bucks for heading home to Milwaukee feeling rather alright after their 115-113 shootout win over the Kings on Sunday night.
Despite leading 106-91 with less than four minutes remaining, the short-handed Bucks once again found a way to make things, ahem, interesting on Sunday night, allowing Jimmer Fredette and company to cut the lead to a single point and come within a Tyreke Evans' three point prayer of stealing a win at Sleep Train Arena. Nothing impressive about that from a Bucks' perspective, but they'll certainly take it given the circumstances.
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With Larry Sanders, J.J. Redick and Ersan Ilyasova all out with injuries, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings didn't have the same shooting touch we've seen for most of the last week, but they made plays when necessary and thankfully had plenty of help. Ellis managed to grind out 29 points (9/24 fg, 11/12 ft) and nine assists while Jennings added 16 (4/11 fg), eight assists and a single turnover, with both hitting a pair of critical free throws in the final 16 seconds.
The supporting cast featured four others in double figures, with new and familiar faces playing key supporting roles. Gustavo Ayon made the most of his first real run of playing time with 12 first half points, Ekpe Udoh played arguably his best game of the season, Mike Dunleavy offset Redick's absence with 16 points (5/10 fg, 4/7 threes) off the bench and Sam Dalembert added a double-double in Sanders' stead. Ayon was particularly impressive before Boylan sat him with four fouls in the third, which made little less sense considering he didn't get back in the game in the fourth quarter either. Instead, Boylan played an ineffective Drew Gooden as the Kings began to show signs of life.
Both teams looked ragged to start the game, which probably should have been expected given the Bucks' injuries and the Kings' general ineffectiveness at the game of basketball. After a couple early rejections by Udoh and Dalembert, Cousins began to exert his will both inside and out on his way to 20 points (8/10 fg) in the first half, as the Kings pushed to an early six point lead. Jennings and Ellis had little option but to force offense with Dalembert, Udoh and Mbah a Moute mucking up the inside, and it wasn't exactly textbook in the early going.
Ayon was then the unexpected catalyst behind a 16-2 run to start the second, as the Bucks' newest big man used his activity around the basket to score 12 quick points and grab seven boards. Neither team looked capable of making life too difficult for the other defensively, but the Kings' finishing proved sloppier and Milwaukee limited second chances (26-16 rebounding edge for the Bucks) to claim a 61-50 halftime edge. Marquis Daniels added a slashing, opportunistic nine, helping offset 7/20 shooting from Jennings/Ellis.
The Bucks stayed the course to open the third, with Udoh playing particularly well on both ends. Meanwhile, Cousins had been unstoppable with 24 points on 12 shots in 28 minutes, but he became angry with Dunleavy for undercutting him on a box-out and wasted no time throwing a predictable elbow at Dunleavy's dome on the very next possession. Already carrying a technical foul, Cousins earned a flagrant two foul and immediate ejection for the elbow, and Dunleavy added insult to injury by hitting a three shortly thereafter to make it 80-67. But with Cousins' ejection finally giving the crowd something to holler about, Isaiah Thomas' slashing helped cut the Bucks' lead to 83-80, only for the Bucks to regain some breathing room to start the fourth behind Dunleavy, Ellis and Jennings.
And just when the Bucks' lead seemed safe, they took their foot off the gas. We've seen this before, right? Fredette's shooting (11 pts in last four minutes) and Evans' driving (8 of his 20 in the final three minutes) did the trick for Sacramento, setting up a dramatic finish as the Bucks' defense slackened and their offense began to fire blanks.
With the Kings down three and out of timeouts, the Bucks wisely opted to put Sacramento on the line inside five seconds rather than give them a look to tie. Can't fault the Bucks for playing the percentages, but it still almost came back to haunt them, as Fredette hit the first and his intentional miss of the second ended up in Evans' hands. His rushed three nearly sent the Bucks' home with an agonizing loss, but instead it bounced harmlessly off the front iron. Hardly convincing, but given the guys who weren't in the lineup the Bucks will probably take it and return home feeling pretty OK about a 2-1 Western swing that leaves them just 1.5 games behind the Hawks and Celtics for the 6th/7th seeds.