ALWAYS A STRUGGLE.
That might as well be the Bucks' new slogan, right?
On paper, Sunday's matinee with the Orlando Magic offered a golden opportunity for Jim Boylan's bunch to get back on track in their pursuit of something other than the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But instead it was just another chance for the Bucks to subject us to an agonizingly dramatic victory over a lottery-bound opponent. Thankfully, against a team like the Magic one quarter of utter brilliance from Monta Ellis can still be enough to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
And damn was Ellis brilliant. Shaking off a slow start, Ellis exploded for an NBA season-high 25 points in the fourth quarter to will the Bucks back from a 12-point deficit with 6:38 remaining and spare Milwaukee from a rather humbling fourth consecutive loss. Ellis' season-high 39 points included an eye-popping--and rather illogical--five threes in the final quarter, including a game-clinching triple with 13 seconds left to make it 113-109.
Ersan Ilyasova added a ho-hum 20 points and 11 rebounds while Brandon Jennings added 15 points and 14 assists (8 in the final period) to help offset 24 points (11/20 fg) from Aaron Afflalo, 20/15 from Nikola Vucevic and 23 points and nine boards from Mo Harkless. Playing against his former team for the first time, Tobias Harris overcame early foul trouble to put together a solid 14-point, 8-reound line in 32 minutes, but his charge on Ilyasova inside three minutes sent him to the bench with six fouls for the game's dramatic finish.
In the end were we're left once again to take the good of a dramatic comeback with the bad of why it was necessary in the first place. Considering how many times the Bucks have let good efforts sour in the the final six minutes of games, there's perhaps something poetic about the Bucks winning only because of the final six minutes this time around. Only the most imaginative poet would premise a Bucks' comeback on the three-point shooting of Ellis, who entered the game with a famously substandard 25% conversion rate from deep, but at this point it's probably pointless to make further sense of this year's Bucks. With a bevy of flawed but interesting talents, most with contracts only through the end of the season, the Bucks are a kaleidoscope of excitement and anxiety, all with a rapidly-approaching expiration date.
As for how it all went down, let's just say that for three-plus quarters the Bucks' brass will have been feeling thankful that this game wasn't televised locally. A St. Patrick's Day hangover? Sure, though there was nothing particularly new about the Bucks' ineffectiveness that had Orlando on track for just their ninth road win in 32 tries.
Orlando scored 32 of their first 40 in the paint, simply out-executing the Bucks on many occasions as Vucevic and Harkless cut and rolled their way to easy buckets with disappointing regularity. Orlando led by 12 on multiple occasions in the first half, regularly exploiting the Bucks' sleepy transition defense and slow rotations. Meanwhile, Ellis and Jennings struggled to find any first half rhythm for the second time in as many games (3/13 fg in the half). Ellis in fact didn't make a shot until midway through the second quarter, while Jennings once again looked to play the role of facilitator but had little support in the process and couldn't get much going when he did look to score. An Ilyasova three with seconds remaining in the first half cut Orlando's lead to 54-44, but in general the Bucks couldn't seem to summon the energy or execution to throw the young Magic off their game.
Milwaukee looked like they might turn the screws when they scored seven straight to start the third, Jennings driving and banking one shot before burying a wing triple shortly thereafter. But Orlando hung tough. Harris scored five quick points to extend the Magic lead to 81-68 near the close of the third quarter, but Ellis gave a preview of what was to come when he rocketed past Vucevic for a reverse lay-in with a second left in the period.
Both teams went small early in the fourth, with Boylan playing Redick and Dunleavy at the forward spots to further extend the court for Ellis and Jennings, while Udoh took advantage of the Magic's lack of interior size for six quick points. Monta drew fouls on consecutive possessions and slashed for a layup shortly thereafter, but Harris and Beno Udrih responded to help Orlando maintain double-figure leads throughout the first half of the period.
After Afflalo buried another tough turnaround and added a driving transition lay-in, Ellis went bonkers with 14 points in a span of just 2:36, nailing four threes and hammering a transition dunk from Jennings to trim the Orlando lead to just 104-102. It started innocently enough with a pair of open spot up threes on consecutive possessions, but as the third and fourth threes found bottom, an increasingly raucous crowd knew that something very special was happening. Jennings did his part by setting up close finishes from Ellis, Ilyasova and Sanders, who capped off a frustrating night against Vucevic with a not-so-simple lefty hook to give the Bucks a 110-109 lead with 56 seconds remaining.
Jameer Nelson then missed a decent look at a three with 35 seconds remaining, before Ellis clinched the game with a "why not?" pull-up three as the shot clock was set to expire with 13 seconds to go.
Monta Ellis. Jacking up threes normally isn't a recipe for success for Ellis, but his five triples and three layups in the final period proved the perfect formula for at least one game. At least he didn't shoot any long twos, right?
Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova was the Bucks' most consistent player through fourth quarters, notching his third straight 20/10 effort to outplay the precocious Harris in a game the Bucks kind of had to have.
Brandon Jennings. Fifteen points on 15 shots isn't much to write home about efficiency-wise, but Jennings didn't make mistakes with the ball (14 assists, 1 turnover) and he didn't pile up eight dimes in the final quarter simply by getting out of Ellis' way.
25. This one's pretty obvious, right?
45. Milwaukee blitzed Orlando for 45 points in the final period, including a 30-12 run over the final six-plus minutes.
0. Sanders struggled to handle the bulky, fundamentally sound Vucevic and didn't manage a blocked shot for just the second time since November 26.
Monta Mania. Ellis has been mostly unstoppable since the all-star break, which made his forgettable Friday night against the Heat (7 pts, 3/11 fg) all the more out of character. Monta has posted 22+ points in 10 of his last 11 games and shot 50% or better in seven of those contests, all culminating in his 13/22 effort against the Magic.
Ersanity. Ilyasova might be only the fifth-most-talked-about Buck right now (Ellis, Jennings, Sanders, Redick are the first four, right?), but let's not let a lack of hype obscure the big-time efforts he's providing Boylan and company. His 20/11 effort today marked his sixth 20+ scoring effort and fifth 20/10 night in his last eight games, including three straight. No Buck has brought it as consistently over the last three games, as evidenced by the obvious (getting inside for two big buckets down the stretch) and the more subtle (saving the ball from going out of bounds to set up Ellis' final three).
Stumbling to wins. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't entirely deserved. But the Bucks remain just three games behind a trio of teams in the East playoff race, giving the Bucks plenty to play for over the season's final month.
The tyranny of .500. The Bucks entered the game at .500 in basically every respect: at home (16-16), on the road (16-16), under Scott Skiles (16-16), and under Jim Boylan (16-16). And even though Sunday's win moved the Bucks a game over .500, everything about their uneven performance reiterated that this is indeed a .500 team in the grand scheme of the universe. That will be good enough for a date with the Heat in the first round, but what then?
Young and restless. A marginal charge call against Ilyasova cost Harris a chance of helping close out the Bucks in the final three minutes, but Harris and his young Magic 'mates otherwise pushed the Bucks to the limit and continue to offer hints at what should be a brighter future in Orlando.
Harris flashed a little bit of everything while operating as a smallball four against Ilyasova and company, while Redick--you know, the Bucks' "win-now" guy--missed four of five shots and scored just four points. It's not to say Harris should have been taking Ilyasova's minutes at the four in Milwaukee, but don't expect the "Should the Bucks have traded Tobias?" question to disappear anytime soon, no matter what Redick does.
As much as Harris hinted strongly at what he's capable of, it was Harkless and Vucevic who were most responsible for Orlando's 62-40 paint scoring edge and what should have been an Orlando victory. Harkless' 23 points featured a pair of threes and plenty of slashing on and off the ball, while Vucevic beat Sanders and the Bucks inside and out with 20 points on 10/16 shooting.
Indefensible. Surrendering 107 points and 52% shooting to the team from South Florida on Friday was neither surprising nor worthy of too much hand-wringing; the same can't be said of allowing 109 points and 51% to the team from Central Florida. The Bucks countered Orlando's preference for small lineups with plenty of their own, as Ekpe Udoh (15 minutes) and John Henson (7) were the only Bucks bigs to see action off the bench. That contributed to a mostly wide-open game featuring plenty of transition opportunities (18 Orlando fast-break points) and another sub-par overall defensive effort from Milwaukee, which has surrendered 106+ points in five straight games.