When a strength suddenly isn’t a strength: Nuggets 105 – Bucks 94

Recap/Box Score/Enemy

The skies in Milwaukee lit up after the Bucks hit 40% against Denver.

It truly is a bizarre season for a team when 40% shooting is something of a cause for celebration.  Unfortunately, that’s where things are for the Bucks right now.  It’s been a task more difficult than anyone imagined, but as strong as they are defensively, Milwaukee should be in line to win a game in which they shoot 40%.

Except when Andrew Bogut is out.

Suddenly, we’re no longer talking about the 2010 Milwaukee Bucks.  Suddenly, we’re looking at something closer to the late 90s Milwaukee Bucks, the teams that took the floor under Chris Ford. Those teams weren’t much offensively and were even worse as defensive units.  And without Bogut, the Bucks are no longer one of the most dangerous defensive units in the league.  Lacking a backup center, Milwaukee struggles on the glass and is incapable of defending more talented big men in one on one situations.  Rotations have been missed by those in Bogut’s place and even on a night in which one player blocks eight shots for Milwaukee, they still were beat in points in the paint.  For this Bogut-less team, 40% shooting won’t cut it.

Defensive issues loomed large in Milwaukee’s 105-94 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Denver Wednesday night.  There is no room for error on the end of the court in which they are supposed to be specializing.  Not with this offense, the one that typically flirts with 40% shooting, only to see 40% shooting end up going home with some other guy at the end of the night.

So on the one night Milwaukee was able to finish at exactly 40%, it’s a shame they couldn’t handle things on that other end.

Offense

In the first half, the Bucks shot 6-13 on 3-pointers.  For a team that was shooting 32.6% on 3-pointers this season, that seemed an unsustainable number. They were bound to come back to Earth and they hit the ground harder than a comet in the second half.  Milwaukee managed to connect on just one of nine second half 3-point attempts, while the Nuggets countered that by hitting four of nine.  That was just the thumbnail of the bigger second half offensive picture.  Milwaukee connected on just 12 of 35 second half shot attempts, while the Nuggets sank 19 of 39 second half shots.  The tale of the Bucks is one typically told through shooting percentage and Wednesday was no different: Bucks 40%, Nuggets 45.3%.

  • Ball movement.  It’s the word everyone uses when describing the Milwaukee Bucks. When Milwaukee is “moving the ball well” they are typically playing well on offense.  If the ball is stalling and open players aren’t catching in the rhythm they should be, Milwaukee’s offense stalls.  The second half was one of those stalling halves.  Milwaukee assisted on their first 11 field goals of the game and then 11 of their final 21 shots.  The assist percentage still wasn’t terrible in the second half, but Milwaukee did very little passing wise to get the ball to open players.  If Milwaukee isn’t assisting each other on field goals, they won’t make many shots.  That’s the difference between them and a team like the Nuggets.  Denver scored 29 fourth quarter points, but only had two assists.  With all of their individual talents, they can create more shots out of one on one situations that don’t come from assists.
  • A loss in a game John Salmons plays well is like an ugly guy getting an attractive female’s number and then losing his phone.  You always want to get that number and figure it won’t come, but hey, here it is, except it ends up being useless.  Salmons made seven of 15 shots from the field and three of six 3-point attempts, leading to a team leading 21 points.  He even chipped in four rebounds, three assists and three steals while he was at it.  And still, Milwaukee failed to generate enough offense to win, though this probably says more about their rough defensive effort on the evening than it does about their offense.

Defense

April 7, 1998.  Since Ervin Johnson blocked eight shots that day, no Bucks player had blocked so many shots on one evening.  Until Wednesday night when Larry Sanders rejected eight Nuggets shots.  I was all ready to write about how Sanders had a much more impressive overall game than EJ did, because I just assumed it was one of those typical EJ games: lots of blocked shots, a few points and a handful of rebounds.  Somehow, EJ tossed up 24 points and 10 rebounds that night though.  Yikes.  Sanders didn’t manage numbers quite so spectacular, scoring 14 points (5-10 FG 4-5 FT) and grabbing 10 rebounds, but eight blocks is still an impressive number.

  • Offensive rebounds were an issue in Utah, but Milwaukee had a firm grasp on that problem in the first half against the Nuggets.  Then the third quarter came.  Suddenly, rebounds long and short were ending up in the hands of the opposition.  As talented as they are at scoring the first time, they certainly can’t be afforded second chances at the hoop.  Denver grabbed four offensive rebounds in the third quarter, leading to seven second chance points.
  • Not unlike Al Jefferson the night before him, Nene Hilario was able to take advantage of the absence of Bogut inside.  Nene (quick side note: did he bring back “Hilario”? I thought we were just doing Nene, but Basketball-Reference has the Hilario?  Interesting.  Not really I guess though.) made eight of nine shots and eight of 10 free throws en route to 24 points and nine rebounds Wednesday.  Both Ersan Ilyasova and Sanders struggled to stop him individually, further cementing just how irreplaceable Bogut is to the Bucks defense.  Sure, Sanders can block shots, but he doesn’t anchor a defense or defend opposing big men one on one anywhere close to as well as Bogut does.

Final Thoughts

It was difficult to envision a scenario in which Milwaukee would have won this game.  Perhaps if neither Carmelo Anthony or Chauncey Billups had suited up for the Nuggets, we’d have been looking at a more even talent dispersion between the two teams.  Even when Anthony was ejected from the game for a rather curious choice to argue about a blocked shot that was pretty clearly a block and not a goaltend, Denver had already seized control of the game, despite just a three-point lead.  The ball had begun to roll, J.R. Smith had been properly pre-cooked and was ready to heat up, Billups was on his way to a nice game and Nene would not be stopped.  Denver’s talent was too overwhelming.

So, onward the Bucks must move.  The schedule doesn’t get a any easier, with the Magic and Heat soon to be arriving in Milwaukee, but if Bogut returns on Saturday, as some have suggested, it’s possible, though not certain, that Milwaukee’s once great defense will return with him.

Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com.  Follow him on Twitter.  Then become a fan on Facebook (in the sidebar).

Categories: Recaps

I watch the Milwaukee Bucks often and write about what I see…