For more than a little while Sunday night, the Milwaukee Bucks were playing some pretty good basketball. They had their share of struggles, but they fought back. They played hard and it appeared they might make enough of those timely plays they’ve been unable to make so many times before this season to give themselves a shot down the stretch against the mighty Boston Celtics.
Then things went back to normal. Late in the fourth quarter of the Bucks 89-83 loss, their offense broke down, they struggled to get good looks and then, even when they did get those looks, they couldn’t convert. It’s been the story all season, so why should anything have been different against the Celtics?
The most glaring difference about these Bucks versus the team that was so effective last year has come when plays have broke down. Initial motion doesn’t always fail the Bucks. Sometimes they are able to get players in the right places and they get high quality looks. But it’s often seemed that late in games, that becomes infinitely more difficult. And that makes sense. With the game on the line, defenses are going to tighten up, they are going to want to make everything a little more difficult.
So open looks are harder to come by and individual creativity and skill become more important. Last season, in this area, the post initial movement, someone has to make a play area, John Salmons really excelled. He was the playmaker, the shotmaker, the guy who bailed the Bucks out so often. This is where having a star is nice, and Salmons was that kind of guy for the Bucks last season.
He hasn’t been that kind of guy for the Bucks this season. No one has.
After a Carlos Delfino three to tie Sunday’s game at 82 with 3:35 left, Milwaukee failed to convert on any of their remaining possessions. Zero field goals the rest of the way. The Bucks missed their final six shots and, for what seemed like they hundredth time this season, sprinkled in a crunch time shot clock violation. Scott Skiles was asked specifically why Milwaukee’s guards had such a hard time operating out of pick and roll scenarios against Boston bigs that showed out time and again, and his response to that question seemed to indicate the various areas that are holding the Bucks back at the end of games, not only in the pick and roll, but just in general.
“Quickness, skill, creativity, vision, quick decision making, there’s a lot of stuff involved in it,” Skiles said.
A lot of areas where the Bucks just come up a bit short.
Throughout his first season and in his second season, it seemed like Luc Mbah a Moute was a jump shot away from being a really useful 30 plus minute player. Forget the jump shot though, this guy is awfully useful right now. Mbah a Moute has come a long ways since his rookie season offensively. He attacks the rim very hard and uses his athleticism and touch around the hoop to finish as well as anyone on the Bucks. He is always competing and finds himself in the right places more often than not when the Bucks have the ball. His defense no longer needs much praise, its a given every night he’ll be a headache for the opposition, but his offense has really come along nice. From 15-feet in, Mbah a Moute is as reliable as anyone on the Bucks. He finished with 19 points against the Celtics on eight of 13 shooting.
- After a very rough Febraury, Brandon Jennings seems to be coming along in his recovery from a foot injury in March. He led the team in scoring again on Sunday and displayed some very good vision early on in the game. When his teammates are moving and getting into spaces, Jennings is capable of delivering useful passes that lead to scores. So often his teammates are frozen as he dribbles about. Jennings scored 23 points on eight of 19 shooting Sunday night, and made three of his seven three point attempts.
- What kind of guy has Salmons been for the Bucks this season? The kind of guy who makes four of 13 shots and scores 11 points. That’s a Salmons line that has no one flinching any more. Just run of the mill stuff for last season’s hero these days.
There was no one area where the Bucks defense seemed to particularly struggle in against the talented Celtics. Boston’s 51.5% field goal percentage seemed more a tribute to their ability to make shots than it was an indication Milwaukee was doing anything wrong at that end. Time after time Bucks defenders would be closely defending Kevin Garnett, only to watch him cock back the ball in with that high release of his and loft it over that defender’s outstretched arm. Not much can be done there.
- Rajon Rondo appeared to be sleepwalking through most of Sunday’s game, but still managed a key four points and four assists in the fourth quarter. He’d finish with just six and eight respectively for the game, but the real indictment of his play was the eight turnovers he lost. He was repeatedly lazy and nonchalant with his passes and Milwaukee isn’t the kind of team that typically allows for that.
- For all Rondo’s and his teammates’ turnovers the Bucks rarely capitalized: they scored just 11 points on 18 Celtics turnovers.
Another strong game against a more than worthy opponent left me wondering: are games like this an indication that Milwaukee’s problems have less to do with talent and more to do with something else? I don’t know exactly what that something else is, it seems like it’s some sort of preparation issue, but whatever it is, it’s an internal matter. If they can stick with the Celtics for most of 48 minutes and occasionally upset really good teams, only to lose to the Pistons and Wizards, that has to be more than a basic talent issue. Late in games, sure, Milwaukee doesn’t have a guy who can step up, but they shouldn’t need one against those bad teams.
Is it better that Milwaukee’s problems may be more related to matters outside of talent? Maybe. Perhaps it’s easier to remove those who aren’t taking care of what they need to take care of than it is to rebuild the talent base. This is a game that I’ll have in mind when the Bucks are making moves this summer. This team probably isn’t that far away from being a sixth or seventh seed. Of course they aren’t far away from being sixth or seventh in the lottery either. It’s been a crazy kind of year.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Then become a fan on Facebook (in the sidebar).