Once upon a time the NBA was a league full of really good centers. Every few nights a Hall of Fame caliber big man would march into your arena, looking to take apart your team inside. But that’s not really the case anymore. It’s a guard dominated league these days. Typically, when your team’s starting center is out, it’s not that hard to get by with a backup for a while, because there are only a few really worrisome centers left in the league.
Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, the best of a thin bunch plays for the Orlando Magic and his arrival in Milwaukee Wednesday coincided with another migraine for Andrew Bogut.
Without their defensive anchor and already playing short-handed up front, Milwaukee had few answers for Dwight Howard. Howard feasted on a Bucks front line fighting an up hill battle, posting 31 points and 22 rebounds in a 93-89 Orlando overtime win.
Overtime? The Magic needed overtime to topple a Bucks team without Bogut? They did.
Milwaukee’s offensive issues have been well documented this season, but what’s kind of flown under the radar has been their ability to drag their opponents into the muck with them, make them fight it out on the same level. They pulled this trick off once again against the heavily favored Magic. Sure, Howard had a big game, but the Bucks sent him to the free throw line 24 times to earn those points. Howard obliged and made just 13.
When Howard wasn’t shooting free throws, his teammates weren’t having overwhelming success elsewhere. Orlando turned the ball over 19 times, leading to 20 Bucks points and the Magic shot just 43.4% from the field while hitting only seven of 27 three-point attempts. Milwaukee did what they needed to do defensively, as they have so many times before this season. They brought Orlando down to their level.
But if Milwaukee is going to bring teams down into the dirt with them, the Bucks need to be the ones to climb out first. Milwaukee didn’t make things easy on itself early with a six for 22 first quarter effort, but strong second and third quarters left the game within reach. It was the same costly errors that have plagued them throughout the season that let this game slip away. A shot clock violation with 3:42 to play, seven offensive rebounds for the Magic in the fourth quarter, a ball dribbled off a foot into the Magic in crunch time, those things all end up coming back to haunt teams.
Milwaukee did enough right to stay in it against the Magic for virtually the entire game Wednesday. They just couldn’t do enough right to win.
When John Salmons is making jump shots, it goes a long way towards making the Bucks look respectable on offense. Salmons was doing so in the third quarter and, surprise surprise, Milwaukee shot 52.4% in the quarter. Salmons was seven of nine in the third, relying largely on his mid-range jumper, but getting to the basket for a pair of layups as well. After back to back games against stellar pick and roll defenders, he said the team put greater focus on getting around big men and getting to the basket.
“It was up to us to get around those bigs,” Salmons said. “Today I think we did a better job of getting in the paint, drawing and kicking and getting people open shots. Pick and roll is a big part of our game, it’s a big part of our offense, so it’s definitely up to the ball handlers to get around those bigs.”
The draw and kick game was in full effect, as Salmons dished out five assists to go with his 22 points on 10 of 19 shooting and seven rebounds. Without Bogut, Milwaukee stayed in it largely because of one of Salmons better games of the season.
When Milwaukee’s offense did breakdown, it broke down hard. Coming out a first half timeout, the Bucks fell back into their habit of over-dribbling and did so until the Magic poked the ball away, leading to a Brandon Jennings half court attempt just to beat the buzzer. Why does Milwaukee struggle so badly at times like these when they show flashes (like a nicely designed out of bounds play that led to an Earl Barron layup in overtime) of sharp decision making? Well, there is an opponent on the court and sometimes things break down. That’s where things typically get tricky for a team like the Bucks.
“All the coaches have a myriad of plays that rely on some sort of deception, especially when you got a low clock situation,” Coach Scott Skiles explained post game. “If that deception doesn’t work, then you rely on a great player making a great play. And, so … human beings, you know? Mistakes are made.”
Problem is, the Bucks don’t have a great player to make that great play. And Skiles seemed to realize that when he was searching for words after saying great players make great plays. But he understands his predicament and isn’t going to toss his guys under the bus. Honestly though, when the Bucks need bailing out, there is no one to turn to.
Having a bunch of okay offensive players gave hope earlier this season that someone else could step up every game. But that was probably fools gold. Hoping a new average player breaks out every night is like having three cars made in 1994 with the idea that if one doesn’t start in the winter, the other one surely will. None of those cars are going to start when it gets really cold. You’ll just be left walking out in the cold.
A lot like the Bucks.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Then become a fan on Facebook (in the sidebar).