During the rough stretch that saw them go from 6-2 to 7-7, the Milwaukee Bucks have had trouble at the end of several games. Monday’s furious rally in Chicago notwithstanding, the Bucks have been plagued by cold shooting, the inability to rebound and fouling too much down the stretch of several close losses.
Conversely, at the start of Saturday’s game with the Celtics, it did not appear there would be a finish worth noting. The Bucks found themselves behind, 17-0, and there was reason to believe their veteran opponent would coast to victory while the locals exited early to catch the Big Ten title game.
But perhaps sensing that the entirety of the good vibes engendered by their first eight games would slip away with another lopsided home loss, the Bucks recovered to make the contest competitive by the middle of the second quarter, then weathered ebbs and flows before making clutch plays at both ends to claim an important 91-88 home win.
The victory kept Milwaukee (8-7) from falling below .500 for the first time and ensured it the chance to take the season series from the Celtics (9-8) with a win Dec. 21 in Boston.
Point guard Brandon Jennings had a relatively quiet night despite not having to contend with All-Star Rajon Rondo, who served the second of a two-game suspension for his fisticuffs with Brooklyn’s Kris Humphries. Jennings had just 13 points, but the last of them came on a game-winning three with 24 seconds left.
The defense would seal the deal for Milwaukee. Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, in his first game back from offseason knee surgery, made key stops on Boston’s Paul Pierce, and after a free throw by Larry Sanders, the Bucks survived game-tying three-point attempts by Pierce and Jason Terry.
Sanders followed up his first career triple-double in Friday night’s disappointing defeat at Minnesota with another strong effort, totaling 18 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks. His last rebound prevented a second chance for Boston and sent him to the line. He failed to ice the game, but Milwaukee got the stop and victory it needed.
Bucks coach Scott Skiles rightly shuffled the starting lineup (again) before the game. Small forward Tobias Harris sat in favor of Marquis Daniels, who drew the assignment of Pierce. The two were teammates in Boston the last three seasons, and familiarity helped Daniels contain the star forward. Also, Ekpe Udoh started at center for Samuel Dalembert.
The biggest lifts of the night came from Sanders and Mbah a Moute. Sanders was given the opportunity to start at center but preferred to maintain his bench role, and his spark was sorely needed in the face of a large deficit and the absences of Mike Dunleavy (sore knee) and Beno Udrih (sprained ankle). Some might find Sanders turning down a start curious, but this observer reads it as another sign of maturation in a young player.
Sanders energy has fueled most of the Bucks’ wins this season, and for him to recognize where the team most needs his contributions is huge. He appears to grasp that with consistent production and a lack of foul trouble, he will earn starter-type minutes.
Mbah Moute played 14 quality minutes in his first action this year, and the game may have been lost without him. He figures to come off the bench while easing his way into playing shape, but his defense could well have him back with the starting unit soon. There are no back-to-back games for awhile, so that will help. Go ahead and wonder what might have been had he been available for recent games against the Bobcats, Heat and Bulls.
In the end, the efforts of Mbah a Moute, Sanders, and Jennings got the Bucks past the Celtics, who were obviously hurt by not having their primary playmaker (Rondo) at crunch time. But professional sports is not a business known for its sympathy, and the Bucks needed to hold serve at home.
They did, and thus they finish the six-game meat grinder with a 2-4 mark. This is clearly not the mark anyone desired, and the optimism that surrounded the team after eight games is a bit more cautious now. There are still issues with overall consistency, the playing rotation and now health.
But the young Bucks recovered from their slumber in time and made enough plays to beat a team that is good enough to win the whole thing. If you’re looking for signs these Bucks are different from the losing editions of the recent past, that’s a good place to start.