The shots were falling. The glass was under control. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had held Houston star James Harden reasonably under wraps. The indicators, save for a late push by the opposition, were mostly positive for the Milwaukee Bucks. They took an 11-point lead to the locker room.That was the story of Friday’s first half, and that’s where the good news ends.
The Bucks couldn’t survive a poor start to the third quarter, then melted down late in an ugly 115-101 defeat that left the Bucks’ fans in the crowd of 15,867 booing as though Mason Crosby had just walked on to the court.
Milwaukee (16-15) dropped its third straight and fell to 2-8 against the Western Conference this season. The loss left everyone in the home locker room searching for answers.
"It appeared we just lost focus coming out of the locker room," said coach Scott Skiles. "That was as bad a collapse as I've ever seen and it happened so fast. Just turnover, turnover, turnover. It looked like we started going one-on-one instead of moving the ball like we did in the first half. Then when we did get a decent shot at the basket, if we missed, we didn't run back. They just ran by us and went down and scored."
Then there was this from Mike Dunleavy, who was unable to provide his usual spark off the bench.
"We just gave into their pressure and their energy," he said. "It went from not making shots to being careless with the ball to not chasing down loose balls. You never want to see that. It was a bad, bad night."
Brandon Jennings called it the “worst second half ever,” and what else is there to say about a game that featured a peak swing of 36 points?
Rockets coach Kevin McHale praised his team’s third quarter as being the best it can play. There is no arguing with that when you outscore the competition 30-14, especially when your starting point guard is getting stitches. Jeremy Lin had struggled before colliding with Larry Sanders in the third quarter, but Lin’s replacement, Toney Douglas, received credit from both sides for changing the game by causing turnovers with his quickness.
Indeed, the Rockets (19-14) dialed up the pressure, but the Bucks were their own worst enemy, as they committed 19 of a season-high 25 turnovers in the second half, leading to 23 Houston points. Once Milwaukee drew itself into a clinic in up-tempo basketball, it was class dismissed, in a thorough and disconcerting manner.
After a slow start, Harden showed why Rockets GM Daryl Morey views him as a foundational player in a master plan making shots, getting into passing lanes and generally making life miserable for Milwaukee. But backcourt partner Lin had an off night and big man Omer Asik wasn’t particularly impactful. Neither was playing during the fourth-quarter flurry that extinguished any hope of a comeback.
Instead, it was reserves Douglas, Patrick Patterson and ex-Buck Carlos Delfino wreaked havoc and rained threes. The classy Delfino received nice applause upon entering the game and definitely looked familiar with the BMO Harris Bradley Center rims. He finished with 22 points and was 6-of-7 from three-point range. It appeared he could have connected from the back row on this night.
By the time of the closing run, the fight was long gone from the Bucks. Even though the Rockets only tallied eight offensive rebounds, they all seemed to come during the knockout blow. One imagined television analyst Jon McGlockin pulling his hair out over all the “reloads” Houston was getting.
But nobody associated with the Bucks has any time to mope, as the team finds itself in third place and again flirting with the .500 mark heading into Saturday’s key division road game with Indiana. The Pacers will be eager to avenge two earlier losses to Milwaukee and angry after dropping a chippy affair in Boston Friday.
Television ratings figure to be low with the state transfixed on the Packers’ playoff game. This will be a tough assignment for the Bucks, though I expect their fight to return for a rivalry game.
It could be said that Friday was the low point of the NBA season in Milwaukee. If the Bucks don’t come out playing harder and smarter, they risk the boos turning into persistent disinterest that could linger well after football is over.