Bucks Need to Find Closer Mentality as They Get Set For I-94 Rivalry with Bulls
Just when the Milwaukee Bucks started to build some momentum, they have suddenly dropped four of their last five games to fall to 11-12 ahead of a back-to-back matchup with their Central Division rival Chicago Bulls.
At this point last season, the Bucks found themselves in a hole at 9-14 while continuing on a downward spiral. While they have seemingly been off to a better start this season, they still have some growing pains to get through before they realize what this team can accomplish. One could pinpoint the start of their latest skid to the San Antonio game, but I’ll give them a break for that since they redeemed that loss with an impressive win over the Portland Trailblazers. During their latest three-game losing streak, the Bucks have either lost leads late or failed to keep up with teams down the stretch, which has caused them to lose games they have been capable of winning.
Starting with their collapse at home against the Atlanta Hawks this past Friday, Milwaukee blew a 20-point halftime lead to eventually fall 114-110 in what was arguably the most bizarre half of basketball they have played this season. After scoring just 44 points in the first half, the Hawks came out with a vengeance and put up a 40-point third quarter followed by a 30-point fourth to rally past the Bucks in front of a frustrated Milwaukee crowd. Jabari Parker finished with a team-high 27 points for the Deer, but Giannis Antetokounmpo was yet again in foul trouble and ended with just 14 points in 24 minutes.
It was the most incomplete game we’ve seen from the Greek Freak all season, and it just goes to show how important it is to have your best player on the floor when you need him most. Even their bench contributed 49 points with three players in double figures led by Michael Beasley and Greg Monroe’s 14 points each. But it was their lack of a closing mentality that hurt them in the final minutes of the game. Giannis took a questionable three-pointer late while trying to play hero ball and put the Hawks away, but thanks to some clutch shots and a season-high 30 points from Altanta’s Dennis Schroeder, the Hawks prevailed.
With a chance to keep themselves over .500 on Saturday night in Washington, the Bucks faced a then 8-13 Wizards team that has struggled to get going this season under head coach Scott Brooks. Milwaukee looked solid taking a nine-point lead after one, but let the home team get back to even heading into half time. Thanks to some hot shooting from Mirza Teletovic, who finished with 25 points on 8-12 shooting including 5-6 from downtown, the Bucks found themselves in good position to steal a road win on the second night of a back-to-back. All-Stars John Wall, 24 points and 11 assists, and Bradley Beal, 20 points, had other plans as they took over the game late and carried their team to victory outscoring the Bucks 15-5 over the final five minutes, including an 11-0 run at one point. Giannis rebounded from his rough outing the previous night with 28 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, but his other half, Jabari Parker, had just eight points on 3-8 shooting in 24 minutes. In fact, Parker was held scoreless after halftime while simply disappearing when they needed him most.
I don’t really want to bring up Monday’s 122-100 beat down at the hands of the Toronto Raptors, but it has to be said. Anytime I see the Bucks heading up North to Canada, I immediately think ‘Oh, no.’ Toronto is already a tough place to play for any NBA team, but it’s a different story for the Bucks. Not only have they lost six straight games to the Raptors, but have now seen defeat in 12 of the last 13 meetings the two teams have played. Some teams just seem to have an edge against certain opponents, and that certainly is the case for the Raptors over the Bucks. After falling behind by 20 points at halftime, Milwaukee did outscore the Raptors 33-23 in the third to make it a reasonable 10-point game heading into the fourth. The Raptors backcourt was just too much and put the Bucks away with a 30-18 fourth quarter.
Do I think Toronto is that much better than Milwaukee right now? I understand that the Raptors have arguably the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference in Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan, but it seems to be more mental at this point. Monday’s loss can’t even be placed on Giannis or Jabari, who combined for 57 points while both shot over 50% from the field. Watching Parker’s 30-point effort go to waste was tough considering it was one of the best games he played all season. DeRozan led Toronto with 30 points while Terrance Ross put on a show with 25 points of his own. Although, Ross had the Internet buzzing after he missed a breakaway windmill dunk in the second half.
With all the being said, what seems to be the main problem for the Bucks late in games, especially their last three losses? Simply put, finding a closer. Going back to the short-lived Brandon Knight era, Milwaukee has been searching for that true go-to guy down the stretch ever since he was traded away mid-way through the 2014-2015 season. Of course we would like to see Giannis and/or Jabari fill that role, but this is where the loss of Khris Middleton really comes into play. Middleton, who averaged a career-high 18.2 points per game last season, was starting to consume that clutch role. Middleton has even developed a reputation for hitting game-winning shots, with one of his most notable coming against the Heat back at the end of the 2015 season.
There’s no doubt that Middleton, who is currently rehabbing from a torn hamstring, is sorely missed. He is slated to come back sometime late in the season, if at all. No disrespect to Tony Snell, who has averaged 8.3 points per game while filling in for Khash, but hopefully the Bucks can whether the storm until he is able to return. For now, the Bucks must find someone who can take over a game and put teams away when they need it most. The obvious points to Giannis and Jabari, but one guy who could help out can be Michael Beasley, who is arguably one of the team’s most efficient scorers. They did trade for Beasley one day after Middleton went down with his injury knowing he has a knack for scoring the basketball. Beasley has been a godsend for the Bucks, averaging 8.3 points in just under 16 minutes a game. While Beasley has been a huge lift for the Bucks bench, they need him to continue to bring it every night because his ability to score gives the Bucks a chance to win on any given night. Once Middleton is able to return, though, it makes the Bucks that much better and more of a threat in the Eastern Conference.
The 11-12 Milwaukee Bucks renew their I-94 rivalry with the 13-11 Chicago Bulls tonight at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Bulls are currently second in the Central Division behind the Cavs and are coming off a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night after blowing a 20-point lead. The Bucks, meanwhile, have fallen all the way to last in the division after their three-game skid. This will be the first of a back-to-back home and home setting with the second game coming tomorrow night at the United Center in Chicago. Tonight’s game will be at 7 p.m. on TNT and will be the Bucks only appearance on TNT this season.
R.I.P Craig Sager
Speaking of TNT, there was some sad news in the sports world today with the passing of longtime Turner Sports broadcaster and sideline reporter Craig Sager, who died Thursday at the age of 65 after an extended battle with leukemia since he was first diagnosed in 2014. Whether you remember him for his distinctive colorful suits or simply his true professionalism as a reporter, Sager was one the greatest to ever to do it while being an inspiration to millions. He brought so much to the game and his presence made the games that much more enjoyable. Most notably, his interviews with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, which were easily must-watch television. Knowing he may not have much time left, Sager got the chance to work his first NBA Finals game of his career back in June of 2016 in what was an amazing gesture by ESPN and ABC. He will be sadly missed and TNT games will never be the same, but his legend will live on. Thank you, Craig.