The Bucks entered Charlotte on a low after allowing the Hawks to score 41 points in the fourth quarter and turn an eight-point deficit into a seven-point win. It was a brutal loss at a brutal time after all the work Milwaukee had done in recent games to tighten the race at the top of the East. Before the Hawks, the Bucks were 1.5 games back of the Sixers and 2.5 games back of the Nets. This morning, they were an additional game behind each. With the remaining season quickly shrinking, each game becomes vital in the attempt to gain home court advantage beyond the first round. With that context in mind, let’s see how tonight’s game in Charlotte went –
The Bucks didn’t come out all that hot, and they were down 11-15 about five minutes into the game. Miles Bridges scored six points in the early going, and he would lead the Hornets with 10 by the end of the quarter. Luckily, the Bucks regrouped and made up for their slow start with a 22-13 run to end the quarter. Giannis led the way with 11 points. Milwaukee dominated on the boards (18-11) and in transition (8-2 in fast break points) to grab the lead in a game that was relatively close outside of those two areas.
To start the second quarter, the Bucks continued with the momentum they carried through the end of the first. In the first six minutes of the quarter, they took leads of eleven points multiple times. That lead built gradually throughout the rest of the quarter, ending up at seventeen in a 62-45 halftime score. Giannis (15), Brook (10), Bryn Forbes (10), and Khris (9) provided the most scoring in the first half. Bridges led the Hornets with 12, and only two of those points came in the second quarter. It was a 14-8 edge in paint points that defined the Bucks’ advantage in this frame.
This was just about as good of a half as you could hope for, and it was a great sign after what happened in Atlanta a few nights ago. Being able to bounce back quickly is a key feature of any postseason run. From here, all the Bucks needed to do to take this one home was hold on.
It should be a shock to no one that this was easier said than done. The Hornets came out of the locker room with some intensity, and twelve early points from PJ Washington allowed them to bring it within thirteen at 57-70. If you go back and check the halftime score above, you’ll see that those twelve points from Washington were the first twelve points of the second half for Charlotte. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the run continued from there. Before long, it was 69-74 with just about 4:30 left in the quarter as threes continued to fall for the Hornets. Jrue and Forbes sparked a 7-2 run from there to bring the lead back to ten, but the Hornets refused to go away, ending the quarter down just 80-87.
The key in this quarter was those aforementioned threes. Charlotte went 6-9. The Bucks went 1-7. That’s a fifteen point difference in a quarter the Bucks lost by ten. Devonte’ Graham scored the last seven of the quarter for Charlotte, including two big threes.
Giannis started the quarter off with an and-one to make it 90-80, but that did not end up being the definitive momentum builder that I had hoped. After a brief Bucks run to get it to thirteen, the vast majority of the last ten minutes of the fourth were played with a margin in the single digits. It was a bit of a weird fourth, with the Hornets threatening the whole time but also never getting closer than four. In any case, this was a tense game until the final minute, when the Bucks finally pulled away for good. Giannis (29), Brook (22), Khris (17), and Forbes (15) led the way for Milwaukee. Graham (25), Bridges (21), and Washington (18) led the way for Charlotte.
Brook making his case
There’s no debate that Lopez has not been in prime form over the full course of the season. He’s been a lot better lately though, and he’s making his case for a bigger playoff role than some might have anticipated. Brook dropped 22 tonight against the small ball Hornets, and he showcased his ability to hang with smaller players defensively. You’d rather have PJ Tucker in a game late for defensive purposes, but it’s not out of the question right now that we see DiVincenzo leaving the game instead of Lopez in certain situations. Despite making just two of his last ten triples, Brook is still making more than 40% of his threes this month. He’s averaging about 14 points per game and doing quite well as a rim protector too. He’s turning in his best performances of the season at the right time.
The struggle to finish continues
Prior to this game, the Bucks were 9-4 in first halves in April. They were just 7-6 in full games, however, and they won just three of those thirteen fourth quarters. The broadcast offered some interesting nuggets early on in this one. The Bucks have lost four games this season when they led by five or more points heading into the fourth, and all four of those losses came this month. As part of that, the Bucks have really struggled defensively in the last frame. We certainly saw some of those themes continue in this game. The key question – will this be a random side story that no one remembers or is it a sign that the Bucks have some serious issues that could haunt them in the playoffs? It’s impossible to answer that question right now, and both answers are on the table.
Teams go through a ton of ups and downs in various areas. It happens in an eighty-two game season. That – or some explanation that involves the Bucks experimenting with different approaches late – makes more sense to me than a sudden loss of all ability to function in the fourth. It’s worth noting that the Bucks were 24-21-2 in fourth quarters before April, which is a far more acceptable outcome at the very least. Something weird is happening this month. Regardless of the reason, one thing is clear: this has to be stopped before the games truly start to count.
I’ll take a moment here to celebrate PJ Tucker, who I think will be a fantastic add for the playoffs with his defensive versatility. Those four fourth quarter losses this month? Tucker didn’t play in any of them. If he’s healthy for the playoffs, the Bucks are going to be in a much better position to close things out late. Having three lock-down defenders in Jrue, Giannis, and PJ on the floor will be huge for this team’s chances.
Hornets not an ideal match-up for the Bucks
Milwaukee was 0-2 versus Charlotte before this one. The second game saw Jordan Nwora and Jeff Teague lead the team in minutes with most of the regulars out, so take that one with a grain of salt. The idea, however, still stands. The Bucks haven’t had a particularly easy time with the Hornets this year. In their first match-up, Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball both dropped 27, and Charlotte pulled away late. In this game, with both of those guys out, the Bucks still struggled to put away a determined young group that has been holding their own despite the losses of their two best players.
At the end of the day, the Bucks would be heavy favorites in a series with the Hornets, and for good reason. They’re the better team. That doesn’t mean that we want to see Charlotte in the first round. It’s been a tough match-up this year.
The Bucks have two more on the road, playing in Houston Thursday and Chicago Friday. They then have a massive two-game series with the Nets in Milwaukee on Sunday and Tuesday. It’s difficult to see the Bucks finishing ahead of Brooklyn if that series ends in anything other than a sweep.
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