If the Utah Jazz have a home court advantage, then the Denver Nuggets play in the Thunderdome.
The Nuggets have lost to only five teams in the Pepsi Center over the past season plus, and lead the NBA in scoring at home. Although one of those losses was to the Milwaukee Bucks on March 20, Wednesday’s results were much closer to what you would expect from a deep, explosive offense playing a defensive-minded team without their best defensive-minded inside presence.
The Milwaukee Bucks lost 105-94, but for the first half and part of the third quarter the Bucks looked like they were poised to take responsibility for 33% of the Nuggets losses at home, at least until the reality of who they were playing set in.
The Nuggets rank second in percentage of shots taken at the basket, and fifth in percentage of shots taken from the perimeter, both of which have led to Denver’s top three ranking in offensive pace and fifth in points per game.
Naturally, Denver’s lethargic state was as short lived as Milwaukee’s above 50% shooting, and 14-2 late third quarter and 7-0 fourth quarter runs all but sealed the fate of a Bucks lineup that was leaning heavily on rookie Larry Sanders and second year power forward Ersan Ilyasova.
The formula of hitting half their shots then regressing to a final percentage in the low 40s once again took hold, but compared to Monday’s debacle against the Utah Jazz, this game was as thrilling as a game against the Boston Celtics.
Strangely enough, the majority of the playmaking during Milwaukee’s “successes” Wednesday night came from John Salmons (21pts, 3rbs, 3asts), who led the team with 26 points in last year’s win in Denver, and rookie power forward/center Larry Sanders (14pts, 10rbs, 8bks), who did something in his 18th NBA game that Andrew Bogut could not do in all of 2009-10 and so far this year: block eight shots.
It would be easy to use the absence of center Andrew Bogut as a legit excuse for Milwaukee’s inability to contain the Nuggets’ scoring outburst in the third quarter. Denver’s 14-2 charge in the third quarter was led by the hot version of JR Smith and post ups from Nene Hilario.
The Bucks, predictably, went cold in the second half and finished shooting at a familiar 40% clip, and finished the third quarter with a 76-71 deficit that got out of hand quickly in the fourth quarter.
Drew Gooden was limited to 10 minutes, but for the most part the Bucks simply needed a couple more stops and conversions on the other end to at least force Denver to pump the brakes a little. Instead, one of the best transition teams in the NBA had their way with a defense that was unable to set itself.
All the positive signs from the likes of John Salmons, Larry Sanders, and even Corey Maggette (22 minutes, 5-10 fg, 7-10 ft, 17 pts, 4 ast), don’t mean as much when they can’t carry Milwaukee through dry spells and prevent high scoring offenses from doing what they do best.
We’ve all wanted to see what power forward/center Larry Sanders could do playing in more than garbage time at the end of games, and from his first block of the night 34 seconds into the game on a five foot Arron Afflalo jumper, Bucks fans got a brief glimpse into his potential future.
Four of the lanky rookie’s rebounds were on the offensive glass, and Sanders also collected two steals and zero turnovers to go with his near triple-double. He displayed an encouraging array of dunks, mid-range jumpers, and Scott Skiles-brand of hustle that should get Bucks fans dreaming of a future with an imposing and versatile Larry Sanders and Andrew Bogut front court.
Denver is one of the best offensive teams in the paint, so this was a fair test of Sanders’ ability to cover more than the big bodies inside, and for the most part he passed well enough to earn a few increased minutes when Bogut returns.
Milwaukee registered fifteen assists on 20 first half baskets (apparently assists go up when shots fall) and spaced the floor well enough to get multiple open looks from the outside (6-12 on three point shots in the first half, 1-10 in the second). But since the last time I checked, NBA games aren’t decided in the first 24 minutes.
It was good to see the return of John Salmons’ quick first step off the dribble and Larry Sanders swatting balls away like flies, but Sanders can’t replace the impact Andrew Bogut has on opposing offenses and defenses, and Milwaukee is still missing Carlos Delfino’s perimeter shooting.
The Bucks have lost seven of eight games and get no rest against Orlando this weekend, and Miami and Indiana next week. There were many more positives to take away from this loss than the one against Utah, but looking for bright spots in a string of losses is not where Milwaukee expected to be heading into this season.
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