Posted Dec 29 2010 11:41AM
CHICAGO -- "Fear the Deer" was clever and catchy and plucky, a sweet battle cry for an underdog Milwaukee Bucks team in 2009-10 that caught some teams unaware and ran over others when they were fully prepared.
Problem is, in 2010-11, the rest of the NBA -- and the basketball gods in general -- are locked, loaded and wearing blaze orange.
Thirty games into a season of such high hopes, such elevated expectations, the Bucks are 12-18. Their offense is broken (a dead-last 90.3 points per game), too many of their players have been broken (114 player-games lost to injuries already, compared to 152 all of last season) and from the looks and sounds of it in their 90-77 loss to the Chicago Bulls at United Center Tuesday night, their spirit might be broken, too.
The postgame dressing room was full of dreary explanations and downcast eyes but there was a sameness to it as well, a getting-too-used-to-these-outcomes tone that made it all seem a little hollow. Center Andrew Bogut -- who shot 2-of-12, grabbed 16 rebounds and rarely challenged Bulls forward Carlos Boozer defensively -- was asked how the Bucks are fitting in their many new players so far.
Chris Douglas-Roberts -- one of those new guys, not happy with his role -- chuckled in the next stall.
Then Corey Maggette, acquired from Golden State to create offense for a team that is scoring seven points less than it did last year, summed up his Bucks experience thusly: "If I had to grade it, I'd grade it 'F,' " the veteran wing player said. "So far it's an 'F.' I've got to be honest."
Deer in the headlights right now, this team is at a crossroads. Can they become the Bucks of last season? Or are they the Bucks of a lost season?
"We can't feel sorry for ourselves," forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. "We've got to go out there and play. That's what we're paid to do. We've got to go out there and win games.
"We've got to find a way. Whether that's guys getting more alert defensively and doing what they can. Or guys staying out and working on their shots so we can make more shots, or whatever. We've got to do a little extra and start playing better."
Mbah a Moute said any excuses centered on a roster full of new faces are gone. And while coach Scott Skiles reminded reporters that Milwaukee hasn't had one practice yet -- not one! -- in which its full roster has been healthy and available, we know Skiles isn't prone to excuse-making. Or excuse-taking.
"What does that have to do with putting it all out there?" he had asked before tipoff. "That may have to do with our win-loss record -- the fact that you don't have everybody healthy -- but it shouldn't have anything to do with the overall effort and energy the guys play with."
The Bucks had a nice blend of old and new in absentia Tuesday. No point guard Brandon Jennings, still weeks away, recovering from a broken bone in his foot. No Earl Boykins, a late scratch because of a one-game suspension levied for his ref bump Monday. No Carlos Delfino, Drew Gooden or Michael Redd, each in various states of disrepair. (Redd, by the way, probably has played his last game in a Milwaukee uniform and only his $18.3 million expiring contract is considered an asset to the franchise anymore.)
Undermanned even against a Bulls team missing Joakim Noah, the Bucks stayed close on free throws (25 of them), on rebounds (51) and on second-chance points (18 through three quarters). They were down just 71-68 with nine minutes left. But their spotty shooting had them down 83-70 with 3:41 left and, after whole quarters of 15 and 17 points, there was no way the Bucks were digging out of a 13-point hole in less than four minutes.
Even their little magic-number approach this season betrayed them. They had gone 9-6 when allowing fewer than 92 points. Except this time, they gave up 90 -- and lost.
"Look, you've got to shoot better than the low 30s if you hope to win," Skiles said, before veering toward what sure sounded like sarcasm.
Asked about his players' confidence after missing some simple shots, the Bucks coach said: "At some point, we'd like to make some basic plays. We'd like to make some shots around the basket, we'd like to make open 15-footers. When we have 2-on-1's, we'd like to convert 'em. Just make some basic NBA plays. It is demoralizing for the guys not to come up with, at this level, what are very easy plays to make. At some point we need to make 'em -- that will make the guys feel a lot better."
Last season, Milwaukee averaged 97.7 points while giving up 96.0. And that was before the many offseason enhancements made by general manager John Hammond, from adding Maggette, Douglas-Roberts, Drew Gooden and Keyon Dooling to locking up shooting guard John Salmons (5-of-17 vs. the Bulls) for the long haul. Bogut was presumably back and healthy, too, after his nasty spill late last season.
Only it hasn't worked out that way. The Bucks remain a bin of parts, nowhere close to being a whole. They sit right where they were a year ago -- 12-18 before going 8-7 in January, 10-4 in February and 11-4 in March -- but are disjointed, lack firepower and won't be sneaking up on anyone this time. Last year's 34-18 finish, if that's what it takes again, will be much tougher now.
Hard to know what has hurt Milwaukee more: the injuries or the inconsistency. Skiles' defensive demands have jerked around minutes for some players accustomed to getting by on scoring skills, such as Maggette and Douglas-Roberts. Then there are others, like Salmons and Gooden, who never have been reliable night in, night out. Jennings hadn't yet taken a major step forward in his second season before getting hurt. Bogut doesn't expect to be fully recovered from his hand, wrist and arm injuries all season. They even miss free-agent departee Luke Ridnour, now more than ever.
The comings and goings from the rotation are an easy target.
"It's kind of a situation where everyone is a rookie," Maggette said. "You know how they treat rookies -- one day you're up, the next day you're down, one day you're up, the next day you're down. So it's tough. You've just got to stay positive. That's how I look at it. Just stay positive. Do the same [things], enjoy life. This is a great game. This is a great opportunity."
Problem is, Maggette sounded too Teflon, maybe even a little Kevlar as he said that. The only thing worse for the Bucks than having things boil over would be to have them smooth over in a mental check-out.
Maybe the Bucks can yet turn things around. Maybe they start to make the basic plays that they're blowing now. Maybe the trading deadline is a way out.
Whatever, they need to do something, and soon. Because even on Central (Division) time, it's getting late fast.
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