Call It a Comeback
Sure, every team makes a run in the NBA. Some just make a lot.
The Bucks are on a roll of close games. Since Feb. 13, you have needed to watch to the final second of regulation, sometimes even more. Seven straight games have gone down to the wire, all of them settled by no more than eight points.
Yet these recent close finishes along with the team’s almost even overall record (29-28) are concealing a season-long trend of comebacks within games. Things are starting to even out after 48 minutes and 59 games, but Bucks games have been prone to wild scoring swings going both directions.
To wit: The Bucks have already won 13 games this season after trailing by 10+ points. Conversely, they have also lost 12 games this season after leading by 10+ points. So once again it shakes pretty evenly, but how they are arriving there is the strange, fascinating, exciting, frustrating, compelling part.
No one seems to track comebacks. At least not thoroughly or publicly or comparatively. After checking the usual statistical sources, a new plan bloomed: Check the numbers for each Bucks game and get the full story. The box scores handed out to press after games, I remembered, always show a “Biggest Lead” for each team (assist to BucksPR).
So, the good news or the bad news first? Thinking this is a good place to start… an even better finish.
The Comeback Wins
Deficit: Bulls led by 27 points
Final: Bucks won 93-92 on Nov. 26 in Chicago
How? The Bucks trailed 78-51 with 2:50 to go in third quarter. After that, they finished the game on a 42-14 run, led by a bench unit featuring the now departed Beno Udrih and Doron Lamb, as well as Mike Dunleavy, Ekpe Udoh and current starter Ersan Ilyasova. These are the nights.
Deficit: Raptors led by 20 points
Final: Bucks won 107-96 on Jan. 13 in Toronto
How? Toronto entered the night having won 10 of 13 and then jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first quarter. Then the Bucks dominated the second quarter 31-16, and John Henson delivered one of the finest games of his NBA career to date, with 19 points on 8-13 shooting.
Deficit: Rockets led by 17 points
Final: Bucks won 110-107 on Feb. 27 in Houston
How? Still pretty fresh in your memory. Of course Monta Ellis hit the off-balance buzzer-beating walk-off (run-off, rather) three to win the game. So you are forgiven if you forgot how this game started: With the Rockets taking a 20-4 lead less than four and a half minutes into the game.
Deficit: Celtics led by 17 points
Final: Bucks won 91-88 on Dec. 1 in Milwaukee
How? The Celtics started the game on a 17-0 run and the Bucks were still down 27-11 at the end of the first quarter. But a 36-point second quarter explosion drew the Bucks to within one point at halftime in one of a few games that Larry Sanders really broke out against the Celtics this year, leading the team with 18 points off the bench (remember when he came off the bench?).
Deficit: Pistons led by 15 points
Final: Bucks won 117-90 on Jan. 29 in Detroit
How? The Pistons jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter, but the point of this story is the personal 16-0 run that Brandon Jennings went on in the third quarter. The Bucks scored 33 points in the second quarter, 39 in the third, and Jennings turned this turned into a blowout.
Deficit: Bulls led by 15 points
Final: Bucks won 104-96 on Jan. 9 in Chicago
How? The Bucks have made a habit of comeback wins in Chicago this season, using a second half three-point torrent and a season-high 35 points from Brandon Jennings to do the trick this time. The Bucks blocked 15 shots, Larry Sanders with seven of those, and they held the Bulls to 39 second-half points.
Deficit: 76ers led by 13 points
Final: Bucks won 94-92 on Feb. 13 in Milwaukee
How? The Bucks trailed by double-digits in the first quarter (sensing a common theme?) before Monta Ellis came alive with 19 points in the second half while Samuel Dalembert delivered one of the best games of his season with 17 points and 14 rebounds as the Bucks won each of the final three quarters.
Deficit: Cavaliers led by 12 points
Final: Bucks won 105-102 on Nov. 3 in Milwaukee
How? The picture-perfect finish to the home-opener saw Brandon Jennings hit a straightaway three at the buzzer to win… but not before the Bucks started a trend of struggling in the first quarter. The Cavaliers also made their own comeback with a 7-0 run to tie it at 102-102 before Jennings knocked in the game-winner.
Deficit: Wizards led by 12 points
Final: Bucks won 101-91 on Nov. 9 in Washington DC
How? The Wizards went up 12-0 before giving way to a pretty strong performance by the Bucks after that, though the Bucks did not pull away until a 10-0 run to start the fourth quarter as the Wizards refrained from scoring for a full five minutes.
Deficit: Raptors led by 11 points
Final: Bucks won 122-114 on March 2 in Milwaukee
How? Yes, the most recent example of the Bucks falling behind by double-digit and then predictably coming all the way back. Another slow start, but a free-flowing offense led by 19 assists from Brandon Jennings catapulted the team to a season-high 122 points and overtime win.
Deficit: Mavericks led by 11 points
Final: Bucks won 95-90 on Feb. 26 in Dallas
How? It looked bad for the Bucks. They had lost seven of eight. They went down 11-0 in Dallas. But they drew to within four at 21-17 by the end of the first quarter, and it was close the rest of the way. Monta Ellis was starry down the stretch, scoring 11 in the fourth quarter as the Bucks also overcame a five-point deficit in the final 3:12 of this one.
Deficit: Suns led by 10 points
Final: Bucks won 98-94 on Jan. 17 in Phoenix
How? Not only were the Bucks down 63-53 early in third quarter (and then 80-72 in the fourth quarter) after controlling the game early, they were working against a 24-game losing streak in Phoenix. Shunning decades of history, Mike Dunleavy did some Mike Dunleavy things (read: threes) late and the Bucks won in the desert for the first time since John Lucas and Sidney Moncrief held down the backcourt for Milwaukee.
Deficit: Celtics led by 10 points
Final: Bucks won 99-94 on Dec. 21 in Boston
How? The Celtics jumped ahead 25-15 in the first quarter. After staying within striking distance in the second and third quarters, the Bucks warmed in the fourth quarter and actually went up 88-81 with 42 seconds before Paul Pierce knocked in a three to force overtime, where the Bucks prevailed.
The Giveaway Losses
While the comeback wins burn sweetly, the Bucks have also had their fair share of blown leads. I will spare you the details, but these all happened:
Deficit: Cavaliers trailed by 20 points
Final: Cavaliers won 113-108 on Jan. 25 in Cleveland
Deficit: Rockets trailed by 18 points
Final: Rockets won 115-101 on Jan. 4 in Houston
Deficit: Nuggets trailed by 17 points
Final: Nuggets won 112-104 on Feb. 5 in Denver
Deficit: Nets trailed by 15 points
Final: Nets won 97-94 on Feb. 20 in Milwaukee
Deficit: Knicks trailed by 12 points
Final: Knicks won 96-86 on Feb. 1 in New York
Deficit: Jazz trailed by 12 points
Final: Jazz won 100-86 on Feb. 6 in Utah
Deficit: Bobcats trailed by 11 points
Final: Bobcats won 102-98 on Nov. 19 in Charlotte
Deficit: Pistons trailed by 11 points
Final: Pistons won 103-87 on Jan. 11 in Milwaukee
Deficit: Celtics trailed by 10 points
Final: Celtics won 96-92 on Nov. 10 in Boston
Deficit: Pistons trailed by 10 points
Final: Pistons won 105-100 on Feb. 9 in Milwaukee
Deficit: Wizards trailed by 10 points
Final: Wizards won 102-90 on Feb. 11 in Milwaukee
Deficit: Hawks trailed by 10 points
Final: Hawks won 103-102 on Feb. 23 in Milwaukee
Lots of poor first quarters in the comeback wins, which is of course obvious and logical. But it also helps solve why the Bucks find themselves in these situations more than most teams in the first place: They are typically a slow-starting team, ranking as the 19th best first quarter team in the NBA. In any event, it is still pretty amazing that they have come back from deficits of 20-4, 17-0, 12-0, and 11-0 to win games. Probably not a recipe for success moving forward, but they have found a way to make it work.
It helps that the Bucks often quickly recover to make close games. Largely that is because they are a splendid second quarter team, ranking 5th best in the NBA in point differential at +1.5 per game, making it by far their best quarter. Fourth quarters are actually the sorest spot this season for the Bucks, which starkly contrasts the team’s excellent output in fourth quarters last season, though they have managed a very respectable 11-7 record in close games (decided by 5 points or fewer).
Why are they so good in the second quarter?
The Bucks have a strong bench, and early in the second quarter is a prime time that some key players from their bench get to match up with (and outplay) some opposing reserves. For example, Mike Dunleavy plays more in the second quarter than any other quarter. John Henson has also excelled in the second quarter, playing his most minutes and by far his best minutes, hitting 55.7 % from the field. With J.J. Redick in the fold, the Bucks now have an even better second unit.
As for the slow starts, they are still a bit puzzling, but the Jennings/Ellis/Mbah a Moute/Ilyasova/Sanders starting lineup has been quite good this season overall (+27 in 347 minutes), so there is no real evidence to call for a change now.
Despite all of the close games recently, only twice this season have the Bucks played a game that has stayed within single digits throughout the entire 48 minutes. And it’s been a long time. They lost 93-86 to the Bulls at home on Nov. 24 in a game that stayed within seven points the entire night, and they beat the Pacers 98-93 on Dec. 18 in a game that was always within nine points.
And so here we are: The Bucks are on a run of five straight games in which the winning team has come back from 10+ points each time. The good news is that after blowing significant leads to the Nets and Hawks, they have come back in wins against the Mavericks, Rockets, and Raptors. Now the question is: How long can they make this run?
My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.