Fourth Quarters on 4th Street

Bucks are NBA's Sixth Best Team in Fourth Quarter

Chart updated 4/23/2012 | Download Chart (.xlsx)

The Story
So far this season, the Bucks are saving their best for last.

After losing at home to the Pacers on April 14, Brandon Jennings spoke with urgency and hope: “We’ll keep playing every game like it’s our last.”

That is fair, but here is what the Bucks should really do: play every game like it’s the last quarter. If they did, the Bucks would be one of the best teams in the NBA.

For three quarters on April 21, the Bucks let the Nets hang around, before finally outscoring the road team 33-26 in the fourth quarter of the 106-95 win. That followed a season-long trend of relatively slow starts and fast finishes.  

The Context
Following their stellar final quarter against the Nets, the Bucks now carry a +0.9 point per fourth quarter differential, which ranks sixth in the NBA.

That places them in a virtual tie with teams like the Spurs (+0.9) and Heat (+0.9). The only teams to have played better than the Bucks in the fourth quarter are the Bulls (+2.5), Knicks (+2.0), and Hawks (+1.5).

The Bucks have won 36 fourth quarters, lost 25, and tied two. That compares very favorably to their 30-33 overall record.

The Highlights
Get this: The Bucks went almost a full month without losing a fourth quarter at one point this season. From January 16 to February 10, the Bucks won 14 fourth quarters, tied one, and lost none.

That featured a run of 11 straight fourth quarter wins. Among the highlights were two wins over the Heat, including the dramatic comeback win at the Bradley Center when Jennings scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to spearhead a 34-point swing. Also during this run, Jennings dropped 36 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and the Bucks cruised past the Lakers at the Bradley Center.

The History
This is all quite new. Over the previous eight seasons, the Bucks never excelled in the fourth quarter like they are now. Last season’s 10th ranked team was actually the next best in that span.

Of course, last season was very different, as they managed fourth quarter respectability in spite of averaging the fewest fourth quarter points (22.2) of any team in the NBA. Defense was the name of the game. Now, the Bucks are turning up the offense late in games, averaging the fourth most fourth quarter points (24.6) in the league.

So, how are they doing it?

The Point Guards
Well, for starters, the offense has been in good hands in fourth quarters.

Jennings leads the team averaging 5.6 points in the fourth quarter. And most of his fourth quarter figures align pretty closely to his overall numbers – which are pretty good in the first place. In addition to tipping the game in Milwaukee’s favor in the fourth quarter against the Heat back in February, Jennings most recently made a trio of three-pointers to help the Bucks pull away from the Nets.

Backup point man Beno Udrih frequently shares the backcourt with Jennings in fourth quarters, giving Scott Skiles a pair of ballhandlers who can push, score, and pass the ball. Whether Udrih is teaming with Jennings or running the point by himself, the Bucks have played fantastic basketball when he is on the court in the fourth quarter, sporting a 108.9 offensive rating and 98.5 defensive rating. That means the Bucks score and defend much better than usual when he is on the court.  

Meanwhile, Shaun Livingston also has performed admirably in fourth quarters. He scored eight points in the fourth against the Nets, punctuated by a couple of dunks late in the game, raising his shooting mark to 60 % from the field in the fourth quarter this season.

The Players
But this is about more than point guards.

Mike Dunleavy’s three-point shooting has somehow managed to climb even higher than usual – he is hitting 43 % from outside in the fourth quarter – and he plays more in the final quarter than any other quarter.

Luc Mbah a Moute is often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s most capable scorer late in games. And while defense is his focus, he has also made the most of his scoring opportunities, shooting 66 % from the field in the fourth quarter this season.

Monta Ellis is shooting better in the fourth quarter than throughout the rest of the game – and he made his everlasting mark by scoring 16 straight points in the final five minutes in a win over the Cavaliers.

The Reasons
To determine why the Bucks are so good in the second and fourth quarters – the Bucks are the eighth best team in the second quarter – we must also confront why they are not as good in the first and third quarters.

Perhaps the most logical answer is that the team’s impressive second unit – which often plays a bulk of the second quarter – is almost always better than the opposing team’s backups. Indeed, Dunleavy plays the vast majority of his minutes in the second and fourth quarters. The same thing holds true for Udrih. They outplay backup counterparts in the second quarter, and then Skiles often mixes and matches them back into the game in the fourth quarter.

Essentially, in close games, the Bucks run with their optimal lineup late, and in blowouts, the reserves are apt to beat opposing team’s reserves.

The Issue
The problem is that the Bucks have made a habit of starting halves slowly – that goes for both the first half and second half. Rewind to the recent Nets game referenced in the introduction. The Bucks won the fourth quarter and won the game, but not before a slow start that saw them unable to pull away early on, and a shaky third quarter that the Nets won 27-20. The Bucks rank 24th in third quarter point differential, easily their worst quarter.

After the Nets game, Drew Gooden explained that the team’s free-flowing offense can suffer from down time: “It’s a rhythm. Coming in at halftime kind of breaks the rhythm that you have going. It’s like an extended timeout. You come out in the third quarter, you want to get it back going. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.”

You can trace the trend all the way back to the very first game of the season, when the Bobcats erased a double-digit defiicit with a 30-14 third quarter. While the Bucks won the fourth, it was not quite enough.

The Best for Last
The Bucks are 25-8 when they enter the fourth quarter tied or with the lead. And they have scored 31+ points in three straight fourth quarters going into their game on April 23 against the Raptors. Needing a perfect final week of the regular season to have any chance at the playoffs, let us hope that they truly have saved their best for last.

Bucks.com welcomes Alex Boeder as a new feature writer. Alex was a contributer to Brew Hoop and SB Nation. You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexboeder or email him at adboeder@gmail.com.

* Stats via http://www.teamrankings.com/nba/team-stats/ and http://www.nba.com/statistics/index.html