The Bucks begin a 10-game stretch of games against sub-.500 opponents Friday.
The last week in Bucks basketball wasn’t pretty. Seven days. Five games. Five losses.
First of all, dropping five games in seven days doesn’t happen too often. And that’s for a reason, of course. It’s a rare feat simply because playing so many games in so few night is uncommon in today’s NBA. But what is also uncommon is seeing nearly half of a team’s roster decimated by injuries four games into the season.
Last Saturday, Milwaukee entered what may ultimately end up as the toughest five-game stretch of the season with a 2-2 record, fresh off of an impressive win over the Cavaliers.
They fell to Dallas on Saturday before being dismantled by Miami on Tuesday. Injuries were an issue entering the week, but things got out of hand as Milwaukee prepared to face Orlando on Wednesday. Sanders, Delfino, Ridnour, Knight, Pachulia, Neal, and Ilyasova (am I forgetting anyone?) all missed the game with an array of injuries, and Caron Butler exited with a shoulder injury late in the fourth quarter, leaving the reins in the young hands of Nate Wolters, John Henson, O.J. Mayo and Khris Middleton.
To their credit, the eight healthy Bucks nearly dispatched Orlando, even jumping out to a 13-point first quarter lead. But then Arron Afflalo happened. Eight threes and 36 points later, Milwaukee found itself on the losing end for the third game in a row.
The weekend brought nothing in the form of relief with matchups looming against then-undefeated Indiana on Friday and Oklahoma City on Saturday. Both contests went about as anticipated with Indy taking care of business 104-77 and OKC spoiling “Country Western Night” at the BMOHBC (reason still unknown) 92-79 behind 50 combined points from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are both matchup nightmares for Milwaukee (and pretty much everyone else).
If there’s a silver lining in the weekend losses, it’s that Milwaukee wasn’t killed on the boards, as had been the case over the first week-and-a-half of the season. They were outrebounded by a vastly bigger Indiana front line by just four and outrebounded Oklahoma City 52-51 while emerging +10 on the offensive glass between the two games.
Field goal shooting was the clear issue, as the Bucks shot 34 percent Friday (yikes) and 35 percent Saturday (double yikes), This after a dreadful 31-for-81 (38 percent) performance against Dallas and 42 percent showing in Miami (the Heat shot 58 percent, if you’re curious). Basically, when a team is topping out at 44 percent (Wednesday vs. Orlando) over a five-game stretch, it’s tough to come away with any victories.
But all hope is not lost. No, for real, hear me out.
The Bucks are 2-7. That means 73 games remain on the schedule. That’s a lot of games. And as tantalizing as Parker, Randle and Wiggins all looked Tuesday night, Milwaukee is going to do everything it can to ensure they’re off the board before the Bucks are on the clock. It’s difficult to fault a strategy focused on, you know, winning basketball games, but that fantasy of Jabari Parker holding a green and red jersey sure is difficult to get out of my head.
If the Bucks are going to turn this young season around, the quest for the eighth seed begins Wednesday. While the difficult schedule continues with 8-2 Portland coming to Milwaukee, the three-day break will allow for some much-needed recovery time. Ridnour and Knight should be good to go, and it’s possible Ilyasova and Butler could return as well. Either way, Milwaukee will be in a (slightly) better position, at least health-wise, than last week.
Wednesday’s contest is huge as far as setting the tone after an 0-5 week, but a peek ahead at the next ten games reveals a golden opportunity. After Portland, Friday’s matchup in Philadelphia kicks off a string of 10 consecutive games against teams currently under .500. Milwaukee sees Charlotte, Detroit, Washington and Boston twice each before finishing up at home against the surprisingly dysfunctional Nets on Dec. 7.
Of course, these games are far from guaranteed victories. And while it may be difficult to accept, the Washingtons and Charlottes of the world are Milwaukee’s peers at this point, and how they emerge from this stretch will speak loudly about their place in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. It’s not only an opportunity to right the ship after a disastrous week, but also to climb right back into the thick of the playoff race. I know, I know, way too early to be talking playoffs, but you get the point.
The bottom line is, the Bucks – injuries or not – cannot afford to squander this opportunity. Losing to Indiana, Miami and OKC is acceptable, if not expected, for this team, but anything less than six or seven victories over the next ten games could leave Milwaukee in a fairly massive hole that won’t be easy to climb out of. After Brooklyn, the schedule toughens back up with four games in five nights (Dec. 10-14) against Chicago, San Antonio, Chicago (again) and Dallas.
A healthy Larry Sanders should return around the holidays, but until then the onus will be on the collection of healthy role players to keep the team afloat. The opportunity to make up for the past week is there, now the Bucks need to prove they’re capable of seizing it.