Between A Nest And A Hard Place: New Orleans Hornets 92, Milwaukee Bucks 89


There are moments in sports where every fan questions their faith. This is one of those times.

Greivis Vasquez, Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, Gustavo Ayon, Chris Kaman.

That was the New Orleans Hornets’ starting lineup that stung the much healthier Milwaukee Bucks with a 92-89 victory Wednesday night. The Hornets’ jersey equivalent of Mardi Gras pass out-induced face art didn’t help, either.

It was the season low point everyone was waiting for, yet reluctant to face. The Hornets had won five games all season, and were playing without their best scorer (Eric Gordon), facilitator (Jarrett Jack), and most athletic power forward (Carl Landry).

From the tip-off to the final missed pass, errant lay-up, and interior defensive lapse, the Hornets outhustled, outshot, and out-everything-else-associated-with-basketball’d the Bucks. Six of Marco Belinelli’s 7 makes were triples, Gustavo Ayon registered his first career double-double, and New Orleans routinely partied around the hoop in true Fat Tuesday fashion.

Despite their best efforts, the Bucks had a few chances to tie or take the lead late in the game. But a missed lay-up from Ersan Ilyasova and a collection of blooper reel passes ricocheting off skulls crushed any chance for a mercy win.

“I can’t take anything away from what the Hornets did tonight, but this was a must win and we blew it,” Drew Gooden said. “We have to stick with it. We have to trust the system. I guess the percentages aren’t in our favor, but we need to believe we can get it done.”

MVP: Ersan Ilyasova

Stephen Jackson doesn’t want to be in Milwaukee, and it shows. Ersan Ilyasova reportedly feels a similar way, and it doesn’t show. Guess which player is considered a locker room “leader.”

Ilyasova has solidified himself as a very crafty rebounder, and reliable bench scorer, despite his issues with crunch time lay-ups and a fetish for pump faking. It’s not necessarily a compliment when a team’s most effective player needs 21 shots to reach 23 points, but Ersan is quietly becoming a high-intensity weapon the Bucks sorely need … to save the season or use as trade bait.

“We should win this game,” Ilyasova said. “(New Orleans) aren’t a very great team, but they made some plays tonight. It’s all about our energy and our hustle. We didn’t’ compete defensively against them.”

LVP: Brandon Jennings

Passive. Deferential. Poker-faced.

These are all traits of the new Brandon Jennings, one that showed up far later to the party than fashion would allow. Jennings scored 10 points on 4-14 apprehensive shots and tallied more turnovers (2) than assists (1) through three quarters.

Jennings doubled his efforts when crunched for time, scoring 8 points on 3-7 FG (2-3 3FG) and dishing two assists in the final quarter. But his recent string of quiet, uninvolved performances remains intact.

This should delight you: The All-Star Break…

…Is just a week away. Players, coaches, fans, writers; everyone could use a little breather after Wednesday night.

And this should trouble you: Brandon Jennings

Post-game, Jennings was as distant as he was on the court, occasionally offering a short grimace and glazed, shifty look while answering questions with terse, one word answers. Over the last week, Jennings has taken huge steps backwards as a leader and face of the franchise, and seems content drifting through games without his trademark swagger.

It’s clear something (or someone) is bothering Brandon Jennings, and we’re left to speculation until a personnel move is made or Jennings bolts in 2013. Jennings was a legitimate All-Star just a week ago, having led the Bucks to an unfathomable two straight wins over the Miami Heat in just an eight-day span.

The talent is still there, but that’s never been the problem with Jennings. The concern now is whether his heart and mind still has a spot for the Bucks, and whether there will ever be a point where we stop talking about his “potential” and figure out the real Brandon Jennings.

Final Thoughts: The story remains the same

If the Bucks would’ve pulled out a last minute victory against the Hornets, nothing would’ve really changed. Even mediocre teams are expected to blow out the league’s bottom feeders, especially when Gustavo Ayon and Donald Sloan are getting solid minutes.

A close win or a close loss against a team that elicited prequalifying answers like “Not to take anything away from New Orleans, but…” creates nothing good. It’s more of a sign of how far the Milwaukee Bucks have fallen in such a short time, and how much farther they have to go to become relevant.

“There are breakdowns everywhere. There are breakdowns at the point of the ball,” Gooden said. “There are breakdowns in the second line of defense where the bigs are helping out. It’s tough not having (Andrew) Bogut as one of the top shot blockers in the league out there, but we just have to be that much better defensively, on and off the ball.”