MILWAUKEE — A game-winning deflection is not something that’s seen every day.
With the way things have been going lately, the Milwaukee Bucks will take it.
After Luc Richard Mbah a Moute lost a jump ball to Sixers guard Jrue Holiday with five seconds left, he sensed Philadelphia was going to try and set up Holiday for a final shot. Mbah a Moute jumped the pass from Royal Ivey and tipped it. He then beat the 76ers to the ball and launched it into the backcourt.
Time expired on the game and Milwaukee’s four-game losing streak. While not a Picasso, the Bucks scratched back from a low-energy first half to earn a 94-92 victory.
Instead of heading into the All-Star break on a five-game losing streak and under-.500, Milwaukee extended its lead for the eighth and final playoff spot to four games over Philadelphia and clinched the season series from the 76ers.
“To be able to stop the bleeding is huge,” Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy said. “To beat a team that’s right behind us to give ourselves the tiebreaker against them, just a huge win for us.”
Mbah a Moute won’t get credit for a steal because the Bucks never controlled the ball, but his hustle play single-handedly saved the game. With the mad scramble after the jump ball, who knows what could have happened.
“There’s a jump ball and crazy stuff can happen,” Dunleavy said. “It can get tipped out and somebody can launch a three, and there you go, you lose.”
The Bucks came out flat and unenergetic in the first half, shooting just 35.6 percent and allowing Philadelphia to make 55.9 percent of its first half shots.
Milwaukee fell behind by 12 at one point and it looked like the Bucks were going to limp into the break. In fact, the Bucks were fortunate to only be down seven at half.
Boylan made it a point to tell his team to find some energy for the second half, and they responded.
Led by the relentless efforts of Samuel Dalembert, Milwaukee blocked 10 shots in the second half after not swatting a single one in the first half.
“They came in on fire,” Dalembert, who finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds, said. “They were shooting in the first half, like 60 percent. It started like a hot ball of fire. We had to make an adjustment. We had to come in at halftime, look at some tapes. We came in and pushed the extra effort out there, and brought some energy.
“And that’s what we need in a game like this. It shows what we’re capable of being.”
While still sensing concern over the slow starts, Dunleavy was relieved to see his team find the extra something to find a way to end the skid.
“Our activity level picked up,” Dunleavy said. “There was a little more of a sense of urgency and I think guys sensed that. Finally for the first time in a week or two we were on top of it.”
On offense, the Bucks simply made shots. In as bad of a shooting slump as they’ve been in all season, the Bucks shot 48.8 percent in the second half.
Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings combined for 31 points on 12 of 25 shooting in the second half, with Ellis finishing with a game-high 27 points.
Coaching like it was a big game, Boylan played Ellis and Jennings all 24 minutes of the second half and even made the decision to go small with Mbah a Moute playing center or power forward for most of the fourth quarter.
“I just felt like that’s what I needed to do,” Boylan said. “I needed to keep (Ellis and Jennings) out there. They both were playing well, so I just felt comfortable with it. I know we have the break coming up so I wasn’t concerned about the next game.”
While it wasn’t a must-win, Wednesday was arguably Milwaukee’s biggest game to date. A loss would have set the panic meter through the roof, something that’s not good with four days to sit around and think about it.
Is there work left to be done? No doubt. But for the time being, the Bucks can breathe. Not for long though, because two games with Brooklyn and another with Atlanta are looming right out of the gates.
But after 51 games, Milwaukee is in playoff position by a full four games, and just 1.5 games behind Boston for the seventh spot.
The 1-2 homestand isn’t being celebrated, but it could have been a lot worse without Wednesday’s win.
“The food tastes better, the air is a little sweeter,” Boylan said. “It was a good way for us to end. We needed desperately to win a game. We had higher expectations for the homestand, but it didn’t work that way.”