MILWAUKEE — With Anthony Davis forced to be a spectator in foul trouble for most of the third quarter Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks had a chance to put the New Orleans Pelicans away before their All-Star forward could return.
Instead, New Orleans turned a seven-point deficit into a seven-point lead in the final nine minutes, 48 seconds of the third quarter.
Once Davis checked back in, the Pelicans were able to withstand a late rally from the Bucks to hold on for a 102-98 victory in front of a season-low announced crowd of 11,012 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Milwaukee heads into the All-Star break a loser of 10 of its last 11 games to fall to 9-43 on the season, eliminating itself officially from the Central Division race.
"It would have been nice to have made a bigger run when (Davis) was on the bench," Bucks guard Nate Wolters said. "I think that third quarter was the difference. We couldn’t stop them. They were getting to the lane pretty easily and knocking down 3s. That’s when we have to make our run."
Davis, who came in averaging 20.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, was whistled for his fourth foul with 9:48 left in the third quarter. He didn’t return until there was 10:17 left to play in the game. In the meantime, the low-scoring Alexis Ajinca scored 10 of his 16 points during that stretch.
Worried about how they would defend Davis with just three healthy big men, the Bucks struggled to stop a player averaging 4.0 points per game. Davis finished with a season-low one rebound, and his 20 minutes were the fewest he’s played in a game he didn’t get hurt in this season.
"Wow, that’s crazy to think about," Pelicans guard Brian Roberts said about winning a road game with Davis sitting for that long. "For us to come in here the last game before the break, that’s big. We would like to have ‘AD’ out there to make the game a lot easier, but like I said, guys just stepped up."
The Bucks still had a chance to tie the game late, getting a stop while down two with 25.4 seconds left. Ersan Ilyasova drove the lane and appeared to get fouled by Greg Stiemsma but no foul was called.
Milwaukee kept the ball but turned it over with nine seconds on the clock.
"I got hit on the arm, but I didn’t receive the call," Ilyasova said. "It’s part of the game. We shouldn’t have got to that point. We gave up a lot of points in the third quarter.
"If you bring the game down to the fourth quarter like this all kinds of things can happen. It was a foul but we didn’t receive the call."
Coming out of the locker room slow after halftime has been a season-long issue for the Bucks and it happened again Wednesday. The fact the Pelicans scored 37 points in the third quarter with their best player on the bench left Bucks coach Larry Drew scratching his head for answers yet again.
"I’ll keep grinding, trying to find out what causes those types of lapses," Drew said. "You have to continue to find answers, at least I do. We just did not defend the ball off the dribble."
Drew’s postgame message was simple: Get away from basketball for a few days and come back regrouped for the season’s final 30 games.
"There’s nothing we can do as far as the past is concerned," Drew said. "All we can focus on is the future. The future is these next 30 games. We’re going to approach these last 30 and just lay it on the line."
Not only can the Bucks regroup mentally, but they are in desperate need of healthy bodies. Caron Butler (ankle), O.J. Mayo (conditioning), John Henson (ankle), Ekpe Udoh (knee) and Larry Sanders (orbital) all sat out Wednesday, while Ilyasova pushed through a back injury to give the Bucks nine players available.
Butler, Mayo and Henson are all expected back after the break, while Sanders and Udoh haven’t had a timetable placed on their return.
"We can just think of it as a new season," Wolters said. "This first half hasn’t been good, but we can start over the second half of the season and try to do better, obviously.
"Just compete. That’s all we can do. I think if we give ourselves a chance every night by playing hard we can get some more wins. We just have to play hard every night."
The rest of the locker room seemed in agreement, as well.
"It’s never over until it’s over," Ilyasova added. "We have to still be professional and give 110 percent. We can’t look at our record now. We just have to play our way. The second half has to be like a new season for us. We just have to work on things and focus on ourselves."