The fight was there for the Milwaukee Bucks, but another third-quarter lull led to a deficit too difficult to overcome despite a valiant comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.
Down 15 points, the Bucks used a 17-5 run to trail by just three with 2:13 left. Wilson Chandler then scored seven points in under a minute to provide Denver’s answer, leading the Nuggets to a 110-100 victory.
Milwaukee lost reserve guard Luke Ridnour to back pain after he played just four minutes, while Ersan Ilyasova left with a back injury in the third quarter.
"We just came up short," Bucks coach Larry Drew said. "We kind of just ran out of bodies. In the first quarter, (Ridnour) was complaining about his back. At the end of the first quarter he said he couldn’t go. Then Ersan began experiencing some problems with his back and once he came out in the third quarter he couldn’t go back in."
After Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a jumper to cut Denver’s lead to 99-96, Chandler navigated through the Bucks defense to get to the rim for a driving layup. He followed with a 19-footer to put the Nuggets up 103-96 with 1:28 left, but Drew was most upset about the Bucks allowing Chandler to get to the hoop.
"They made some big shots, but we had an opportunity," Drew said. "We came down on a defensive possession and had a breakdown where we just let a guy drive the ball from the top of the key. Your defense has to be a little stingier in those situations. We didn’t make the plays we had to going down the stretch."
The Bucks allowed Denver to score 30 points in the first quarter, but still managed to lead 52-51 at halftime. Coming out of the break and struggling in the third quarter has been a season-long issue, and Milwaukee did it again Wednesday.
Outscored 33-20 in the third, Milwaukee was unable to stop Denver’s pick-and-roll offense and was slowed on the offensive end.
"Just pick it up defensively," Nuggets guard Randy Foye said of what changed in the third quarter. "We were really bad in the first half. We just said to ourselves that we have to pick it up. That’s the only way. We can make all the shots we want, but if we don’t pick it up on defense we don’t have a chance to win."
Although Brandon Knight was able to score 16 points with eight assists, Denver’s gameplan against the point guard worked effectively. Knight hit just four-of-17 shots and couldn’t get in a rhythm.
"We just jumped out on him," Foye said. "We made him make decisions. We made him be a playmaker instead of being a scorer."
The Bucks have yet to win back-to-back games all season and had another chance to change that Wednesday. It didn’t happen, but there were positives.
Larry Sanders scored a career-high 25 points to go along with a season-high 15 rebounds and was extremely active around the rim. The most impressive part of his night may have been how he overcame an emotional situation early in the game.
Upset over a lack of a foul call, Sanders was hit with a technical foul just three minutes and 58 seconds into the first quarter.
"He played a phenomenal game, and I’m not just talking (about) what he did from a points standpoint," Drew said. "He really attacked the glass and rebounded the ball. He played through some situations where normally he would have lost his composure."
Drew even played Sanders at the four spot for a bit, mostly out of necessity. John Henson showed obvious signs of rust in his first game back from a wrist injury and Ilyasova was unavailable in the fourth quarter.
Sanders and Zaza Pachulia played most of the fourth quarter together and teamed up for 14 points and five rebounds in the final stanza.
"It was good to have him out there in the four spot with Zaza," Drew said. "I thought they did a good job playing together and playing off one another.
"To be honest, I’ve been a little gun shy in playing (Sanders) at the four. Ers is our starting four and we bring John in behind him. John was struggling a little bit tonight and I decided to give Larry a shot at the four. It worked out pretty good."