MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee and Phoenix entered this season in similar situations but have gone entirely separate ways 45 games into the season.
While the Suns are one of the NBA’s surprises and are right in the Western Conference playoff mix, the Bucks fell further into the league’s cellar with a 126-117 loss Wednesday in front of 11,175 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Phoenix has 10 new players from a year ago, while Milwaukee was trying to work in 11 and both had entirely different coaching staffs from last season. Expectations weren’t high for either, but one has excelled while the other has collapsed.
The difference in the two teams was on display Wednesday night. Phoenix’s mix of players has blended well with first-year coach Jeff Hornacek’s apparent up-tempo style. It’s apparent the group the Suns put together has just been a better fit than the team the Bucks have built.
"They have a good chemistry," Bucks coach Larry Drew said. "I really think they have a good balance in what they do. They play a physical brand of basketball and really get out and run. They have all the components. If you look at their team, no real sexy players, but they have really good players. They play the game the way the game should be played. It’s plain and simple."
Phoenix is sixth in the NBA in pace and in points per game and has scored 124 or more points in three of its last five games. The Suns are doing all this without Eric Bledsoe, who may not return this season with a torn meniscus.
The Suns had 10 players play at least 21 minutes Wednesday night, an incredibly balanced figure in a game that was fairly close throughout. Hornacek is a leading candidate for NBA coach of the year, while Drew is searching for any sort of answer.
"I think the coach does a great job of utilizing the team with the weapons they have, different mismatches they present, and getting them all pretty active on offense," Bucks center Larry Sanders said of Hornacek.
A big reason the Suns have 27 wins already has been the play of Goran Dragic. The sixth-year point guard has really turned the corner with his play, averaging 19.4 points and 6.1 assists per game. He played in just 24 minutes on Wednesday, torching the Bucks for 30 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
Drew called Dragic "the head of the snake" in Phoenix’s balanced attack.
"A lot of people thought of him as a reserve," Drew said. "He has really shown that he is a starter. Not only is he a starter, but he has emerged as one of the top point guards in our league."
On the Bucks side of things, Drew and the players were left to try and find positives in yet another loss. Milwaukee did show a great deal of fight after falling behind by 23 points in the second quarter. The game could have gotten out of hand like the previous two did, but the Bucks hung around.
They kept cutting the deficit to five points in the second half and trailed by just three on one occasion, but couldn’t get it any closer.
The Bucks scored a season-high 117 points, but also allowed a season-high 126. But as much as Drew wanted to push the pace coming into the year, he knows Milwaukee can’t play this style and expect to win.
"We can’t expect to win games when we score that many points," Drew said. "The pace was there because I thought Phoenix dictated the pace, which they do all of their games. You go into a game with them expecting to go up and down and you better bring your track shoes. But for us, that’s not us. We have to keep it under 100 to give ourselves a chance particularly on the defensive end. We’re not built for that."
The biggest positive, possibly outside of Larry Sanders, was the way the Bucks fought. Drew admitted it was a drastic difference in effort from the last two games, something he wants his team to build on.
"It’s tough but that’s just what I have to do," Drew said of building on the little positives. "We can look at the game and dwell on the negatives, but I have to look at the positives. The guys responded from the Atlanta game with the energy and effort in which they played. That’s a big plus."