MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Bucks had Brooklyn on the ropes for the second straight night.
But as they did just 24 hours earlier, the Bucks let a chance at beating a team ahead of them in the standings slip through their fingers.
Up 15 points in the third quarter, Milwaukee just stopped scoring. The Nets took full-advantage and came away with a 97-94 victory after Monta Ellis missed all three free throws with 2.4 seconds left.
Losses to the Nets in back-to-back nights dropped the Bucks to under .500 for the first time since Dec. 5. Milwaukee's win over Philadelphia last Wednesday is its only one in its last eight games and the Bucks are now just 10-11 under Jim Boylan.
"We should have won both of these games and we let them get away," Ellis said. "It's tough right now. We have a few days to really sit back and think about what we've got to do if we are going to make the playoffs."
Energy is usually the deciding factor in back-to-back games, especially after the Bucks and Nets went to overtime Tuesday night. Early on, the Bucks had it.
Other than turning the ball over a bit too much, Milwaukee played a nearly flawless first half. The Bucks shot 61.8 percent, limited Brooklyn to just 32.6 percent and led 54-42.
The lead grew to 15 early in the third quarter and held strong at 75-63 with 1:23 remaining in the quarter.Suddenly the tide flipped. Brooklyn became the team with all of the energy and the Bucks looked flat and couldn't score.
After Ekpe Udoh's jumper with 1:41 left in the third, Milwaukee went 6:45 without a field goal and went 2-for-18 from the end of the third quarter into the fourth quarter.
"Those are two tough ones to drop to a good team," Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy said. "We just can't seem to get on the right side of winning right now, over the last two to three weeks. We just have to hang in there and stick with it, hopefully we will come around."
For the second straight night, Brooklyn's bench took it to Milwaukee's reserves. Bench points were 91-39 in favor of the Nets in the two games.
"We were just hanging on by our fingernails in the first half," Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "The bench came in and gave us a great lift, got us back in the game. Clearly, in the second half, all of the C.J. (Watson) and Andray (Blatche) they were unbelievable."
When the Bucks were hitting their stride, the second unit was one of the league's most productive. Now, Boylan has a hard time taking his starters out of the game.
"I'd like to see our bench get back to performing at a high level," Dunleavy said. "It's really dropped off. I think there's a lot of things involved with it, but that's neither here nor there."
The Bucks did mount a furious rally, turning an 11-point deficit with 1:50 to play into trailing by just three with 3.4 seconds left. Nets guard Deron Williams fouled Ellis on a 3-pointer with just 2.4 left on the clock, but Ellis couldn't make the first two and missed the third on purpose.
Milwaukee made just 18 of its 31 free throws, missing 10 in the second half alone.
"It was just something that happened," Ellis said of missing the free throws. "I've been playing basketball my whole life, some go in and some don't. You move on."
Joe Johnson provided the heroics for the Nets on Tuesday night, sending the game into overtime with a long 3-pointer at the end of regulation before eventually winning it with a buzzer beater. The Bucks couldn't follow suit on their home court.
Though both teams chasing the Bucks lost Wednesday, Milwaukee failed to move within striking distance and win the season series from Brooklyn. The Nets are now six games ahead of the Bucks in the standings, and their two wins this week led to a split of the season series at 2-2.
The theme of finding consistent energy for all 48 minutes of a game continues to haunt the Bucks. For three quarters Wednesday, Milwaukee looked the part, yet again. But the lull of energy and effort came again and a good team pounced.
Tuesday that lull came early, Wednesday it came late. Both cost the Bucks two valuable wins.
"Each individual guy has to look inside and see how bad does he really want it," Boylan said. "We have a bunch of guys who want it, but you have to want it every night. You have to want it when you are out there and you are feeling a little tired from the night before.
"We played the same team. They played the same minutes we played. We can't make any excuse that we were fatigued. A lot of that is your mental approach. Are you going to let the fatigue eat you up or are you going to play through it?"
While the Bucks now have two days to rest and recover from the grueling start to the post-All-Star part of their schedule, they also have time to stew in the frustration of the last two days.
And with the trade deadline looming at 2 p.m. local time Thursday, Milwaukee's roster could look different when it takes the court Saturday against Atlanta.
"It's very frustrating," Sanders said. "It's going to sit with me awhile. Until we play our next game, I'm going to be thinking about it."
Follow Andrew Gruman on Twitter.