The Milwaukee Bucks returned to action Monday night against the Denver Nuggets after two days off and had their best win in the two weeks since Doc Rivers took over on the bench, beating the defending champions 112-95
Milwaukee led by 28 points after the third quarter, at which point Denver head coach Michael Malone sat two-time MVP Nikola Jokić.
The Bucks (35-19) put together another strong defensive effort after allowing a season-low 84 points to Charlotte on Friday and it was the first time they’ve won consecutive games since winning three straight Jan. 20-24 under former head coach Adrian Griffin and interim head coach Joe Prunty.
Box score:Bucks 112, Nuggets 95
“It feels good,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said of the victory. “I’ve said this, me personally, I don’t care, I don’t mind if we stack two in a row, if we stack five in a row, if we stack 10 in a row, like, it’s nothing to me. I just love when the team is headed towards the right direction and I feel as a team we’re doing that.”
The Nuggets (36-18) lost their second straight.
Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 36 points on a remarkable 73.6% (14-for-19) shooting. It was the ninth time this season he shot 70%. He also pulled down 18 rebounds and handed out five assists.
Damian Lillard overcame early foul trouble to score 18 points, including 14 in a decisive third quarter that saw the Bucks stretch a 60-44 halftime lead to 91-63. Bobby Portis added 13 off the bench.
Jokić led the Nuggets with 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Aaron Gordon (14) and Michael Porter Jr. (11) also reached double figures for Denver.
Brook Lopez, Bucks once again make it tough on Nikola Jokić
On Jan. 29, the Milwaukee Bucks leaned into the phrase “what’s old is new again” when Rivers dusted off a Mike Budenholzer game plan against the two-time league MVP Jokić. Center Brook Lopez started off on Jokić one-on-one – then followed by Antetokounmpo – but wings flashed strategic double teams at different points to add a half-beat of pause to Jokić’s offensive processing.
So, while Jokić recorded one of his 15 triple-doubles with 25 points, 16 rebounds and 12 assists in that late January Nuggets victory, the Bucks were pleased with the effort on affecting his shooting. Jokić was just 10-for-25 (including 1 of 6 from behind the three-point line) – his sixth-worst shooting night of the season and poorest since Dec. 25.
Jokić’s individual offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was just 105.8, one of his least effective outputs of the season. For reference, he came into Monday’s game with an individual offensive rating of 122.5
The one thing Rivers said the Bucks couldn’t get to in the game plan was going small with Antetokounmpo at the five and forcing Jokić to run with the Bucks’ MVP candidate, largely due to Antetokounmpo’s foul trouble.
Unfortunately for the Bucks that issue reared its head again on Monday as Antetokounmpo picked up two fouls in the opening minutes of the game. But the team stuck to a similar game plan with Lopez tracking the big man inside the three-point line and employing quick double-teams and recoveries off of.
This also required Lopez to play the entire first quarter, matching Jokić’s minutes. It was the first time this season Lopez played an entire quarter.
“Obviously as big as Nikola, makes it as tough as possible for him,” Antetokounmpo said of Lopez. “I don’t think there’s a lot of players that can guard Jokić one-on-one in the league. And Brook, there was a lot of possessions that he did that. He just makes it as tough as possible. … He can take that bump. Not a lot of people can take that bump down low and then still contest the shot. He’s able to do that. Nikola is very, very talented. Even though I think Brook does an excellent job when he played him, guarding him one-on-one, you have to help. You have to make it a little bit crowded. It’s not a one-man job. It’s the whole team gotta kind of make it as tough as possible.”
Jokić scored 14 of the Nuggets’ 23 points in the quarter, but he was 6-for-12. The rest of his team combined for 13 shots, and Jamal Murray was held scoreless on two attempts.
“He’s a very intelligent defender, uses his length,” Rivers said of Lopez. “He knows what he can’t do. I think we’re understanding what he can’t do and we try not to put him in those positions. Plays at that little drop, but not all the way dropped. It’s a tougher player, maybe the toughest player in the league to be in any kind of a drop with and yet Brook stopped the ball and got back a ton. That’s pretty good stuff.”
Then in the second quarter Antetokounmpo started on Jokić for a bit, but the overall defensive intensity remained the same on the Nuggets’ big man. He would finish the final seven minutes of the first half scoring nine points and going 4-for-6, but it continued to be a solo effort as the rest of the Nuggets scored just 21 points. He also had three turnovers against his four assists.
“I mean, he’s obviously completely capable of that,” Lopez said of Jokić having to take on more of a scoring role. “The part where we’ve been great is, you know, it’s not one person’s job. We’ve been great at having all five on a string, having each other’s back, helper helping the helper helping the helper and scrambling, just really doing a great job at that.”
And with that, Lopez felt his teammates were incredibly effective in sending help.
“It is (varied),” the Bucks’ center said of his help. “The most important thing obviously is doing stuff in our system. Hopefully, mostly we’re doing stuff in our system, but if we go rogue or if we see something regardless – either way – as long as we’re being vocal and letting everyone know so we can move as one.”
This effort helped the Bucks lead by as many as 22 points in the first half before taking a 60-44 lead into the break.
Did you notice?
In the first quarter, 6-foot-2-inch Damian Lillard stepped up to stop the 6-11 Jokić at the free throw line – which stonewalled the big man’s drive. Jokić then twisted awkwardly to fire the ball behind him to a teammate, but it sailed too high and the Bucks’ Jae Crowder picked it up to start a break that finished with a basket by Antetokounmpo.
It was just a small example of how the Bucks used a team effort to frustrate the two-time league MVP and force him into situations not entirely of his liking.
Jamal Murray slowed by Bucks, stopped by inflammation
Murray, the dynamic Nuggets guard, scored 35 points on 13-for-22 shooting when the Nuggets edged the Bucks on Jan. 29, but he never got an opportunity to get going Monday night. His first field goal didn’t come until a minute remained in the first half, and he was just 1-for-5 in his first 18 minutes of play.
“He killed us, right, that night (in January),” Rivers said. “We showed pick after pick after pick that we just melted on, melted on, melted on, melted on. Malik (Beasley) and those guys, they heard it enough. I mean they’re sick of it, obviously. But we showed them the game before the other night (against Charlotte) where we didn’t get picked at all. And then we followed it with just running into picks. Murray’s going to make tough shots anyway but if you’re going to run into a pick he’s really going to make ‘em. I thought we did a great job of getting over picks and fighting over.”
Murray’s night ended at the break due to a leg injury.
Milwaukee had struggled against opposing guards all season, allowing 30 or more points to one on 25 occasions.
2 Weeks since Doc Rivers took over on the bench, and the Bucks have gone 3-5.Pat Connaughton: “For us it’s all about getting better each day, so if it’s been two weeks, it’s not something I think guys really have thought about. It’s not something guys have realized. We’ve been so focused on trying to get better, trying to all get on the same page. He’s done a great job of putting in structure, putting in and simplifying some of the things that we’ve already done, some things we already do well as well as adding some things that I think will help us in the long run.”
5:19 Time Denver went without a field goal from the end of the first quarter and into the start of the second. It allowed the Bucks to flip a 23-21 deficit to a 38-24 lead. The Bucks never trailed again.
Antetokounmpo: “I think guys were playing hard, closing gap, obviously trying to make it as tough as possible, make the non-shooter shoot, make the shooters put the ball on the floor, show crowd as much as possible. At the end of the day, they have a team that everybody’s going to push the ball – show crowd early, make them make that extra pass, make them make that extra effort. Eh, we obviously, probably, got lucky. It was a stretch for them that we were making it tough and the wasn’t able to probably score the ball.”
8-3 Bucks’ record in games Khris Middleton has missed this season.
10-5 Denver’s record against Milwaukee when Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo both play. The Nuggets are 0-2 when Jokić sits against the Bucks, and the Bucks are 0-1 against the Nuggets when Antetokounmpo has sat out.
19 Points the Bucks scored off 13 Nuggets turnovers.
When will Khris Middleton be back?
Middleton sprained his left ankle after landing on Kevin Durant’s foot on Feb. 6 in Phoenix, and he exited the Footprint Center in a walking boot that night. Though he was no longer in need of support on his ankle when the team returned to Milwaukee on Feb. 8 vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, Rivers called it a “bad” ankle sprain.
With the all-star break coming up from Feb. 16-22, it’s likely Middleton will not return to action until after the team returns, at the earliest.
“It ain’t gonna heal quickly – maybe at 21 (years old),” Rivers said at Sunday’s practice with a chuckle. “With Khris, probably all of our guys but more the veteran guys, listen, I want to win every game right now but I really want to be great at the end of the year. And bottom line is for me, we have to be healthy. That’s basically, sitting with our medical people, one of the first things I said. I’m not the coach that will push guys to play. I’m the coach, right now, that will sit guys and train and prepare because no matter what happens, if we win ‘em all and aren’t ready – or lose ‘em all and are ready – I’ll take that. That’s gotta be our mindset. We want to win every game. I’m competitive as hell. I don’t like losing games. But, we want to be prepared.”