The Milwaukee Bucks broke out of the January doldrums in a big way Thursday night in a 135-102 victory over the Boston Celtics at Fiserv Forum.
The Bucks came in having lost four of five, but improved to 26-12 overall with a total team effort in a game that was over at halftime. Boston dropped to 29-9 after playing their third game in four days.“I’m just happy to get a win, man,” Bobby Portis said. “We were in a funk to start the year. We didn’t have anything good going for us.
“It was good to see our defense going, see the offense, see the ball hopping, see everybody having fun again. That’s the biggest thing. You play this game and you obviously want to be locked in on the game plan but you also do want to have fun as well and we had that tonight.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 24 points, had 12 rebounds and six rebounds in 26 minutes. Damian Lillard (21 points), Malik Beasley (16) and Brook Lopez (15) were the starters in double figures while Khris Middleton had seven assists in 20 minutes. Portis had a team-high 28 points off the bench for the Bucks.
Boston’s Jaylen Brown had 10 points in 18 first half minutes. Green Bay native Sam Hauser had 15 off the bench for Boston.
Bucks turn up the focus, blow out Celtics
Milwaukee has struggled with its consistency at times this season, despite having one of the league’s best records. And the worst of those inconsistencies – across a handful of areas – led to rough patches at the very start of the season (5-4 record) and the last eight games (3-5).
There were common threads in those stretches:
- Slow starts, and the team acknowledging not coming out of games mentally sharp.
- Holes in the defensive rebounding, allowing opponents to score off second and third efforts.
- Being loose with the ball, giving opponents points off turnovers.
- Defensive lapses on the game plan and not taking away one specific thing.
- Allowing the ball to stick offensively and relying too much on individual scoring.
“I think early in the season it was just a matter of us trying to find our footing,” Lillard said. “Everything was just so new. I think now it’s just more of a product of the season. Sometimes you just have rough stretches where you just don’t do things well and I think some of the things that we hadn’t done well over the whole season consistently, they just looked worse in this stretch of games. I do think it’s part of the season.”
Yet when the Bucks avoid those things, the result more often than not has been a victory. Sometimes, it’s in record-breaking fashion. Or at the very least, it can look very good for long stretches.
BOX SCORE:Bucks 135, Celtics 102
That was the case in the first half against Boston when the Bucks effectively won the game by taking a 37-point lead into the break at 75-38.
- The Bucks attacked early in the first quarter, not letting the Celtics find a rhythm on either end in jumping out to an 11-2 lead and not folding when Boston cut it to three shortly thereafter.“There was more urgency coming into the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “Losing four out of five games, being down in the first half 30 to Utah. We watched the film and we had to be better. We had to play better. (Wednesday) we had a great practice, talked about things we could do better. Guys were more urgent today. From the start of the game Dame was very, very assertive. I was trying to go downhill. Defensively we were helping one another, we were in passing lanes, deflecting the ball. Obviously we knew that they played (Wednesday night) an overtime game against Minnesota, so we knew we had to come out with energy and we did.
- Boston pulled down just three offensive rebounds in the first half. Milwaukee clearly emphasized this, with multiple players getting in position to find their man to box out, and the ball.“You have to be extremely locked in when you play a team like Boston, just a lot of different nuances in never possession,” Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin said. “It could be 12 different kind of coverages or different actions that you have to guard in one possession and one little slip, one little mental slip can cost you. You have to have great concentration, great mental toughness when you play those guys because they’re so elite.
- Boston came in leading the league in three-pointers attempted (42.9 per game), made (16.2) and ninth in shooting (37.7%). They have three regulars shooting 40% or better and two more are better than 37%. In the first half, the Celtics were just 1-for-16 from behind the arc – including 0-for-8 in the second quarter. Of Boston’s 16 made shots, seven were dunks and three were layups.”I feel like whenever they had an opportunity to shoot the three we were pressing up on them,” Antetokounmpo said “Then we tried to send them more to the midrange area, more into the paint. Not just give them an easy two or an easy layup, make it still tough, but when you play against a team that wants to shoot 45, 50 threes, so I think we were able to do a good job.
- Even against a switching and lengthy Boston defense that tries to force one-on-one play, the Bucks got the ball moving if a quick, clean look wasn’t available. Milwaukee had assists on 17 of their 28 first half baskets.”It was amazing The ball was moving. After I made that one three I clapped because it was great ball movement,” Malik Beasley said. “We had worked on something (Wednesday) where our three top guys are iso’ing and they’re like stagnant, come slip out and that helped a lot. I think we got a new identity and character for us.
- Milwaukee turned it over just four times, and none resulted in points by the Boston.
“The tams that don’t fold and become mentally weak because things aren’t going well, you’re being criticized and it’s not looking good, those teams, they fall off,” Lillard said. “I think the teams that just keep fighting, you take the criticism that’s there because sometimes it’s right. And you also understand that you gotta be better at certain things and when everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s bought in to just kind of continuing to fight that fight. In the long run, nobody wants to hear it in the moment, but in the long run at the end, everybody will back and say you know, we stayed with it and when we’re a finished product toward the end of the season we’ll get to where we want to get there. “It’s nobody’s race to run but ours. We’re the ones in it and I think a game like tonight shows that we’re continuing to fight and continuing to improve. Now we just gotta hold on to it and have more performances like this than not.”
Bobby Portis, Andre Jackson Jr. spark off the Bucks bench
The entire team has scuffled since Christmas Day, but the bench in particular had hit a rough patch. From Dec. 25-Jan. 8 when the Bucks went 3-5, the second unit had been outscored by 183 points.
Now, there were a couple of extreme outliers that skew that number:
Brooklyn was fined $100,000 by the NBA for violating the league’s player participation policy after benching four starters after the first quarter and resting others. So, six bench players played 20-plus minutes in scoring 79 points on Dec. 27.
Indiana starting guard Andrew Nembhard was injured in the first quarter and played just 8 minutes while starting forward Jalen Smith played just 12. As such, two bench players (Ben Mathurin and Obi Toppin) effectively played starter minutes in the Pacers bench scoring 70 points on Jan 1.
And, each Bucks bench player typically is paired with multiple starters – so their scoring opportunities are limited even further.
Pat Connaughton is shooting 44% from behind the three-point line, but he’s only taking 3.4 of them per game 21.5 minutes. Cameron Payne and MarJon Beauchamp are each shooting 36.8% on 2.7 attempts per game.
Andre Jackson Jr., however, has only taken 15 shots (and made five) in around 80 minutes of action.
But recognizing that – and if you wanted to toss those Brooklyn and Indiana games out, the second unit has still been outscored by 104 in the other five games. For a team that hasn’t been able to string stops together consistently on defense, scoring more consistently on offense is almost necessary.
“I mean, (expletive), we ain’t make shots – that’s basketball,” Portis said after Wednesday’s practice.
“That’s how the game go. Some days you make ‘em, some days you don’t. We’ve had a rough what, seven days to start the year, but who’s to say the next seven to 10 to how many days aren’t going to go our way? That’s basketball. Put the work in, put the time in, don’t make no excuses and you live with the results of misses or makes but you still come to the gym and put the work in. We ain’t trippin’ on that. We just ain’t made shots. But we’ll make ‘em here soon, especially myself.
“I know, I ain’t gonna say struggling because I don’t call it struggling, I call it just miss. I shoot the same shots every day I shoot in practice and I just didn’t make ‘em.”
Did he ever make them against the Celtics.
Portis, mired in a 36% shooting slump since Christmas – including 14.3% from behind the three-point line – came out on fire. He made four of his first six shots in the opening quarter – including both of his three-pointers – in scoring 10 points. He scored all 16 Bucks bench points in the decisive first half when Milwaukee took a 37-point lead.
Jackson Jr. only took one shot but the rookie made a huge impact in starting the decisive second quarter. He had three rebounds and three assists, including a pair of highlight-reel offensive boards that turned into points for his teammates and kept the pressure on Boston’s defense.
Portis finished with his first double-double (28 points, 12 rebounds) since Dec. 23 and sixth of the season. He was the driving force in a 25-0 run that spanned parts of the first and second quarters.
“Just feeling it,” Portis said of that stretch where he scored 13. “Getting in the gym over the last couple days. It was great to have a couple days off, get some rest for one but just get in the gym at night time and get back to the basics. That’s all we needed. Me and my two OGs (trainers Marcus McCarroll and Vincent Mays) do we what we always do — get in the gym and trust our work and go out there and shoot the same shots we always shoot. And today they just happened to go in. Happy to see the ball go through the net a little bit.”
Did you notice?
Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla called it a night for his starters after halftime, as Kristaps Porziņģis (21 minutes), Jrue Holiday (19), Jaylen Brown (18), Derrick White (17) and Jayson Tatum (16) were done for the day.
Brown scored 10 points on 5 of 14 shooting while Holiday was 2-for-9 for six points in his return to Milwaukee. Tatum was 2-for-6 for seven points.
Mazzulla started five bench players to begin the second half and went all the way down to his last couple of players on the roster late in the third.
Boston was playing its third game in four days and was coming off an overtime victory over Minnesota Wednesday night at TD Garden. The Celtics have gone 3-3 over their last six games.
5-2 Boston’s record on the second night of a back-to-back. Their only loss was a three-point loss on the road in Charlotte on Nov. 20.
17-4 Bucks record in home games, the second-most in the Eastern Conference behind Boston (18-0). The Bucks are 17-3 at Fiserv Forum. Milwaukee’s In-Season Tournament loss in Las Vegas on Dec. 7 counts as a home game. Boston has the league’s best home mark at 18-0.
19-2 Bucks record when they shoot 50% or better.
25-0 Run by the Bucks that began at the 1:55 mark of the first quarter and continued through until a Brook Lopez bucket at the 8:04 mark of the second. It stretched an 8-point Bucks lead to 33 and blew the game open.
50% Three-point shooting (4-for-8) for Bucks guard Malik Beasley against the Celtics, who came into the game leading the league in making 47.7% of his attempts from beyond the arc. In Milwaukee’s Nov. 22 loss in Boston he was 2-for-3.
Jrue Holiday plays his first game in Milwaukee since trade
While the Bucks players and their former teammate were able to catch up on and off the court for the first time since the Sept. 27 trade that brought Lillard to Milwaukee on Nov. 22, this will be Holiday’s first game in Milwaukee.
He took out a full-page ad in the Journal Sentinel to thank the fans, and the organization recognized his impact on and off the court during his three years with a video tribute. Holiday received a standing ovation as he was re-introduced, and during the timeout Holiday took a peek at the video and his teammates watched before and after Joe Mazzulla addressed the team in the huddle. After it was over, Holiday waved to the crowd.
“It was awesome,” Holiday said. “My stint here, I had a great time and it was really fun. Had some great memories and they shared some of those memories on the jumbotron, so it was cool to kind of see that. The fans here have always been great. They’ve always been supportive of me and my family and the team here, so it was definitely a fun place to play.”
Giannis, LeBron lead NBA all-star voting
The second return of fan voting for the NBA All-Star Game is in, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is the No. 1 overall vote-getter with 3.4 million votes. He, of course, leads all Eastern Conference players. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James is the No. 2 overall vote-getter at 3.09 million.
Damian Lillard is No. 3 in Eastern Conference guard voting. Oshkosh native Tyrese Haliburton is No. 1 (2.1 million) and Atlanta guard Trae Young is No. 2 (1.44 million). Lillard is third at 1.41 million.
The NBA is returning to the traditional East vs. West format for the Feb. 18 game in Indianapolis, and the top two guards will start along with the top three frontcourt players.
Adrian Griffin on track to coach the Eastern Conference all-star team
The Bucks are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference behind Boston. But, because Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla and his staff coached in the all-star game last year he cannot do it again this season. So, if the Bucks maintain the No. 2 spot through Feb. 4, the Bucks’ first-year head coach and his staff will be in Indianapolis.