MILWAUKEE — Their 32-17 record might not show it, but this season hasn’t been easy for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Injury woes forced head coach Mike Budenzholer to dig deep into his bench, limiting the team’s Big Three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton to just 77 minutes together heading into Sunday night’s 135-110 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.
In a roundabout way, they might be better off because of it.
Giannis finished with 50 points in only 30 minutes of game-time; serving as the offensive fulcrum through which the Bucks’ scoring barrage is derived. The Eastern Conference All-Star Captain capped his night with a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers that pushed a sellout Fiserv Forum crowd into overdrive.
Budenzholer noted that he’d like to see Giannis get more catch-and-shoot 3-point opportunities as the season goes on to build his confidence from deep.
Yet through their star player’s dominant display, it was the overall team performance that stood out most for the Milwaukee Bucks. Budenholzer’s rotation is deep at every position with 39 points coming from the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench — even without its Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Bobby Portis.
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Six Bucks players had at least three assists, and six others had at least six rebounds during a game in which the Pelicans’ leading rebounder, Jonas Valanciunas, was held to only three boards. Budenholzer said it was an active point of emphasis for his team after giving up 37 points and 18 rebounds to the same player a month and a half prior.
“Brook [Lopez] takes up so much space, and lots of times, we need somebody to come in and clean up and get the boards,” Budenholzer said.
He went on to praise Wesley Matthews (Nine rebounds in 19 minutes) and Pat Connaughton (Six rebounds) for seizing the moment and attacking the glass when Lopez and Giannis were unable to corral loose balls.
“We stress defense and hang our hat there, and want it to be there every night, but I think the ball-movement, the unselfishness has stood out,” Budenholzer said. “We start making threes, then Giannis is in attack mode — that’s when we’re at our best.”
New Orleans had no business winning this game despite a strong scoring effort from its youngsters: Jose Alvarado (18 points) Trey Murphy III (16 points) and Kira Lewis Jr. (15 points). Milwaukee controlled the competition from its early onset with Giannis scoring 12 of the team’s first 14 points en route to a 37-point first quarter for the Bucks.
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The rest of his team followed in stride, cashing in on three-pointers and swinging the ball unselfishly while flustering the Pelicans on defense.
In an era when 3-point defense can make or break a team’s chances of winning, Milwaukee proved the discipline to overcome what many could not. New Orleans made 38.2% of its triples, which is a 2.5% improvement from its season average despite its leading 3-point shooter, CJ. McCollum, being sidelined with a thumb sprain.
Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer was Jrue Holiday, who finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Lopez contributed 15 points and eight boards of his own while Middleton, who remains on a minutes limit, added nine points, three assists and three rebounds.
Just two seasons ago, the Milwaukee Bucks broke through the glass ceiling to win their second championship. It took them 50 years to get back to that stage, but if they keep playing like this, it won’t take nearly as long to get back.
The core of a title-winning team remains in place with new faces filling familiar roles and young talent developing into vital contending pieces. As this Milwaukee Bucks group works its way back to full strength, it will continually remind the basketball world why it remains a true contender for the 2023 NBA title.
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