MILWAUKEE — When two teams with Playoff history match up post-All-Star break, sparks are bound to fly. Though it wasn’t the easiest victory, the Milwaukee Buck defeated the Phoenix Suns 104-101 in a close-knit battle headlined by relentless defensive effort on both sides.
Although there were contributors up and down each bench, it was the starting point guards and centers who controlled most of the contest. All-Star Jrue Holiday continued his season-long trend of stepping up when Giannis Antetokounmpo (right quad contusion) sits, dropping a game-best 33 points, five assists, four rebounds and a game-sealing steal.
In one of his best performances of the season, center Brook Lopez contributed 22 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots in a team-high 35 ½ minutes. His masterful defense was the key that unlocked his team’s success throughout the night. He and Holiday were a combined +21 whereas the rest of the Bucks starters finished -19 in the competition.
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Despite being without their best player, the Bucks extended their league-best winning streak to 14 games. This, head coach Mike Budenholzer said, is a testament to the team’s passion and commitment to daily improvement.
“We try to stay even-keeled and come and make it our best day every day that we come in,” head coach Mike Budenholzer said of his team’s winning streak. “I don’t know that [winning streaks] matter, but it’s a sign of that character, that toughness.”
The Bucks shot just 43.7% from the field and 28.9% from deep, but held their opponent to 42.1% from the field and 8-of-24 from 3-point land. Although there were 43 free-throws attempted between both teams, referees oftentimes allowed both sides to play through contact, enhancing the feel of a Playoff environment.
Milwaukee Bucks were at their best when controlling the mid-range on defense.
Playing against Chris Paul and Devin Booker — two of the highest-volume mid-range scorers in basketball — it was imperative that the Bucks control that area of the floor. The Bucks held Phoenix’s guard duo to 41% from the field, which is roughly 6.5% below their season average from the field.
“Those two guards are two of the best in the league, and you can’t just say you’re doing to live with that. You gotta make it tough, you gotta make them miss some,” Budenholzer said. “For the overall, pretty good defense individually and collectively.
Much of Milwaukee’s success in defending the mid-range was through the collaborative pick-and-roll coverage of Holiday, Lopez and newcomer Jae Crowder, who was traded by Phoenix to the Bucks at the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
Playing in drop coverage, where a defender rotates toward the basket to defend shots from either the roll-man or ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, Lopez gave the Suns flashbacks of the 2021 NBA Finals series when he dismantled them at the basket as an anchor. Lopez, who leads the NBA in both total contested shots and shot contests per game, was a differentiator in a contest that nearly got out of hand. Still, he credited his teammates with their overall success.
“Knowing that I have Jrue and Khris and Jae fighting through those screens consistently, they’re going to make it tough for their guys,” Lopez explained. “When they’re the other half of the duo guarding pick-and-roll, it is much, much easier.”
Crowder returned that praise, stating that he thinks Brook Lopez should be the Defensive Player of the Year this season. The two have become locker-mates while remaining crucial veteran leaders for the defensive-focused team.
The Bucks will rest on Monday before a back-to-back in which they visit the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday and return home against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. As always, tune into the action on your home for the Milwaukee Bucks, 620 WTMJ.
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