The Oklahoma City Thunder are looking to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back on the court. The Milwaukee Bucks are just looking for some consistency. Tuesday night, only one team found what it was seeking.
Westbrook and Durant combined for 51 points while Reggie Jackson added 18 off the bench to help the Thunder take down the Bucks 114-101. The Thunder dominated the glass, outrebounding the Bucks 54-31, and shot an even 50% from the floor.
O.J. Mayo led the Bucks with 18 points while Giannis Antetokounmpo shook off a slow start to score 17 points, though a significant chunk of that scoring came after the game was effectively decided (he drained a three-pointer, his first since November 4, just before the final buzzer). Jabari Parker had 14 points at halftime but added just a single free throw after that.
At the outset both offenses looked prepared to execute solid game plans. The Thunder exploited their superior one-on-one talent to draw a ton of fouls early on, sending Sanders, Parker, and Antetokounmpo to the bench early in the game with a pair of fouls apiece. The Bucks meanwhile utilized a lot of crisp ball movement to catch defenders off balance and set up teammates. They shot a lot of jumpers, but the spacing was generally good and most of the looks were clean.
Jabari Parker was especially good in the first half, taking advantage of a couple plus matchups to create a number of good shots for himself and sinking them at a great clip. Parker worked on both wings and got to the basket a couple times, working in isolation and showcasing a quick pull-up jumper that was on point from the start. But there wasn't much to be excited about after halftime--not only did he score just one more point, but he only attempted two more shots.
If there was a defensive theme, it was the disruptive length of both teams. While the absence of Milwaukee's starting frontcourt for much of the first half obviously messed things up, the plan didn't seem to change with the personnel. Milwaukee was aggressive on the perimeter, trapping OKC's ball handlers on pick and rolls and forcing extra passes. And for some time it worked relatively well, as the Thunder got caught out of position as they reacted to the Bucks' defense instead of dictating it. That resulted in a fair number of turnovers (10 in the first half) which kept things from getting too out of hand before the break. Credit Milwaukee's high energy in the half, surely an emphasis in this game after Jason Kidd admitted the team played a little flat against Dallas on Sunday.
Unfortunately the energy sagged in the second half. The Thunder threatened to blow the game open a few times in the third quarter, but their failure to do so was due more to unforced errors than anything the Bucks did to stop them. Both teams got sloppy late in the 3rd, and a Milwaukee bench unit was able to trim a growing lead while Durant and Westbrook rested. Their return meant an end to the sloppiness for OKC, and the Thunder took the fourth quarter by four points to earn the final margin.
Rebounding remains a major issue for Milwaukee, as illustrated by the massive disparity in each team's numbers tonight. Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 7 and 6 rebounds, respectively, which is a bit worrisome. Milwaukee's length and athleticism might give them a slight advantage chasing down rebounds away from the rim, but they are routinely overpowered in the paint or find themselves out of position to pull down boards that should be easily controlled. It's hard to point to exactly what the problem is, especially since many of Milwaukee's big men have solid rebounding numbers for their careers, but it's easy to think a little more focus on the fundamentals--i.e. boxing out--could be needed.
The Bucks are off for three days now before hosting the Los Angeles Clippers in Milwaukee on Saturday night.