Giannis Antetokounmpo welcomed the Milwaukee crowd with a short message, thanking the fans for their support and saying he was preparing to head down to New Orleans for Friday's Rising Stars Challenge. Then the Bucks and Pelicans went out and played a game that looked a lot like it.
It was defense optional night in Milwaukee on Wednesday with both teams putting up little resistance in the paint or on the perimeter. This was probably to be expected, considering the contest featured a pair of bottom-5 defensive teams for the season. But with New Orleans missing two key offensive contributors in Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson and the Bucks being, well, the Bucks, even bad defense doesn't guarantee good offense.
Tonight, though, almost everybody was a scorer. Brandon Knight led everyone with 22 points on 8-17 shooting. He also had 9 assists and zero turnovers. Gary Neal kept Monday's hot streak alive with 18 points on 8-12 shooting off the bench. Eric Gordon led the Pelicans with 21 points and 6 assists. Alexis Ajinca was a perfect 7-7 from the field and had 16 points, helping New Orleans amass a whopping 60 points in the paint. Even lesser-known players like Brian Roberts (17 points, 5 assists) and Luke Babbitt (10 points, 5 rebounds) did damage tonight.
All of which made it even stranger that the top-billed player in tonight's matchup had a mostly forgettable night. Newly-christened All-Star Anthony Davis battled foul trouble for much of the first 3 quarters and played only 20 minutes in total, though he certainly left his mark down the stretch and New Orleans' offense held up reasonably well without him. They shot 51.9% from the floor and only committed 10 tunovers, but without Davis to back them up, the Pelicans hemorrhaged points against a normally anemic Bucks offense. Knight attacked the rim frequently in Davis' absence, helping the Bucks pile up 44 points in the paint. Realistically, there should have been many more, as the Bucks' interior passing was just a bit off all night. Dishes that should have led to layups and dunks instead ended up bouncing out of bounds or in the hands of defenders. The Bucks did manage to keep their turnovers under control, committing just 11 for the game, but 7 of those came in the 3rd quarter when New Orleans outscored Milwaukee 37-27.
Antetokounmpo's opening message might have been more pleasing than his play. His court vision was on full display as he scoped out a couple of teammates on hard cuts to the basket. A bounce pass to a diving Raduljica as Giannis drove along the baseline was a particularly impressive find; the problem was, at it has been for weeks, a lack of execution. The pass barely rose above Raduljica's ankles and ended up rolling out of bounds untouched, and it's fair to wonder at this point if Giannis is looking to pass too much. It's probably the most advanced part of his game right now, but there's only so much benefit to be gained from that skill if the rest of the roster can't get in position for decent shots. It might serve both him and the team well for Giannis to focus on getting his own shot a bit more, though that's been coming harder and harder of late as well. His only bucket came on a baseline cut that earned him a wide-open dunk, though he did manage to inspire a rousing cheer when he rejected an Anthony Davis dunk in the 4th quarter.
Nate Wolters, starting alongside Knight, played another solid game, including hitting multiple three-point shots for the first time in his NBA career. He passed the ball well, with 7 assists to just 1 turnover, and even blocked a pair of shots. When Wolters and Knight share the floor, Milwaukee's offense looks far less stagnant, since Knight is typically capable of creating his own shot while Wolters can run a variety of actions to spark his teammates.
Head coach Larry Drew conceded that the absence of Larry Sanders and John Henson hurt the Bucks' defense, and tonight was a clear example. Ersan Ilyasova (16 points, 9 rebounds) and Zaza Pachulia (8 points, 7 rebounds) put up their best effort, but neither is particularly mobile. When a rookie point guard leads the team in blocked shots, you know the interior defense is leaving something to be desired.
The Bucks finally have a chance to recover a bit over the All-Star break. Milwaukee's next game is February 18th against the Magic. The trade deadline is two days after that. Even if the players are able to get some R&R over the break, you can bet the front office will be hard at work.