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Bucks vs. Thunder Final Score: Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo keep Bucks competitive, but Thunder overwhelm Bucks defense 131-123

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Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A career-high 36 points from Khris Middleton and a 27-point, 10-rebound double-double from Giannis Antetokounmpo gave the Bucks a chance. The Bucks' porous defense and the Thunder's relentless offense gave the Bucks another loss.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook put up their usual impressive numbers, but ultimately it was their bench that was the difference in OKC on Tuesday night, as the Thunder gave the Bucks their third straight loss in a 131-123 shootout at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Buck slayer Enes Kanter (23 points on 12 shots) ate the Bucks up inside (as usual), rookie Cameron Payne (16 points, 5/6 fg, 3 ast in 16 minutes) enjoyed a breakout night, and Anthony Morrow hit two crucial threes early in the fourth after the Bucks had clawed their way to within a possession. While the Bucks hit 10/16 from deep and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, they also allowed OKC to hit an even 50% from the field and make a living at the foul line (37/40 vs. 15/22).

After a slow start Monday night in Dallas, the Bucks took advantage of a fast and loose pace to lead 31-23 late in the first. After struggling in his previous two games, Giannis scored six quick points in the game's first 2:15, after which Michael Carter-Williams and Middleton got it going with eight apiece. The Bucks moved the ball well, pushed the pace off turnovers, and generally looked active -- a recurring theme on a night where they outscored OKC 20-15 in transition.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, their problems didn't end when Westbrook and Durant were on the bench. Payne hit a buzzer-beating three to cut the Bucks' advantage to 31-30 after one, and Kanter then went to work with eight points in the first six minutes of the fourth. John Henson (6 rebs, 5 blk) looked better than Greg Monroe (2/9 fg, 4 pts, 10 rebs), though Kanter also bullied Henson regularly throughout the night. Westbrook and Durant then took over in the final five minutes of the half, scoring all of OKC's points in a 16-5 run to end the second and give OKC a 65-54 lead at intermission.

The game appeared to be slipping away when the Thunder jumped out to a 77-60 lead early in the third, but Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty gave the Bucks a shot in the arm by yanking Monroe and a struggling Jabari Parker in favor of Henson and O.J. Mayo. Middleton scored half of the Bucks points in a 24-9 run that narrowed the OKC lead to 86-84, though that was as close as the Bucks would get. After a Jerryd Bayless three-point play drew the Bucks to within 94-91 early in the fourth, Morrow hit a pair of threes and ultimately that was it. Even with Antetokounmpo and Middleton continuing to pile up points, the Bucks found no answers defensively even with Parker and Monroe glued to the pine down the stretch.

Next up for Milwaukee is a date with the Pacers in Indiana on New Year's Eve.

Thoughts

  • Middleton continued his recent hot streak with the biggest offensive night of his career, hitting 6/9 threes and 13/22 overall while also piling up seven assists. His last five games: 23.6 points and 5.6 assists on .571/.536/.938 shooting.
  • Jabari Parker aggressively looked for his shot early, which was encouraging to see. The strangest thing about Parker thus far has been his lack of confidence in looking for his shot -- something he'll eventually have to do if he's going to be more than the role player/energy guy he's being used as now (which, you know, he has to be). Unfortunately, Parker's jumper still isn't falling with any consistency, and his attempts to drive at Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams ended with multiple blocked layups. I appreciate his confidence in going at guys, but sometimes you wonder if he realizes who he's playing against -- he tried some similar stuff against Draymond Green and more often than not ended up getting swatted easily. The end result was a 2/11 shooting night where he sat out the final 20 minutes. I'm generally in favor of playing Giannis and Jabari big minutes regardless of the situation, but I can also understand Prunty's reluctance to go back to Jabari in games like this. He's been so poor defensively that he's basically unplayable when he's struggling like this offensively.
  • The faster pace of tonight's game clearly suited Giannis and MCW, who found lots of room in the open court and piled up gaudy stats in the process. Antetokounmpo could have had an even bigger night if not for a stretch in the middle two quarters when he missed seven of eight shots, but he bounced back in the fourth with 12 of his 27 points. He still looks deathly afraid of taking open jumpers, but he stayed active and got buckets by cutting, hitting the offensive boards and pushing the ball on the break.
  • Meanwhile, MCW scored 19 points on just 14 shots, including a big corner three that started the Bucks' third quarter rally. More encouraging? Nine assists compared to just two turnovers, though he'll be regretting a sequence in the fourth where he botched a 2-on-1 with Giannis by missing a layup and then threw a bad bounce pass wide of Bayless on a subsequent break. That pretty much sealed any chance the Bucks might have had at mounting a comeback.