The Milwaukee Bucks have fallen on hard times lately thanks to a frustrating inability to just put the dang ball in the dang basket. It looked like that trend might continue despite a hot start against the Washington Wizards Saturday night, but the heroics of Milwaukee's steady shooter got them back on the winning track.
Khris Middleton scored a career-high 30 points on 11-20 shooting, including a pair of clutch three pointers in the last 2:10 of the game, and the Bucks held off a big rally by the Wizards to snap their four-game losing streak with a 91-85 win. Middleton was 6-9 overall from behind the arc.
Both teams came in riding nasty slumps, but whatever offensive malaise had been afflicting the Bucks over the last few weeks seemed to disappear entirely in the first quarter. The Bucks opened the game with a three-pointer by Ersan Ilyasova, who combined with Middleton to provide most of Milwaukee's offense in the period. In his best display of "pure point guard play" as a Buck, Michael Carter-Williams orchestrated the offense masterfully, racking up 8 assists in the first quarter alone and sinking a pair of shots himself. His second bucket was particularly impressive, a driving layup set up by a half-spin move that faked his defender into the lane to give MCW a wide-open shot. It was a clear case of a point guard reaping the benefits of a bunch of hot jump-shooters, but that so many of them were three-pointers shouldn't be brushed off. MCW got the ball to the right guys at the right time to enable that efficiency. Things would have looked even better had the Bucks not missed more than half of their free throws.
The offense slowed a bit in the second quarter, but Milwaukee continued to play tough defense, holding the Wizards to just 39 points in the first half. They did a particularly fine job on Paul Pierce, who shot just 2-10 before halftime. Khris Middleton was the star of the show, notching 18 of his 30 points in the first half on a mixture of jumpers and drives, including some very smooth plays in transition. Milwaukee also got a few key plays from D-League call-up Chris Johnson, who scored seven points (3/5 fg) and added a big block on Marcin Gortat for good measure.
Milwaukee looked primed to blow the game open in the third quarter, and for a time it looked like the Wizards had little desire to stop them. Soon after halftime, Michael Carter-Williams picked off a pass on the left wing with the Bucks up 13, Marcin Gortat took three halfhearted steps at a light job before conceding an open dunk. An Ilyasova jumper followed by a Middleton triple triggered a Washington timeout, and it looked like Washington was ready to pack it in. But anyone counting on momentum to carry Milwaukee to an easy victory was sorely mistaken. The offense suddenly went cold while Washington's shots finally started to fall. The Bucks continued to put up a decent fight on defense, but the offense was suddenly looking comically inept. An inability to make shots combined with some poor decisions and unforced errors gave the Wizards an opening to get back into the game.
Milwaukee managed to keep things close down the stretch thanks primarily to the stellar play of Middleton, who was at his hyper-efficient best. Every time the Wizards strung together two or three buckets, it seemed Middleton was there to sink a three putting the Bucks back in front. No shot was bigger than his corner three with 40 seconds left to give Milwaukee a three-point lead. After Middleton missed a corner jumper, Zaza Pachulia came down with a tough offensive rebound between two Wizards and managed to get the ball back out to Khris for an open shot.
It was still just a one-possession game though, and Washington had plenty of time to search for a good shot to tie or cut into the deficit. But as it has many times this year, the defense got it done. Relying on its flurry of arms and legs, Milwaukee chased off no fewer than three potential game-tying shots on Washington's ensuing possession before Paul Pierce put up a tough attempt with a hand right in his face. After collecting the rebound, all it took to close things out was a few more trips to the free-throw line.
While Middleton was lighting things up, Giannis Antetokounmpo struggled to get anything going at all as he spun his way to just five points on 2-10 shooting. Despite being matched up on larger and presumably slower defenders much of the night, Giannis couldn't get his shots to fall in the paint, getting regularly rebuked at the rim by defenders who read his isolation moves with ease. He had a hard time on defense as well, committing a couple of bad fouls and grabbing just four rebounds, though he did have two steals and a block. It was a night Giannis will be eager to forget, but hopefully the win will get Milwaukee back into a rhythm and allow him to get back to what he does best.
For Washington, Paul Pierce and John Wall scored 14 and 11 points, respectively, and combined to shoot just 7-29 from the field. As a team the Wizards shot under 39% overall and missed eight free throws.