Wins by the teams trailing them in the playoff standings meant the Milwaukee Bucks couldn't clinch a playoff spot Wednesday night, but with the dominant Cleveland Cavaliers in town the Bucks still put up one heck of an effort in their quest to lock up a postseason berth. That effort nearly won the day as Milwaukee played the Cavaliers close all night, but a late three-pointer by LeBron James slammed the door on Milwaukee's upset hopes and kept the Bucks below .500 for yet another night.
James hit a dagger from deep with 14.9 seconds remaining to stifle Milwaukee's comeback attempt, just the final play in an impressive 21 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assist performance as the Cavaliers took down the Bucks in Milwaukee, 104-99. James got lots of help from his supporting stars, including a team-high 27 points from Kyrie Irving (on only 13 FGA) and a 16 point, 11 rebound double-double by Kevin Love. Cleveland edged Milwaukee despite committing 18 turnovers and giving up 50% shooting, relying on big advantages at the free-throw line (21-9 edge in FTM) and behind the arc (11 threes made to the Bucks' six).
James' big night spoiled a similarly strong showing by Bucks point guard Carter-Williams, who scored a season-high 30 points on 13-22 shooting while adding 8 assists and just 2 turnovers. Carter-Williams played with a tenacity we haven't seen consistently, seeking out mismatches the Bucks were eager to exploit and going to work. He attacked the rim fearlessly and finished some tough shots against the numerous and imposing Cleveland rim protectors. The Bucks also got solid production from Khris Middleton (16 points, 7-10 FG, 2-2 3PT) and Zaza Pachulia (19 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals), but couldn't overcome inefficient nights from Ersan Ilyasova (2 points, 1-7 FG) and most of the bench.
Both teams got off to hot starts, the Bucks paced by Carter-Williams' 10 first-quarter points on 5-8 shooting. Carter-Williams started the game with a ton of energy, working in the post against Kyrie Irving and slashing to the rim against a Cleveland defense that looked a bit sluggish to begin the game. But if the Bucks were good in the early going, the Cavaliers were better, led by LeBron James and Kevin Love. Those two combined for 17 of the Cavs' 26 points in the opening period and missed just three shots between them. Two of LeBron's baskets came on monster dunks when the Bucks somehow managed to lose him on the perimeter, which is generally something you want to avoid.
The teams each cooled off a bit in the second quarter, save for one player--Kyrie Irving. The Cavs' talented point guard scored 17 of his 27 points in the period, sinking four of six three-point baskets over defense that varied from "blanketed" to "non-existent." It didn't matter for Irving, who sank all four of his second-quarter triples from almost the exact same spot in the right corner. Yet even when the Cavaliers' distance shooting started to find the mark, the Bucks were able to hang tight thanks to a ton of Cleveland turnovers. Milwaukee forced 11 miscues in the first half, 8 of which came off steals by the Bucks, but unfortunately were only able to amass six fast break points. They had more opportunities, but botched a few possessions when a quick-recovering defender caught guys in a sort of no-man's land on the run.
Milwaukee weathered an early third-quarter run by Cleveland which saw the deficit grow to double-digits, fighting back behind a 10-0 run that featured threes from Jared Dudley and Michael Carter-Williams. That gave way to an extended stretch of traded baskets, neither team building much of an advantage until late in the fourth quarter. While Milwaukee found ways to score pretty consistently, they were blasted on defense, repeatedly getting caught flat-footed in the half-court and giving up putback dunks off missed threes on consecutive possessions.
And yet, the Bucks stuck with it, and ripped off a quick 6-1 run thanks to strong defense that finally hit all its rotations at just the right time. Three-point looks were shut down in favor of fadeaway two-pointers. O.J. Mayo and Khris Middleton each hit big shots late in the game to keep things within one possession. But ultimately there's just nothing anybody can do when LeBron James pulls up for a quick stepback three and drains it. If you put yourself in a position where LeBron can beat you with one shot, you're playing with fire.
And so a game that many had already penciled in as a loss follows suit, though likely not in the way those folks envisioned. The other surprising and perhaps more concerning occurrence? Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't play a single minute. It was the first game he had missed all season, and the reason still wasn't clear by the time the final buzzer sounded. Jason Kidd said before the game that Giannis would come off the bench, calling it "nothing, just making a change." But when Giannis still hadn't checked in by the second quarter, people started asking questions before Jim Paschke announced on the telecast that Antetokounmpo would not play. After the game, coach Jason Kidd mostly deflected questions about Giannis' absence, saying it was just a coaching decision.
The Bucks get a much weaker opponent on Friday when they play the Knicks in New York. A playoff clincher could very well be in play by that point, so hopefully the Bucks can muster the same level of performance as they did tonight and cruise to an easy win versus one of the NBA's worst teams.