Two young teams primed for long-term basketball bliss collided on Friday night, but it was the Timberwolves who left the matchup with the victory. Fueled by hot shooting from...well, basically everybody everywhere (55.8% from the field, 52.0% from deep, 81.0% from the line), the Wolves firmly deflated the Bucks to the tune of a 116-99 final mark.
By the box score, Giannis Antetokounmpo lived up to the lofty expectations fans have for him, posting 25 points (11-14 from the field), 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block...but was second-worst on the team at -18, showing that his free-wheeling defensive impact wasn’t as impactful as we’d have hoped. On offense, Milwaukee’s favorite Greek attacked the Timberwolves defense as often as he dared, and even showed off a pair of nifty midrange jump shots in the fourth quarter, including this beauty:
Running-mate Jabari Parker put up a similarly impressive stat line, with 20 points (8-14 from the field, including 2/4 threes), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals, and a number of strong takes against Zach LaVine (of all defenders) that ended similar to this:
When the Bucks’ two stars have strong outings, that usually means good things for the team, right? So why the 17-point loss? Part of it was Milwaukee’s supporting cast: missing Matthew Dellavedova (hamstring injury) thrust Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup, and while he played relatively well (11 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds), it completely upended the flow of Milwaukee’s guard rotations. Brogdon played a career-high 33 minutes, Jason Terry nearly matched his season high with 23 minutes, and Tony Snell may have only played 29 minutes (but was ineffective for nearly all of them). And that’s it. The Bucks had 3 healthy guards for this game (Rashad Vaughn is still out with an ankle injury).
But injuries happen, we know that. In terms of things that the Bucks could directly control in this game, it comes down to two things: taking too few threes (11-18 from the arc), and recovering too slowly on Minnesota’s shooters. The offense routinely got stuck halfway through sets in the half court, with players getting in each other’s lanes and less off-ball movement than even we’re used to by now. And on defense, Jason Kidd’s heavy-pressure scheme created double-team opportunities...which were quickly passed out of and into the hands of open shooters. Time and time again, a Timberwolf was left with plenty of space at the three-point line, and the Bucks were left hoping for the shots to miss.
Let me tell you, gang. Those shots did not miss. Like I mentioned before, Minnesota was simply locked-in tonight, particularly Zach LaVine (24 points, 6/9 threes), Shabazz Muhammad (22 points, 4/5 threes), and Nemanja Bjelica (10 points, 2/3 threes). But while those three were shooting from range, Andrew Wiggins (31 points, 11/14 FTs, 6 assists, 5 rebounds) and Karl Anthony-Towns (18 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks) were able to get basically whatever they wanted inside the arc.
I had prepared a number of KAT-puns for this recap, including phrases like “had the offense purring,” “batted shots away like a ball of yarn,” and “always lands on his feet,” but as witty as those are they don’t do justice to Towns’ strength and athleticism. Against nearly every Buck defender, KAT was able to muscle his way into position and either take a comfortable shot or (when a double team formed) easily thread a pass to an open teammate. Watching him play basketball is a profound experience at times...but luckily for us, we have a player like that too:
- KAT and Giannis traded baskets at the rim to start the game. I thought it was fitting that the two players thought to be pitted against one another for Future NBA Supremacy began a matchup that way.
- The Wolves are so very energetic, almost nervously so, on defense. All that youth and all that talent hasn’t translated to success yet, as the Minnesota defense made a number of early mistakes that the Bucks simply didn’t capitalize on.
- I mentioned above that Towns is a supremely-strong player, but Andrew Wiggins is just as ridiculous when matched up against a defender that doesn’t significantly outweigh him.
- Milwaukee’s lack of guard depth showed up less than 5 minutes into the game, when JET subbed in for Brogdon.
- Michael Beasley showed signs of reverting to ‘Super Cool Beas’ mode, clanging a handful of midrange jump shots. He was able to steady himself and get some buckets at the rim, at least.
- Giannis committed two fouls in the first quarter, but neither foul felt like a silly one. Progress!
- Greg Monroe was awful tonight, missing a number of point-blank shots through moderate defensive contact, and playing defense as well as his 2015-16 self. Maybe he was the one most impacted by Brogdon’s move to the starting lineup?
- Jason Kidd led off the second quarter with Brogdon/Beasley/Jabari/Mirza Teletovic/Monroe. It...somehow didn’t explode, and actually gained points against the Wolves.
- Giannis had another one of those stretches where he simply makes things happen; he assisted a Jabari 3, a Tony Snell 3, and then leaked out for a highlight-reel dunk before Tom Thibodeau called a timeout. It was neat.
- Then Maker made an appearance with 9:21 left in the game, while the Bucks were down 92-77. For a moment, I was convinced that Kidd was throwing up a white flag...but Thon made way for Giannis before too long, and the comeback attempt was still on.
- Steve Novak hit his first shot of the season from behind the arc. One single, lonely dove was released.
I only have one thought worth sharing this evening, and if you’ve ever read my work it’s not a new one.
The Bucks lost a game on the road against a bad team (Minnesota is currently 11-22), and appeared to be outclassed from start to finish. That is frustrating, especially when you see flaws that could be corrected, or weaknesses that could be fortified. And all too often, that frustration can turn to anger, especially if you find others not seeing what you feel is obvious.
Just remember: the Bucks are still new at this, and in some ways, so are we. Failure is often a better catalyst for growth than success, as long as lessons are taken from that failure.
Specifically, the offensive scheme appeared disjointed and failed to create anywhere near enough opportunities to score points. Giannis and Jabari got theirs by virtue of their athletic gifts and considerable skills, but there was so much left on the table from cutters not cutting, screeners not screening, and shooters not getting to the right spots on time.
On defense, the team clearly failed to execute “just one more” rotation on a number of possessions, many of them ending on open shots for Minnesota. A large part of that is the lack of guard depth; when Michael Beasley is your nominal shooting guard for significant stretches, things aren’t exactly going according to plan. But where the plan gets pushed off-course, the scheme should be there to compensate, and at no point did that happen tonight.
Long story short: the Bucks had a test tonight, and they failed that test. It’s a clear sign that they’re not ready. I’m not going to say that “it’s okay,” but I am confident that the team knows that this kind of outing is unacceptable if the stated goal is to contend for a championship within the next few years.
The Bucks next play the Bulls at the United Center in Chicago tomorrow night. Everyone have a Happy New Year, and stay safe out there!