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Milwaukee vs. Boston: Bucks Best Celtics in Hard-Fought Opener

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The Bucks played hard and solidly met expectations in their opening contest.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Opening their season on the road, against both a talented team and a tough crowd, calling the Milwaukee Bucks “up to the challenge” would be an understatement. Their 108-100 win over the Boston Celtics was a tight contest from tip-off to the final buzzer, as every player on both teams came to work.

The game started slowly, but the points started rolling in once the pace was sufficiently quickened. And with that faster pace came with it a palpable tension that few fans expected in the first game of the season. Boston played like a team with something to prove, and Milwaukee managed to match their intensity when it mattered most.

Giannis led the way for the Bucks, as we have gotten used to. Khris Middleton had some ugly moments, but was a key contributor with 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. Malcolm Brogdon continued asserting himself in the Garden to the tune of 19 points and 4 assists, and Matthew Dellavedova redeemed himself for some of his wayward floaters with 15 points, including some timely threes and free throws.

For the Boston Celtics, Kyrie Irving (17 points on 25 attempts, only 3 assists) left something to be desired, getting regularly swallowed up by swarms of Bucks defenders and forcing up subpar shots instead of moving the ball to a teammate. Jaylen Brown (18 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) was Boston’s best all-around contributor on both ends of the court. Overall, the C’s were able to develop decent-sized leads on a number of occasions, but they made enough mistakes to keep the Bucks within striking distance...until it was too late.

Three Observations

Giannis Antetokounmpo is here, and the rest of the world now knows it.

37 points (on 22 shots), 13 free throw attempts (making 11), and 13 rebounds is a notable night from most NBA stars. Throw in his 3 assists and 3 steals, and it gets that much sweeter...and that’s all not considering his negatives: 5 turnovers, inability to record a block after averaging nearly 2 per contest last season, and some of the fouls he committed (more on that later...).

What makes Giannis so remarkable is the combination of his overwhelming physical presence, inconceivable ball control, and his ever-growing knowledge of how to put those skills to use. Case in point:

And to top it all off, consider this: not to be nitpicky, but this was merely a very good game for Giannis, not a great one. We know he can do better, and he knows he can do better. Let that sink in.

Jason Kidd went unconventional in crunch time...and it worked out.

Delly instead of Tony Snell. John Henson instead of Greg Monroe or Thon Maker. Bucks fans usually deride these rotation decisions, but the final minutes of the game demonstrated the upside of Kidd’s coaching decisions.

Of course, not all of those decisions were made from a safe premise. Middleton, the oft-described “heartbeat” of the team, played the entire second half and appeared gassed late in the fourth quarter. Knowing that Khris was already tired and needed to focus his energy on defense, calling Snell’s number would have put more pressure on Khris, which could have led to critical miscues. Instead, playing Delly and Brogdon together gave the Bucks an additional ball handler without sacrificing too much size against the smaller Celtics.

Henson’s presence on the floor was less explicable, but for whatever reason he was the right solution for Boston’s bigs. Three of his four blocks came in the fourth quarter, including a huge rejection on a Kyrie jumper with 1:33 left and a 4-point margin. It’s easy to question playing Henson over Thon (another rim protector), but it’s also easy to forget that Thon is still developing, will play relatively light minutes this year, and is probably still coming all the way back from his preseason ankle injury.

All in all, the Delly/Brogdon/Khris/Giannis/Henson lineup that created the Bucks’ lead at the most critical time gave Milwaukee enough playmaking on offense and length on defense without sacrificing too much in any other area. Kudos for this decision working out, Coach Kidd.

The Bucks are playing like a team that understands their expectations.

The ever-present tension that flowed through this game was palpable. Teams get chippy all the time, but everyone in tonight’s contest seemed that much more willing to scrap, fight, and claw for each and every opportunity to get ahead. These are games that the Bucks are not known for winning, at least not in recent memory. Beating good teams in unfriendly territory is a necessary next step for Milwaukee to take if they have any hope of breaking away from the rest of their Eastern Conference peers.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • I hate complaining about the refs. It’s lazy, it’s unproductive, and it’s intellectually dishonest. That said, some of Giannis’ foul calls were beyond questionable to me, as were some of the non-calls he had to play through. As I remarked on Twitter, it’s not that he doesn’t commit fouls, but it’s that many of those that do get whistled are borderline calls at best.
  • Marcus Smart flops a ton, maybe more than anybody else in the league. I don’t care how it looks, it gets a whistle from the refs often enough to be worth while. His acting prowess also helps him get away with playing more physical on defense than most, because so many officials are conditioned to having to interpret his flailing. Marcus Smart comes to win games, and he doesn’t care how he does it. I respect that.
  • Malcolm Brogdon appears to be willing to take pull-up threes far more than I ever expected in Year 2. His slow release could still be hurried along, but for now I’m going to be grateful for this development.
  • Forgive the betrayal, but I am sometimes amazed at how well Boston’s fans interact with games at the Garden. They erupt into applause when a Celtic makes a good play, and keep the pressure on the visiting squad when the game’s outcome is still in the balance. But not only that, their reactions are always immediate and appropriate to the game situation. I haven’t seen many recent examples of this from the BC. It’s as if the current crowd that attends games in Milwaukee decides that they want to support their team, whereas Boston residents just do it.
  • The top of the East is not impenetrable. As Frank and Eric noted on yesterday’s episode of Locked On Bucks, the Gordon Hayward injury fundamentally changes the calculus of the conference’s power structure, as does the incompatibility of some of Cleveland’s new additions. Milwaukee might not be ready yet...but they might have a shot anyway.