What could’ve been a heartbreaking overtime game given Westbrook’s penchant for tearing out team’s hearts, turned into a spectacular celebration as Giannis Antetokounmpo rocked home a dunk in the closing seconds to help the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 97-95. In a complete reversal of fortunes from last night, Milwaukee went supernova and snuffed out the Thunder in the first quarter, stroking it from deep to notch a 38-18 lead after the first quarter. The Bucks parlayed that into a 58-44 halftime lead, partially behind four of their starters reaching double digits in the first half alone. Russell Westbrook’s 17 far and away led a Paul George-less Thunder squad. Westbrook continued his assault and the Thunder chipped away against the Bucks to trail just 73-67 after three.
As the game wound down, a series of missed free throws from both teams threatened to give each fanbase a depressing pit in their stomach for New Year’s. When Eric Bledsoe missed two free throws that would’ve put the Bucks up five, it was obvious that Westbrook would respond with a game-tying three. He did. Thankfully, Milwaukee had their own superstar going tonight, who finished this puppy in true Giannis fashion to seal a win.
Giannis POSTERIZES Westbrook FOR THE WIN!! pic.twitter.com/lzFKsc3c7b— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 30, 2017
Three Main Observations
Milwaukee, for all its reticence to launch from deep last night, hit as many 3-pointers in the first quarter as they did all evening against Minnesota, five. Led by Tony Snell’s gorgeous trailing rainbow arc on three deep hits, they were looking to take advantage of offensive rebounds and shots early in the shot clock to avoid the staid offensive sets that have hindered them at plenty of points this year. Their 5-10 performance in the first catapulted them to a 38-18 lead after one. By halftime, they had outstripped their 5-15 performance last night already going 7-17. A 9-29 game is something they should strive for more often, at least in terms of attempts.
Eric Bledsoe picked up his fourth foul with six minutes remaining in the second quarter. That forced Delly into the game, an issue that didn’t necessarily harm their offense as acutely as it seemed to their defense. Tony Snell, bless his heart, just doesn’t have the same footspeed and power to get through screens as Bledsoe. As such, Westbrook was able to penetrate the defense seemingly at will, either creating separation for his trademark midrange jumpers or assaulting the rim with reckless abandon. Nobody can really “stop” Westbrook, but Bledsoe has better physical tools for the job. You could feel his absence for periods tonight.
That absence certainly wasn’t felt down the stretch of tonight’s game. Bledsoe’s ability to create something off the dribble can’t be overstated to a Bucks team that’s lacked anyone with those skills when the game was on the line in season’s past. Consistently, he was the guy taking on the creative burden and forcing the ball towards the hoop. Even if he occasionally missed, it opened up some space for Giannis to slip in and bat the ball back in. On one of the decisive possessions, Bledsoe was in complete control and splashed home a wide-open jumper - as OKC collapsed to a cutting Giannis - that put the Bucks up by five. Unfortunately, he completely botched his subsequent two free throws once OKC made it a three point game. That did lead to the whole mess of drama at the end involving Giannis’ foot potentially touching the baseline with his outstanding game-winning play.
Sure, he was probably out, but apparently it wasn’t reviewable. Good on you refs for wanting to get your New Year’s Eve festivities started early. We couldn’t agree more.
For those wondering, solely checking to see if someone stepped out of bounds on a play or not is a replay trigger. That's why Giannis stepping out wasn't reviewed at the end of Bucks-Thunder.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) December 30, 2017
Bonus Bucks Bits
- Milwaukee vaulted out to a 16-2 lead with ball movement that was sorely lacking for most of last night. Whirring between Thunder defenders, they made all the right reads early on for easy buckets near the hoop. You knew things were humming when Khris Middleton pulled up for a 3-pointer early in the shot clock and swished it.
- Malcolm Brogdon’s alley-oop in the second quarter, with a reverse layup finish twirling off a high screen from Thon and being fed from Delly, was one of the most peculiar combos you’ll see on an oop.
- Thon’s willingness to fire from deep was a welcome change from his middling midrange dalliances of late. However, in the second quarter Giannis penetrated into the interior and upon posting up near the block, twirled his sight to wrap a spectacular pass around the defender to an awaiting Maker beneath the basket. Maker finding that space was savvy and Giannis’ pass was even better, but Maker’s inability to finish such routine shots from that area continue to be a concern. If he’s unable to discover a way to take those up with authority going forward, his usefulness dips considerably.
- One of Giannis’ breakaway dunks on a fastbreak prompted Raymond Felton to just give up defensively and start advocating for the travel early. Wily move by the veteran to save his legs even if it fell upon deaf ears.
Giannis THROWS it down in transition!! pic.twitter.com/ccY32RUOaj— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 30, 2017
- Malcolm Brogdon continues to add superstars to his slam dunk hit list. Tonight, he added Russell Westbrook to that ignominious collection with this little beaut.
- Oklahoma City cut the Bucks’ lead down to three in the third quarter when Milwaukee had only scored seven points in the period to that point. The Bucks responded through a series of quick flashes including an offensive putback by Bledsoe, swift hook by Henson and Giannis pushing the pace to give Middleton a reverse layup. It felt like an important momentum retention to keep the OKC crowd somewhat in check considering the Thunder never led the whole evening.
- Maker redeemed himself somewhat for the aforementioned gaffe beneath the rim as the third quarter closed by rifling a pass from the corner to Giannis lurking under the bucket who powered it home. Sure, he had several defender draped over him and a wide open Brogdon in the opposite corner for a three, but Giannis enforcing his will is never a bad thing. Maker had another putback as the third quarter buzzer sounded too with an offensive board, although it was waved off.
- Malcolm Brogdon had a similar cut to the one that netted him an alley-oop midway through the fourth quarter. Once again, Delly fed the reigning ROY dipping to the hoop and Jerami Grant had a goaltending call to give the Bucks the basket.
- Late in the fourth quarter, Milwaukee ran near identical sets with John Henson stationed near the free throw line and Eric Bledsoe feeding him the ball from the left arc. The first time, Bledsoe rocketed his way around the arc to retrieve the ball on Henson’s right, push his way towards the basket and drop a dime to a barreling Henson for a hook shot. The next possession, once Henson received it, Bledsoe faked like he was going for the same action, but cut short and burst to the basket instead on the left of Henson who fed him for an easy layup. Pretty stuff.