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Bucks vs. Cavaliers: Lebron James Proves Too Much for Milwaukee

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A defensively challenged night dooms the Bucks

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo gave his best effort, but the Milwaukee Bucks fell beneath the might of Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, 124-117. Milwaukee kept its ground for much of the first quarter against Cleveland, despite Lebron playing the first 12 minutes, as the Bucks trailed 26-25. Heading into halftime, Milwaukee had it close until a 10-0 run late in the period by Cleveland, and they went into half leading 64-58. Lebron continued to torch the Bucks in the third, ending it with 35 already while the Bucks trailed 93-85 heading into the final period. Milwaukee mounted a late comeback with Giannis leading the way, but it proved too little too late as their scoring spree fell just a bit short.

Three Main Observations

Lineup Lunacy

Joe Prunty opted for a Jennings-Terry-Brown-Parker-Maker lineup to start the second quarter. Not only does that sound like a beeping warning alarm for a putrid defensive performance, but theoretically it puts most of the creative burden on Parker and Brandon Jennings. Prunty caught lightning in a bottle once with Jennings, but lightning usually only strikes a body once and Jennings was well toasted after his great work. It was made even more offensive by the fact Giannis wasn’t in during the fleeting moments while Lebron wasn’t out there for Cleveland. Thankfully, a few lucky Jennings jumpers meant the Bucks only trailed by three when Giannis re-entered, but the logic of that lineup remains baffling.

Same Old Story

Milwaukee’s defense was woefully back to its lackadaisical ways tonight. It’s been that way for much of their latest swoon, and now that teams are finally nailing threes again, it’s biting them in the butt. Tonight, Cleveland simply swung the ball from side to side, just like they were taught in grade school, and it opened up free shooters around the perimeter repeatedly. Kyle Korver being able to set a screen on Tony Snell and John Henson to free Kevin Love from three with ample space is pretty ridiculous.

Signs of Life?

For as poor a start as Thon Maker had tonight, playing like a sieve defensively against Ante Zizic and getting torn up on the boards looking weak offensively, he showed the most signs of life I’ve seen from him in some time. While the Cavs still took advantage of him on the boards, tearing the Bucks up with 12offensive rebounds, Maker managed to catch and finish an alley-oop in transition. On subsequent possessions, he caught the ball cleanly in the middle of the paint and hit two hook shots with ease. Amazingly, he did the same in the third quarter and knocked down a jumper. You’ll see him stick with J.R. smith on a highlight below and he had a few decent possessions guarding Lebron in space. No one was stopping Bron tonight, but he had Thon dead to rights on the left elbow and Maker managed to force him into a turnaround jumper. It was promising play with Zeller out, albeit against a team lacking any real source of inside presence. Maker also got the call to try and close the game out with a comeback and he finished a team-high +9 for the game. There’s still plenty of worry to go around though, as Thon incredibly managed to snag just a single rebound during his 23 minutes on the court.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • Larry Drew served as interim head coach tonight for the Cleveland Cavaliers, as Tyronn Lue stepped away from the team earlier today to focus on his health.
  • Lebron James torched the Bucks from tip tonight, calmly surveying the Bucks defense from the paint and above the arc before whirling the ball to open Cavs players after Milwaukee either overplayed passing lanes or cinched too close to the hoop.
  • Khris Middleton looked like the guy Milwaukee needs him to be if they want to make a playoff push in the first six minutes, stroking 4-4 from the floor, making himself available on the perimeter for passes and looking active weaseling space out of Milwaukee’s suffocating halfcourt offense. He carried that sweet stroke throughout the game, going for 30 points on 11-16 shooting including 5-9 from three.
  • Eric Bledsoe pushed the pace in the first quarter on one possession, and while he ultimately wheeled it back out before passing to a teammate, his hurried nature helped him get a mismatch against Ante Zizic. Ultimately, that led to him getting it back isolated against the gangly Euro and he schooled him with a dribble drive and-one.
  • Thon Maker made up for a piddly defensive effort in the first where he leaped for a whiffed Lebron block that opened it up for Zizic to knock an easy putback home. Several possessions later, he got matched up with J.R. Smith on the perimeter, kept with him on a drive to the paint and stonewalled the ball before it left his hand. Maker has the foot speed to keep up with less fleet of foot guards like Smith, so it’s been disappointing to see those skills gone to waste for much of this year.
  • Props to Brandon Jennings for having the willpower to forgo a pull-up 3-point jumper in the second quarter and instead dishing to Giannis directly beneath the bucket against J.R. Smith.
  • On consecutive possessions, Thon Maker had an alley-oop in transition and hit two straight hook shots. It was a nice bounceback from getting trounced by Ante Zizic to start his time on the court.
  • What in the world? Hot take, this is wayyyy better than Lebron’s dunk over Nurkic, which really just seemed like a normal strong Lebron dunk with a man sorta in the way.
  • A series of escalating pull-up jumpers that Lebron used to rile up the crowd ended in a depressing, anticlimactic way when Eric Bledsoe tried to get in on the action and bricked an early shot clock jumper from deep.
  • Milwaukee spent the first few minutes of the fourth quarter facing a Cavs team without Lebron James on the court. Instead of making up ground with Giannis on the court, they gave up 3-pointers to the streaky Jordan Clarkson and Parker allowed J.R. Smith to cook him on a high-arcing floater at the hoop. They fell behind by 14 points, and their inability to make up any ground during the most fertile period doomed them tonight.
  • The Bucks tried one too many full court passes in transition, oftentimes hurling them too far as they caromed out of bounds. Twice, Eric Bledsoe drove beneath the hoop, got caught in the air and whirled it into the backcourt as it went out of bounds. The transition gaffes were killers though, preventing easy buckets and stopping any chance for momentum down the stretch.
  • Giannis has started to put together the types of stat-stuffing games we saw from him early in the season. Tonight, he added to those performances with 37 points, eleven rebounds and five assists.