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Milwaukee vs. Minnesota: T-Wolves Prey On Bucks

The more predatory creatures (barely) came out ahead in the north woods

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

While they refused to wave the white flag at any point and Giannis Antetokounmpo had his first 40-point outing of the season, the Timberwolves ultimately bested the Bucks last night at Fiserv Forum 113-108. D’Angelo Russell led Minnesota with 29 points and Karl-Anthony Towns chipped in an efficient 25 on 9/13 shooting (3/5 from deep). Milwaukee moves to 3-2 on the season ahead of two off days, during which one hopes that Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday become healthy enough to rejoin the starting lineup. Minnesota is now 3-1 on the young season.

Minnesota got off to a blistering start, hitting their first seven shots from the field to take an early 16-7 lead. That lead would grow to 15 as D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards each hit 5 of their first 6 shots, combining for 24 points in the first quarter. Karl-Anthony Towns also feasted on some too-small Bucks lineups for 11. The T-Wolves shot a sizzling 68% from the field in the period and were well above 70% for much of it. This wasn’t just ridiculous Minnesota shotmaking: Milwaukee had multiple defensive breakdowns both on the perimeter and inside. A 44-point effort resulted in a 10-point Bucks deficit entering the second.

Even after Towns took a breather, Minnesota continued blitzing the Bucks down low, growing their lead to 20 with a 10-0 run to kick off the second. Mike Budenholzer then re-inserted Giannis; not coincidentally, this sparked the Bucks to a 16-2 run, tightening things up to 6 at the midway point of the quarter. Still, the Bucks couldn’t take full advantage of their opponents shooting just 32% in the quarter—and scoring exactly half as many points as they did in the first—so they trailed 66-58 at the half. Giannis was the only Buck in double digits with 20; the Wolves ensure Khris Middleton (8 points on just 3 attempts) had a lot of trouble getting shots up.

A Grayson Allen corner triple cut the deficit to 3 early in the third, but that was as close as the Bucks would get for a long time. Russell snapped back with a three of his own, and with the help of several offensive rebounds, the Wolves soon built the lead back up to 15. They would keep it there entering the fourth as outside of Giannis, the Bucks still shot too poorly to make a dent in the Wolves’ advantage.

Minnesota kept Milwaukee at least 10 points behind for much of the quarter until the closing minutes as the Bucks struggled mightily from behind the arc. However, instead of folding things up down 14 with 5 minutes remaining, the Bucks embarked on a 16-4 run highlighted by threes from Allen, George Hill, and Giannis. Middleton perked up a bit in the last two minutes, first with a tip-in to make it a four-point game with 1:18 to go, and then with this impressive make that was originally thought to be a three:

Hard to see with the courtside fans standing, but somehow he was inside the line. Anyway, with under 30 seconds left the Bucks promptly allowed Anthony Edwards to drive hard to the rim they had trouble protecting all night, where he would convert and draw a foul from Middleton. Though he missed the free throw and Giannis bolted downcourt for a quick lay-in to make it a two-point game again, Milwaukee had to foul. Edwards would make them both this time to ice off the Minnesota win.

What Did We Learn?

Without Brook Lopez for an extended stretch, the Bucks’ interior defense would be in all kinds of trouble. For all Giannis’ defensive ability, he’s not well suited to stop strong and dynamic centers like Towns in the restricted area. When he was out of the game, though, things got really ugly. Thanasis and Pat Connaughton frequently had to battle with him down low, who could only foul him. KAT was able to easily snatch away rebounds over their heads too. Jrue Holiday’s absence hurts too, as evidenced by how easily Russell got to his spots all game. Between him and Edwards, that’s some serious scoring ability on the perimeter that is too much for Allen and still-defensively-competent Hill to handle.

Three Observations

It was easily Giannis’ most efficient night this season. For much of the night, he was the only Buck in double digits on his way to a 40/16/7 line, plus 3 important blocks. He hit 3 of his 6 shots from downtown and was a very solid 7/9 at the charity stripe. Minnesota often sent multiple defenders at him but he bruised or dished his way out of many double-teams, only turning the ball over twice.

Missing open threes badly hurt Milwaukee. Without taking anything away from Giannis, he was their best three-point shooter last night and that be a bad thing. Allen and Jordan Nwora were 3/8 and 3/5 respectively, but the remainder of the team combined to go a putrid 5/32 (15.6%). All this came on a night where their opponent only shot 28.9% from deep and permitted the Bucks to take 51 three-point attempts. The worst offenders were Connaughton (2/9) and Middleton (1/8), but what’s most unfortunate is how clean the looks were on many of those bricks, particularly down the stretch as the Bucks battled back. As a team, they shot 6/27 on wide-open (attempts where the nearest defender was at least 6 feet away) threes, per NBA.com. Shooting 22% on such golden opportunities is a major reason why the Bucks lost this one. Further disappointing is that several of those misses came from offensive boards. Just look at this sequence midway through the fourth (I’ve circled the second chance opportunities):

The Bucks’ small lineups continue to be pushed around. As mentioned above, Milwaukee couldn’t contain Towns and Minnesota’s bigs. Even Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid (a combined 7/10 for 17 points) made hay beneath the rim and got to the line. The Wolves aren’t a particularly tall or long team—Vanderbilt and Reid are both 6’9”—but they had a decisive strength advantage over players like Connaughton and Thanasis who had to shift up in the lineup during minutes Bud had to go small.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • Minnesota’s defensive identity seems to have totally changed. It’s early and they’ve faced bad teams, but they entered this game with a stellar 97.8 defensive rating, 3rd in the league after finishing 28th last season. They’re smothering and trapping ballhandlers nearly every possession, clogging passing lanes, getting hands everywhere... Patrick Beverley might be helping.
  • Along those same lines, I think it’s kind of remarkable that Milwaukee only had 8 turnovers last night. As a team, the Bucks’ passing was generally sloppy as many balls sailed too high and out of shooting pockets (perhaps this is partially why the outside shooting suffered). The Wolves deflected plenty of inaccurate passes and managed to rob ballhandlers a few times, but the Bucks ended up retaining possession in many of these cases.
  • Pat Connaughton rejoined the starting lineup, pushing Thanasis back to the bench. The elder Antetokounmpo saw only 8 minutes and committed two personals in that time.
  • In his first game action since the open scrimmage back on October 3rd, Bobby Portis entered at the 6:40 mark of the first to a nice ovation. He made an immediate impact on both ends by stonewalling Vanderbilt in the restricted area—forcing a miss that would make any rim protector proud—then got to the rim on the other end for an easy deuce. That was about the extent of his highlights in 15 minutes, though, as he couldn’t connect from three and didn’t seem to have his usual touch inside 10 feet. He finished with 7 on 3/7 shooting.
  • Semi Ojeleye made his Bucks debut to start the second quarter and what many expected became immediately clear: he was not brought to Milwaukee for his offense. The former Celtic missed all five of his attempts—all pretty open threes—and missed both free throws. He made a nice save in the fourth quarter to keep a steal he made inbounds but contributed little otherwise on defense. I didn’t see him down low much, where his brawn and wingspan could have come in handy against Minnesota’s bigs.
  • Bud elected not to use his timeout under 10 seconds left after the Edwards and-1 which pushed the Minnesota lead to 4. File this one under much ado about nothing for me, but here was his rationale for those who may have questioned it:
  • Thanasis managed to draw an offensive foul on Beverley at the end of the first quarter after the defensive stalwart dribbled into the oncoming Greek in an attempt to get knocked down and send Thanasis his back. He succeeded, but not rewarding ballhandlers for such tomfoolery was one of the league’s rule changes this offseason. Beverley acknowledged that he screwed up, so good on him.

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