If the NBA’s In-Season Tournament games are going to be this good to the Milwaukee Bucks, consider me fully on-board with the project as the good guys register their most lopsided win of the season over the Charlotte Hornets, 130-99. They move to 2-0 in In-Season Tournament play.
The pace was fast and furious to start things off with Malik Beasley — who would finish with 20 points off 6-10 shooting from three — continuing his hot outside shooting with a nice three off a Giannis/Lillard P&R. Those opening actions were a sampler of what was to come for Milwaukee’s offense which looked about as fluid as it has all season, both on-ball and in off-ball movement. Lillard (27 points, 9-18 shooting, 5 assists, 5 rebounds) also continued his aggressive play from Wednesday night, taking eight shots in the first frame and trying to get others going through some looping passes, but the Bucks offensive explosion wouldn’t register until later. They’d be down after one, 28-37.
In fact, it would have to wait until the Hornets had built their largest lead of the night in the second quarter (13 points) before the Bucks would permanently turn things around. An early lineup sans-willard or Beasley was mediocre and confused before Giannis was subbed out, thus opening the floor up again. Again, good off-ball movement and passing would spur an 11-0 Bucks run to reduce the deficit to two points, 39-41. The teams would pass the lead back and forth, but a Beasley three would give the Bucks a 53-52 lead. A silky Giannis baseline fading jumper would put an exclamation point on a really promising quarter, and Bucks up 59-57.
I wouldn’t call the opening minutes of the third quarter all that aesthetically pleasing with chaos ball reigning supreme. Loose ball fouls, shooting fouls, technical free throws: the first five minutes of the half had it all. Then Damian Lillard rose up for his first dunk as a Buck, followed quickly by a Giannis body hook pass to an open Beasley for a three to push the lead to 76-65. That dunk would be part of an 18 point quarter for Lillard in which he’d also make all four threes he took on his way to a 6-7 mark from the floor. Still, Milwaukee tried their damndest to give Charlotte an opportunity to reel their way back into it with sloppy play 3/4ths of the way through the quarter, but the Hornets never took advantage with LaMelo Ball on the bench. Ball eventually checked in and immediately made a nice off-glass layup over Bobby Portis to bring it to within single digits. One more Lillard-Pat Connaughton connection to close the quarter would keep Charlotte at bay, though, with the Bucks retaining a 92-81 lead after three.
With Lillard on the bench to start the fourth, Charlotte pulled to within six points. The Bucks answered with a pair of strong defensive possessions (helped by poor shot decisions on the part of Ball) and Khris Middleton’s first three of the night to make it 98-86. Critically, both teams would end up playing to their tendencies: the Hornets take the fewest threes in the league at just 29.0 attempts a night with a horrible percentage to boot (31.3%) and the Bucks are top-10 in both attempts and makes (38.0 and 38.2%). Milwaukee would go 14-23 from beyond the arc in the second half while Charlotte went 1 for 10. It is nigh impossible for any team to keep up with an opponent with disparities that large.
Milwaukee would take a commanding 16 point lead midway through the fourth and wouldn’t look back on their way to a 130-99 victory.
What Did We Learn?
That I do not, in fact, possess true foresight.
Fresh off a weekly podcast appearance in which I confidently intimated that this Bucks team would not win a single game by 15 or more points all season, the Bucks eked out a 16 point victory over the Bulls and this 31 point explosion over the Hornets. Milwaukee would make nearly as many threes (22) as the Hornets would take as a team (26), and they were extremely efficient doing so along the way. That the Bucks were so effective while Antetokounmpo added merely 16 points and Middleton just 12 is all the more remarkable.
All it took to unlock a sustainable offensive approach was to play the Chicago Bulls. We thank our southern neighbors for their assistance as the Bucks climb to the sixth-best Offensive Rating in the NBA (117.0).
I was very happy with the play from all three big men for Milwaukee. Here are the stat lines:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo - 28 minutes, 16 points (6-10 shooting), 9 assists, 8 rebounds
- Brook Lopez - 33 minutes, 15 points (7-8 shooting), 7 rebounds, 6 blocks
- Bobby Portis - 30 minutes, 13 points (6-12 shooting), 7 rebounds
We saw early P&R action from Giannis, constant screen setting by Lopez to free ball-handlers, the patented Lopez-Portis high double screen at half court to set Lillard up, etc. A dominant performance from Lopez in a zone-drop defense for much of the game to boot was also encouraging. Not all the numbers jump off the page, but each guy made positive contributions to the win outside of simply scoring. That plays a big part in a total team victory.
Bonus Bucks Bits
- Bucks legend and North Carolina native Ish Smith continues to carve out a career as a veteran guard — the Hornets represent his 13th team in 14 seasons as a pro. And he looked really good in his ~23 minutes of play!
- Known domestic abuser Miles Bridges — who missed the entirety of last season due to his legal troubles/league suspension — made his season debut for the Hornets.
- There was a weird sequence at the end of the first quarter after Nick Richards went down after catching an AJJ forearm to the forehead. Richards had to leave the court even though AJJ’s foul put Charlotte into the bonus, and the rule supposedly is that the opposing head coach gets to pick who gets to take the free throw’s in the injured player’s place. LaMelo Ball (86.0% FT% this year) went to the line and sunk both. Maybe the rule has changed?
- The Hornets broadcast mentioned that Pat Connaughton could throw a “fastball through a car wash without it getting wet”. For those tracking Pat C. baseball references, take a shot!
- Malik Beasley post-shot shimmy counter: One.
- Just about every Buck had a great second half. If they weren’t scoring, they were assisting or bringing some strong defense inside the arc to deny the Hornets the one avenue to victory available to them.
- The latest sub pattern of note: Damian Lillard takes a long break on the bench to start fourth quarters and has done so a number of games in a row now. If Khris Middleton has his minutes meaningfully raised, look to those minutes as a chance to see the Middleton-Antetokounmpo pairing thrive in the future.