The Milwaukee Bucks looked to not only end their four-game road trip with a win, they looked to end their final game of 2023 with a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite falling behind by 15 points, the Bucks completed the comeback thanks to another Giannis Antetokoumpo double-double (34 points and 16 rebounds) and 24 second-half points from Damian Lillard, winning 117-111.
The Cavaliers duo of Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen made life tough for the Bucks' defense in the first. The two combined 10 of Cleveland’s 14 points as they raced out to a 14-6 lead, prompting head coach Adrian Griffin to call a timeout down 14-6 with 7:45 left in the first. Milwaukee would start to find some offensive rhythm thanks to three straight three-pointers from Malik Beasley and Pat Connaughton to bring the game back within five points at the 5:25 mark of the frame, 20-15. Allen continued to be perfect for the rest of the quarter, going 8-for-8 for 16 points, three rebounds and three assists. After a MarJon Beauchamp floater brought the score to 28-24 Cavaliers, Mitchell popped off for seven points in 1:31, pushing Cleveland to a 37-29 lead with 11 seconds left. Khris Middleton would find Giannis Antetkoumpo for a lob layup out of a sideline out-of-bounds play as the Bucks went into the second quarter down six, 37-31.
The Bucks couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start in the second. The Cavs went off on a 7-0 run thanks to three Milwaukee turnovers in the first two and a half minutes of the frame. The Bucks didn’t make a field goal until the 5:28 mark on the clock after a Giannis dunk. That dunk would spark the Bucks offense to an 8-0 run, with the three-point shot coming in huge with Beasley’s fourth three of the half and Lopez’s first. The Bucks would inch as close as four points, 50-54, but the Cavaliers had an answer to end the quarter. Mitchell would hit a layup, and after a turnover by Middleton, Max Strus would make Milwaukee pay with Clevelands’ third make from beyond-the-arc in the 1st half to make it a nine-point game, 59-50. Two free throws from Giannis with two seconds left allowed the Bucks to get back within seven heading into the locker room, 59-52. Allen finished the half shooting 9-for-11 for 18 points, while Mitchell went for 19 points. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 14 points, while four made threes from Beasley gave him 12 points in the half.
After battling to get back into the game in the second quarter, the Bucks got over the hump to take their first lead of the game, 63-61, as part of an 11-2 run to begin the third. The run was punctuated by a lob pass from Brook Lopez to Giannis for a tip-in. The two teams went back and forth as Milwaukee clung to a two-point lead, 73-71 with 6:21 left in the frame. The Bucks went on an extended 15-2 run to take their largest lead at 15 points, 88-73. Cleveland would fight back, scoring seven points to bring themselves within 10, 90-80. Dame did get two free throws with 0.5 seconds left after a foul from Caris Levert put the Bucks up a 92-80 lead going into the fourth quarter of play.
Milwaukee was able to keep up their strong play to start the fourth quarter as they held a 12-point lead through the 8:32 mark. However, the Cavaliers wouldn’t go away, as they made one final push to make a comeback of their own. Okoro would make back-to-back layups after a turnover by Middleton to bring the game within six, 103-97, forcing head coach Adrian Griffin to call timeout. It didn’t help much as the Cavs would add two more baskets from Allen and rookie Craig Porter Jr to bring the game within four, 105-101 with 4:31, prompting another timeout from Griffin. The two sides would trade baskets down the stretch before the Cavs would bring it back within four points again, 115-111 with 57 seconds left. That’s as close as Cleveland would get as they missed all three of their final shots and Middleton and Antetokoumpo knocked down four free throws to push the Bucks over the finish line with a 117-111 win.
What Did We Learn?
The Bucks’ new-look offense can seemingly overcome any trouble they find themselves in. Looking at the box score and seeing that the Bucks had 17 turnovers, giving up 64 points in the paint and trailing by 15 points, you would imagine that the Bucks probably lost the game, and for good reason. In seasons past, the Bucks probably couldn’t overcome all of those factors at once, yet here at the end of 2023 heading into 2024, the Bucks’ offense can work them out of a jam. I do acknowledge that this was a severely depleted Cavs team that was playing without Evan Mobely, Darius Garland, Ricky Rubio, and Ty Jerome. With that said Cleveland still had Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen in the lineup and the Bucks pulled it off. This offense, even when things are perfect, flows so well and the team is seemingly gelling heading into 2024.
The “Big Three” Things
The Bucks’ “Big Three,” of Giannis, Dame, and Khirs Middleton are finding their true rhythm together with Middleton getting a higher minutes load. Tonight was a perfect example of how these three are fitting together
The two-time league MVP picked up his 23rd double-double of the season with 34 points and 16 rebounds. It seems like Giannis’ role is to be the primary scorer, with Lillard and Middleton playing off of him. However, that doesn’t mean the Bucks can’t add wrinkles to that idea. During the fourth quarter, the Bucks lead by just six points with 6:21 to play after the Cavaliers had cut the Bucks 15-point lead down. After Dame drove into the paint, Giannis cut from the weak side and got a hook shot to go down.
Easy shots for Giannis (despite having to scoop it up) are critical for the Bucks come playoff time. Teams are going to make it difficult to try and stop the “Big Three,” so for them to find ways to play off each other and get each other easy shots will make the Bucks one of the most difficult teams to stop.
After the Portland Trail Blazers game on Nov. 26, Giannis said postgame that he and Dame were learning how to play with each other, picking their spots of who takes the ball up the floor and when to find each other.
Giannis on how he and Dame are learning how to play together.— Jackson Gross (@JGrossBucks) November 27, 2023
Said that there are certain plays that happen now that didn’t happen earlier in the season.
This is the second game in a row where Giannis and Dame have scored 30+ points in the same game. #Bucks #FearTheDeer pic.twitter.com/LUoRnXWdap
The perfect embodiment of that quote came through in the third quarter while the Bucks were trying to mount their comeback. It was the third possession of the quarter after a make from Jarrett Allen who had made a hook shot to put the Cavs back up by seven, 61-54. After the make, Lillard took the inbound and immediately fired it to Giannis who made an easy layup over Allen in transition.
This may seem like a small play, but these are two points the Bucks needed to put together their come-from-behind victory. It’s not always going to be a lob pass for a flashy dunk or a no-look pass either, it’s the simple plays that truly show how much these three players have shown together 32 games into the season.
The other side of it is now late in games, as we all know by now, Dame can be the primary ball-handler to give the Bucks another option down the stretch who they can count on to score. Last year it would have just been Giannis or Middleton who were the “go-to,” guys in clutch situations. Now with Lillard in the mix, it makes games that may have ended in a loss into an extra victory that the Bucks may need if they want to take the one seed from Boston later in the season.
The way Middleton has evolved into a third scoring option and secondary ball handler has been nothing short of fantastic. I wanted to shout out a commenter in the rapid recap who talked about how Middleton has become sort of a point forward was striking and it was on full display tonight. During the 40-point third quarter, there was a stretch where Middleton made four assists in a row to tie and give the Bucks the lead in a variety of situations.
The development of the #Bucks' Khris Middleton as a point forward in this new offense has been nothing short of remarkable and it was on full display tonight against the Cavs.— Jackson Gross (@JGrossBucks) December 30, 2023
Here are four plays that helped Milwaukee pull off the comeback win.
Middleton ended the night with his third double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 assists. It’s also his second double-double in a row after he put up 27 points and 10 assists against the Nets on Wednesday.
Bonus Bucks Bits
- Before tonight, the Cavaliers had beaten the Bucks in three of their last five matchups, with the last two played in Cleveland.
- This was the Bucks first win in Cleveland since Feb. 6, 2021. Giannis, Middleton, and Jrue Holiday had 20+ points, while playoff legend Bryn Forbes had 18 points on a perfect 6-for-6 from beyond the arc. Andre Drummond had 28 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Cavaliers.
- After giving up 70 points in the paint against the Nets on Wednesday, the Bucks defense allowed 64 points to the Cavaliers, including 34 in the second half.
- Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis showed off some fancy dimes, with Lopez throwing a lob to Giannis in the third quarter and Bobby Portis feeding Giannis with a behind-the-back pass off a steal.
Point Brook with the cross and the lob for the lead! pic.twitter.com/ZtF0l6tClV— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 30, 2023
- Despite turning the ball over 17 times to the Cavaliers eight, the Bucks still scored 16 points off of those turnovers while the Cavs only scored 18.