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Bucks vs. Nuggets: Doc’s prescription for altitude not quite enough

Doc Rivers starts his Milwaukee tenure with an L

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Doc Rivers regime in Milwaukee didn’t get off to a smashing beginning, as the Bucks went down to the Nuggets 113-107 in a back-and-forth affair at Denver’s Ball Arena. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the visitors with 29 points and 12 boards, but Jamal Murray had little trouble scoring for the defending champs, leading them with 35. Nikola Jokic had a triple-double, of course, with 25/16/12.

Game Summary

A sweet-shooting start by Milwaukee had Denver head coach Michael Malone calling timeout down 17-6 after four and a half minutes. The Bucks then proceeded to get up 26-13 before the script completely flipped as they went ice cold, not scoring a point in the closing 4:25 of the first. Meanwhile, the Nuggets went on a 12-0 run to close what had been a thirteen-point deficit to 26-25 after one.

Across the break, the Bucks missed eight consecutive shots as the Nuggets grabbed their first lead. To keep the scoreboard moving, the Bucks kept getting to the line until shots finally started falling again and they went on an 8-0 run. Unfortunately, that all came as Jokic rested, but it remained close when he re-entered and both sides went into the half knotted up at 56. Murray had fourteen points in the quarter to pace all scorers with 21.

The third remained close through most of the period despite general sloppiness from the Bucks—until they again fell into a shooting drought and resorted to some quick shots that maybe weren’t the greatest looks, rather than running offense. Again, they were able to stay within eight points by getting to the line. Jokic notched his triple-double with just over a minute remaining in the quarter, and his side led 82-75 after three.

Thanks to triples from Cam Payne and Bobby Portis—his first field goal of the night—the Bucks came back to within one, and grabbed a small lead with nine minutes remaining on another Portis trey. It didn’t last as the Nuggets played from ahead for the next several minutes, but Lopez again cut it to one with just under five minutes to go. Unfortunately, Milwaukee fouls, turnovers, and a couple defensive breakdowns rebuilt the Denver lead to as much as nine and let them close out the visitors, despite some Milwaukee threes making it as close as three.

The Bucks will now head to Portland and try to give Rivers the first W of his new gig on Wednesday.

What Did We Learn?

I understand that Doc has only had a few games with this team and has had little to no time to change anything, but Malik Beasley remains Milwaukee’s designated defensive “stopper” (I use both words loosely) on the wing. Among the changes many want to see from this team moving away from Adrian Griffin, this might be one of the biggest ones defensively. Of course, this is a problem the front office needs to address too, but Andre Jackson Jr. was a DNP-CD in this one. Doc went with a playoff-style nine-man rotation with all his vets, yet relied pretty heavily on his starters, who were all above 30 minutes. Though the Bucks’ bench contributed a decent bit, especially early in the fourth, there was definitely room to add some defensive intensity both to the second unit and down the stretch, as Murray pummeled them with fourteen fourth-quarter points.

Three Bucks

Splash Mountain is again at home amongst the Rockies.

Brook Lopez finished with 19 points, including 5/9 shooting from behind the arc. It brought back memories of his first game in Denver as a Buck back in 2018, when he shot 8/12 from downtown around the time the above nickname was coined. He’s raised his season 3P% by a full two points in the last two games from 32.6% to 34.6% as he’s shot a combined 11/18 from deep in both contests.

Khris Middleton got off to a quick start, then faded into the background.

With ten first-quarter points, it looked like this might be a big Middleton night, and he missed only one of his first five attempts. However, he shot the ball only five times more the rest of the night and wasn’t involved much in the flow of the offense. Like I mentioned above, the Bucks weren’t running much in the way of plays in the third and fourth quarters, generally going to iso ball or jacking up quick shots. Middleton hardly got any touches in these situations, with most of the iso looks going to Damian Lillard. Strange, considering that on similar play calls in the first, Middleton buried shot after shot.

Bobby Portis salvaged a bad night with two key treys.

As you read above, Portis shot the Bucks in front early in the fourth, but prior to that he had been 0/8 from the field. Those two threes in quick succession were big, but after his heat check missed two possessions later, his contributions pretty much ended. Like all role players, even high-level ones like Portis, he’ll have off nights (and off series) when it’s a bad matchup for him. This is why he shouldn’t be off-limits in a trade, despite how well-loved he is among Bucks fans.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • To speak to how back-and-forth last night was, there were a total of twelve ties and nine lead changes. After Milwaukee’s early thirteen-point advantage, the biggest one they could muster was six, and Denver’s was nine.
  • Another aspect of the defense everyone wants to improve is Milwaukee’s performance in transition. It did look like the Bucks were putting forth quite a bit more effort in that regard, and it led to a more manageable 19-10 Nuggets edge on the fast break. The problem was that they had too many opportunities.
  • Why was that? Turnovers, for one. Though the Bucks turned it over just twice in the first half, they coughed it up seven times in the third quarter alone, and they were fortunate it led to just seven Nuggets points. Still, the 12-8 turnover line—and 15-9 line in terms of scoring off them—in favor of Denver isn’t horrendous considering how this team usually does.
  • Back to the defense. Denver has a very ball-movement-heavy offense, of course, led by a savant in the middle. But I didn’t think it was necessarily Jokic’s reads or passes that really hurt the Bucks. All night long, the Nuggets easily sent cutters along the baseline or found someone in the dunker spot for an easy flush. Maybe not every team will find or create as many of these holes as Jokic’s squad will, but conceding easy looks has been a season-long issue for Milwaukee, one that Denver is uniquely suited to exploit.
  • Giannis was whistled for a ten-second violation at the charity stripe with just over two minutes remaining. He then buried a three on a pass from, who Lopez got him an offensive rebound after missing the second. However, fans then gave him the count the next time he got to the line. He was 6/11 on the evening.
  • Finally, I’ve always liked how the Nuggets sublimate 5280 (the number of feet in a mile, for all you metric users) below the foul line, but do they really need to emblazon it at midcourt too? Not to mention on their City Edition jerseys. It’s a bit much.

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