For stretches last night, it felt like the Milwaukee Bucks were trying to give the birthday boy Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs the only gift they were looking for, a win. However, Giannis Antetokoumpo and Damian Lillard were not in the giving mood during the fourth quarter, as they scored 25 points in a row to close a narrow road victory, 125-121. The two-time league MVP finished with a game-high 44 points to go along with 14 rebounds and seven assists, while Lillard put up 25 points and 10 assists. The Spurs’ young talent shined, with Wembanyama going for 27 points, nine rebounds, and five blocks, Devin Vassell scoring a team-high 34 and Tre Jones adding 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting from the field.
Khris Middleton has seemingly gotten closer to his old self game-by-game as he increases his minutes load. Early in the first quarter, he had the Bucks offense rolling as Milwaukee jumped out to a 13-5 lead thanks to his seven points on 3-of-4 shooting from the floor. It was already a blowout by the Bucks as they increased that lead to 13 points, 22-9 with 5:55 left in the first quarter. After that, San Antonio finally settled into the game as they pushed a furious 11-3 run to bring the game back within five, 25-20. After a couple of free throws from Damian Lillard to push the lead back to seven, the Spurs’ Devin Vassell and Cedi Osman hit two quick buckets, shaving the Bucks lead to just two points. That’s as close as San Antonio would get to Milwaukee in the frame, with both teams going cold down the stretch until the final 55 seconds. Lillard hit a couple more free throws before Pat Connaughton and MarJon Beauchamp hit threes within 30 seconds of each other, giving the Bucks a 38-31 lead heading into quarter two. Spurs guard Tre Jones was hot all quarter long, contributing eight points, while Giannis had seven for the Bucks.
Coming into this game, the headlining matchup was between Giannis and Wembanyama and it showed in the second quarter. With the Spurs clipping the Bucks’ lead down to four, 40-36, Giannis came down and spun in the lane for a poster dunk. Not to be outdone, Wemby got free for a self-alley-oop slam on the next possession. The action slowed down for a small stretch as both teams put in just six points in three minutes and 45 seconds of game action as the Bucks had three turnovers during that timespan. After a make from Lopez from 19 feet away, the Spurs would make seven shots in a row to keep themselves connected by two points with 3:29 left to play, 56-54. After a Vasell three put the Spurs within one, the Bucks would score five of the last seven points to go into the locker room up 64-59.
The Bucks looked to blow the game back open as Giannis and Dame scored six quick points out of the break to give Milwaukee an 11-point lead, 70-59 before Spurs head coach Greg Popovich called a timeout to reset his group. The timeout worked wonders, with Popovich’s squad going on a 7-0 run, with the “French Unicorn,” putting in five of that seven. The run chopped the Bucks four points, 70-66, with 9:35 to go in the third. San Antonio stayed close throughout the entire quarter, responding to anything the Bucks tried to do to distance themselves. Giannis and Wembanyama went tit-for-tat with each of them trying to top the other. After Wemby made a three to make it a three-point game, the “Greek Freak,” came back the other way to throw down a dunk to push back to five, 77-72. Milwaukee kept San Antonio at bay until the final 2:33 of the quarter when Devin Vassell hit a 25-foot three to tie the game at 87-87. After trading baskets, the Bucks held a 93-91 lead with 33 seconds to go after a floater from MarJon Beauchamp. Yet, like they had been doing all night, the Spurs responded as Keldon Johnson made a spectacular up-and-under layup with three seconds left to tie the game at 93-93 heading into the fourth quarter.
San Antonio was able to keep its lead through the first two and a half minutes of the quarter before the Bucks stars started to heat up. Dame, who had been held to just 14 points through three quarters, came alive once again in the fourth, scoring nine straight points to keep Milwaukee close as they went back and forth with the Spurs. Midway through the fourth, the Bucks clung to a one-point lead, 110-109, which evaporated quickly as the Spurs caught fire once again. Between Vasell and Jones, they pulled off an 8-2 run to put San Antonio back up by five, 117-112, with 3:41 left on the clock. The former NBA Finals MVP showed off some of his clutch play, as Giannis scored nine straight points of his own, including two shots from distance to give the lead right back to Milwaukee, 121-118, with 2:26 to play.
Back-to-back Giannis threes in the clutch! pic.twitter.com/Mx0QENa7Fr— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 5, 2024
Wembanyama took the phrase “Anything you can do, I can do better,” to heart, as he drilled a three of his own, to tie the game back up at 121-121, with 69 seconds left in the ballgame. Then Giannis punctuated his masterful performance with a nasty one-handed dunk and a free throw to put Milwaukee back up by three with 16.5 seconds to go.
The Spurs had a chance to tie the game twice, with two wide-open corner threes from Jones and Jeremy Sochan, but both missed and a Connaighton free throw iced the game for the Bucks.
What We Learned
The Bucks defense is still a major concern. It has been the prevailing narrative all season long; the Milwaukee Bucks have issues on the defensive side of the ball. It was expected that the Bucks would take a dip in the defensive department when they traded away Jrue Holiday for Dame. However, with the injury to Jae Crowder, the perimeter defense outside of some moments from Andre Jackson Jr. and MarJon Beauchamp, has been very underwhelming. It showed that the Bucks could not stop the penetration from the Spurs’ ball handlers including Vasell, Jones, Keldon Johnson, and of course Wembanyama. The Bucks even tried to throw out a zone at points when Giannis wasn’t on the floor, but the Spurs kept finding ways to beat it with speed. As it currently sits, the Bucks are 21st in the NBA in defensive rating at 115.9, just ahead of the Dallas Mavericks by 0.3 points.
If they want that number to change, outside of a resurgence from Crowder, I would expect the Bucks to start looking (if they haven’t already) for point-of-attack defenders. Even if they’re a negative on the offensive end, the Bucks are good enough to “survive,” moments just to sure up the defensive side of the ball.
For anyone worried about the state of the Bucks relying on Dame and Giannis to carry the load offensively during a playoff run, you have very little to worry about and tonight showed why. The bench put up 25 points last night from four players who scored, with Beauchamp leading the way with eight, while Pat Connaughton had seven and had solid minutes on defense when he replaced Middleton in the second half. This Bucks unit has enough scoring to get it done over multiple rounds of a playoff run.
Over the last 10 NBA champions, dating back to the 2014 Spurs, only two of them have finished in the top 10 in bench scoring (the 2014 Spurs at No.1 and the 2015 Warriors at No. 9), and only two more teams finished in the top half of the league in bench scoring (the 2020 Lakers and 2022 Warriors at 11). The Bucks in their last title run finished 19th in 2021 by averaging 34.8 points per game. This current iteration is currently putting up 32.6.
Turnovers Strike Again
After turning the ball over 13 times against the Pacers on Wednesday night, the Bucks had more issues tonight hanging onto the ball. The Bucks had 14 turnovers, but the Spurs took advantage nearly every time, scoring 27 points off of those turnovers. That came in no small part to the Spurs' speed and aggressiveness in transition, as they had 28 points in transition tonight, compared to the Bucks’ 15. It makes sense, considering that San Antonio is the youngest team in the league. However, the Bucks must do a better job of stopping guards from getting easy drives to the rim for a layup or an open three. Against teams with more talent and experience, like the Pacers, it could spell another quick exit for the Bucks in the playoffs.
Dame Adds a Double-Double
After putting up a relatively quiet 14 points in the first three-quarters of action, Dame Lillard did his usual thing of turning on “Dame Time,” in the fourth quarter. The All-NBA 75 team member scored 11 points through the 5:21 before Giannis took over with the next 14 points in a row for Milwaukee. Not only to add to his scoring heroics, Dame also put up his sixth double-double of the season with 10 assists. It was his 134th double-double of his career in his 801 career games (16.7% of his games he had has put up a double-double).
Bonus Bucks Bits
- Middleton rested the entire second half after scoring 12 points in the first half. He was rested for the second half for injury management, with the game in San Antonio coming in the second part of back-to-back games.
According to the TNT broadcast, Khris Middleton is done for the night.— Jackson Gross (@JGrossBucks) January 5, 2024
After scoring 12 points in the first half, the Bucks are holding him out for the rest of this one with it being the second game of a back-to-back. #FearTheDeer
- Giannis put up his 26th double-double of the season in 35 games this season.
- Before tonight’s game, Giannis had hit 12 threes all season long and it was the first game he has hit multiple threes in a game.
- Bobby Portis has gone cold from beyond the three-point line. In his last three games, he has yet to hit a three-pointer, going 0-for-8 in the two games against the Pacers and last night against the Spurs. Portis had gone 6-for-14 (42.9%) in his previous five games, including a 3-for-4 performance against the Knicks on Dec. 23.