While it looked dicey for a minute (or 18) there, the Milwaukee Bucks survived an initial Dallas Mavericks onslaught and fought their way to a gratifying 129-117 road win. The best part? It secured Robin Lopez’s status as a game-winning talisman and got Doc Rivers to the All-Star game in Indianapolis. That’s called winning for the good of the team!
But truly, it was a dreadful start as far as the scoreline goes. With Brook Lopez a very late scratch having to miss the game for personal reasons, Doc Rivers decided to do the thing we all joke about and see how well it would go if Brook’s literal twin started in his place. And, with complete and total sincerity, Robin didn’t do half bad in his four minute, 10 second cameo to start. He set a hard screen to get Malik Beasley free for a three and he also hit a BS hook shot that made the ball look a little guilty as it went in.
While that was happening, the Mavericks just didn’t miss from three on the other end. Their opening six shots were all from distance, and they made every one of them — the first couple came after exploiting haphazard scrambling by Milwaukee before the Mavs just started hoisting for the hell of it in transition. They’d end the first 9 of 14 from three with a 20-44 lead after the Bucks offense fell into the crapper midway through the quarter. Try as the Bucks might, they drove to the basket what felt like 10 straight possessions, missed each time, and were never bailed out by the refs. It was messy and looked a bad omen.
Then, stability arrived.
Dallas would make just seven more threes the rest of the game which is perhaps unsurprising given the lineups they had to run with starters like Kyrie Irving missing due to injury. Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo helped stop the bleeding at the start of the second quarter, and the Mavs began to go haywire when calls stopped going their way at around the six minute mark. Luka Dončić, renowned crier and guy who yammers at the refs for the full 48 minutes of regulation, started to lose his composure after his deeply-felt grievances were not shared by the referee crew. Bucks coach Doc Rivers took full advantage by bringing... AJ Green (??????) into the mix. Green hit a shot immediately, set actual screens for teammates, held his own guarding Dončić, and made a key three late in the quarter. Out of nowhere, the Bucks had trimmed Dallas’s lead to just five thanks to some truly horrendous game management. 60-65 at the half.
The third quarter was more of the relentless same from Milwaukee’s big three. Non-Khris/Giannis/Dame Bucks took a total of six shots in the quarter, while the big names went 10-17 as both offenses started to slow down. Jae Crowder, who had to ride pine after three early fouls, came back into play and made three baskets after taking advantage of space created by his star teammates. Doc’s slight defensive adjustment (throwing early doubles at Dončić to head off drives, letting Giannis guard him inside the perimeter, and forcing other Mavs to execute) began to pay off while Luka lost steam, and the Bucks retained a 93-92 lead heading into the fourth.
From there the Bucks simply executed their way to the victory over the course of the final 12 minutes. Giannis went 7-8 from the floor in the fourth as Maxi Kleber officially had nothing to offer against him defensively, while Damian Lillard hit a pair of exceedingly unlikely threes to break Dallas’s back and push Milwaukee’s lead ever more out of reach. It was as thorough an example of star players bringing home a win without much stress as we’ve seen so far this year, and the team should be credited for coming back from so far down and hanging tough when it mattered. In spite of a very bleak opening backdrop, the Bucks win 129-117.
What Did We Learn
If you thought AJ Green would be the first young Buck to get some run under Doc Rivers, I strongly encourage you to go and play whatever form of lottery you feel comfortable with. And yet, in retrospect the move makes perfect sense from Doc. He was not going to pull his big three off the floor and needed someone who would take (and make) shots because Pat Connaughton was not getting the job done. For a nearly six minute spell, Green did just about everything you’d hope a deep bench guy would: Set hard screens, moving constantly off-ball, taking a GD shot when wide open, and playing with composure on defense.
In a sense we learned that Doc does know there are more than eight players on the roster and that AJ Green stayed ready. Credit to him for that. Let’s see if it results in any more minutes in the coming weeks.
Three Small Ball Bigs
A knock-on effect of missing Brook (and frankly not being able to survive a game where Robin actually plays more than four minutes) was the small ball lineups it forced Doc to run for 44 minutes. Between Bobby Portis, Jae Crowder, and Giannis Antetokounmpo the Bucks survived without a true center for almost an entire game. They were helped by the fact that Dallas’s Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber aren’t bruising centers in the traditional sense, either. What’s key, though, is the more switch-heavy and fluid defense Milwaukee could run with such lineups. Would they have survived if Dallas was at full health and could better pick apart the size issues? On the opposite side of the coin, would Milwaukee have survived having to try and keep the Mavs contained with Luka running wild at the zone-drop defense?
Bonus Bucks Bits
- Doc Rivers: YOU are the East All-Star head coach!
- Giannis literally shot 20 for 28 from the floor. Three of his misses came from three (how the hell did he shoot five times from out there?). Get his distance shots out of the count and he went 18 for 23. 48 points and 10 assists. That’ll do.
- Dame was also nearly perfect with a 10-11 mark from the floor, including a perfect 5-5 from three. He was crucial late, and I liked the two man game he and Giannis played a lot, too.
- Khris’s shooting stats won’t wow, but I felt that all eight assists were needed to keep the Bucks offense moving at critical junctures. Middleton continues to fit the role of third banana on offense without much of an issue. Good news for the Bucks.
- Bobby’s usage was down to a more manageable 17.1% with just 10 shots going to him on the night. Felt like he was more deliberate in keeping the ball moving on offense which I’ll groundlessly credit to Rivers after the first full team practice this past week.
- AJ Green in 6:28 of play: +16. And those were some make-or-break minutes, too.
- You wonder whether that small ball mix will stick or be utilized more as the season wears on. Let’s see how the Bucks play the trade deadline and we’ll assess the defensive options available to Doc and Dave Joerger from there.
The Bucks are back at it tonight on the road against the Utah Jazz.