Down two starters and on the second night of a back-to-back, the Bucks couldn’t make it consecutive Ws in Utah as they fell apart in the fourth quarter last night, clinching the season sweep for the Jazz with a 123-108 defeat. Giannis Anteokounmpo’s game-high 33 points—on identical 11/15 marks from the field and foul line—and 13 assists weren’t enough to counter a balanced Utah attack, who had seven players in double figures, led by Lauri Markkanen with 21.
Much like in the first quarter of their matchup a few weeks ago in Milwaukee, the Jazz caught fire from deep, though not quite to the same degree. Though it remained close for much of the frame, Collin Sexton made his first three attempts from outside, and his squad finished on a 9-0 to grab a 32-26 lead after one.
Milwaukee snatched the game right back with a 14-0 run of their own early in the second, taking advantage of eight Utah turnovers in the period as they extended the run to 27-8 and a lead as large as nineteen. The Jazz closed late, but the Bucks went into the locker room ahead 63-53 behind a 37-point quarter, with Bobby Portis, Giannis, and surprisingly A.J. Green leading the charge.
In the third, Milwaukee kept things in double digits throughout and managed to nearly rebuild their previous advantage, going up sixteen in the closing minutes. Portis drilled three triples as his team shot 60% from distance to keep the Jazz at arm’s length It appeared that the Bucks were in firm control of this one entering the fourth up 95-83.
No other way to put it: the final quarter was an unmitigated disaster for the Bucks, who clearly ran out of juice. Early on, a Jae Crowder flagrant on longtime Buck tormentor Kelly Olynyk amid a 14-0 Jazz run spelled doom for the Bucks. Just past the midway point of the period, a Markkanen three gave Utah its first lead since the early second, and though they traded it back once, they then wouldn’t relinquish it. The Jazz went scorched earth and outscored the Bucks 19-3 over the final 5:45 of action as they feasted at the rim and from deep, hardly missing any look, while the visitors were scoreless after the 3:30 mark. In the fourth, Utah outscored Milwaukee by a horrendous 40-13 margin and Milwaukee had as many turnovers as made field goals (four). OUCHIES.
Now 1-3 on their Western Conference road trip and just a half-game up on the surging Cavs, and one game on the similarly-hot Knicks in the East’s two seed, the Bucks head to Arizona on Tuesday evening to take on a Suns team that is finally starting to put it together. Eek.
What Did We Learn?
Brook Lopez—who missed both halves of the B2B due to personal reasons—has gotten a very undeserved bad rap from certain misguided segments of the fan base this year, who think his rim protection has slipped as he closes in on 36 years of age, and also like to gripe about his volume of three-point attempts (which have been falling pretty often lately... and I’m not hearing the complaints). To the defensive point, I present to those naysayers this contest as exhibit A.
While it’s true that Milwaukee’s interior defense is worse this season than last, you can hardly pin that on Lopez, who again ranks among the league leaders in both shots challenged and blocked. If you prefer the eye test, well... last night was pretty telling. Utah got free underneath frequently, lobbing Milwaukee to death, particularly in the second half as they were starting to make their move and then as they poured it on in the fourth. The 50-30 Jazz edge in terms of points in the paint—a night after the Bucks outscored the Mavs 64-40—belies how easily they could score over Portis down low.
While not a deterrent, Bobby Portis was still effective.
Getting his first start of the season, Portis finished with 27 points on 11/20 from the floor, including a 4/7 mark from downtown in 36 minutes. While I dispute the notion that he “feeds off the Fiserv Forum crowd’s energy” or whatever such cliche one wants to use, Portis has indeed been worse on the road this year and over his career as a Buck, so this was nice. The hope is that he can have a similar impact off the bench, where he hasn’t been all that consistent this year. While this was a strong effort offensively, he had nothing for the likes of Olynyk and Walker Kessler on the other end.
A.J. Green might be able to crack veteran-loving Doc Rivers’ rotation.
Soon after he entered midway through the first quarter, Lisa Byington and Steve Novak mentioned on the broadcast how Rivers was impressed by Green’s efforts in Dallas the other night. The second-year sharpshooter rewarded his new boss’ faith by burying his first three longballs before missing a well-earned heat check. He even grabbed a few nice boards and looked solid defensively. Sadly for Green fans like our Kyle Carr, that was where the good times ended, as he missed both his shots in the second half and looked pretty invisible.
Dame’s yo-yo January continues into February.
Recently, some have made pretty bold statements about Damian Lillard’s struggles after/during his shoddier efforts, seemingly ignoring his sterling ones like Saturday’s 30 points on eleven shots (including a perfect 5/5 from three). For starters, he was dealing with an ankle injury on Sunday (more on that below). Moreover, it’s true that 12 points on 5/18 while whiffing on all but one of eight shots from beyond the arc isn’t going to be enough on a night where Middleton and Lopez aren’t playing. It’s also true that the man is dealing with some difficult situations off-the-court, so maybe just lay off him a bit, haters. The order of operations should be “he’s sometimes not playing well, but I understand he’s in a tough situation personally” and not the other way around.
Bonus Bucks Bits
- As mentioned, Lopez and Middleton sat, the latter because it was a SEGABABA and he put in a season-high 38 minutes in Texas.
- Dame and Giannis were both listed on the injury report today but played. The latter is dealing with tendinitis in his right patella, which was not the one he had surgery on last offseason. The former was said to have a left ankle sprain.
- Regarding the ankle, Novak stated that at a team brunch this morning, Lillard said something to the effect of “this is how I know I’m getting old: my ankle hurts and I don’t even remember spraining it.” However, after throwing down a dunk late in the third, he came down kind of hard on said ankle and limped up the court. Though he returned to the game after being subbed out, this is something to watch going forward.
- Late in the first half, Sexton caught Giannis with an elbow to the face and got past him for a bucket. As he headed back down the court, he jawed at Giannis before Malik Beasley came screaming across the court to hip-check him to the floor in retribution. Both sides had to be separated and no further extracurriculars ensued, but both Sexton and Beasley were hit with technicals.
- The Jazz played five players the entire fourth and just one (Markkanen) was a starter. Kessler, Olynyk, Jordan Clarkson, and rookie Keyonte George handily outplayed a group that mostly featured the Bucks’ starters.
- An under-discussed element of Giannis’ under-discussed MVP case this year is his big improvement year-over-year from the midrange. Last night he was a perfect 4/4 between 18–20 feet, hardly grazing the rim on any of those makes as Utah gave him plenty of space. He’s shooting a career-best 45.7% this season between three and ten feet, a full 10% better than last year and even better than 2020–21 (40.1%) and 2021–22 (42.1%), when it looked like he had found something. He’s also attempting 25.3% of his shots in that area, also a career hight. While he’s far off from his second MVP campaign and that 2021–22 performance at 35.1% between 10–16 feet and 34.8% between 16 feet and the three-point line, last night bumped those numbers up a bit.
- Just a very efficient night all around from The Greek Freak. Of his four misses, two were threes, and two were in the restricted area (though he made his other six looks from there). Surprisingly, he fell short of another triple-double in the rebounds column with seven.
- I discussed how Lopez’s absence affected the Bucks’ interior defense, but a nearly equally big issue was how much they missed his boxing out on both the offensive and defensive glass. Utah outrebounded Milwaukee 52-32, and the home team got thirteen second-chance points to the visitors’ four. The Jazz had thirteen attempts at another bucket while the Bucks had only five.