The Milwaukee Bucks came into last night’s game against the Phoenix Suns expecting to be without Damian Lillard (ankle sprain) and Brook Lopez (birth of a child). What was supposed to be a dual lead performance from Giannis Antetokoumpo and Khris Middleton turned into a Giannis solo act as they fell 114-106 to the Suns. The Greek Freak put up 34 points, ten rebounds, and six assists, but it was no match for the Suns’ big three of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal. The All-Star trio combined for 85 points on 51.6% shooting from the field to best Milwaukee.
The Bucks’ injury bug continued to haunt them right at the beginning of the game. Already without Damian Lillard and Brook Lopez, Milwaukee lost another key piece in Khris Middleton, who sprained his ankle after Kevin Durant’s foot landed in Middleton’s landing area. Before the injury, Middleton and Malik Beasley combined for the Bucks’ first fourteen points and had a 14-13 lead with 4:26 left in the frame. After a three-pointer from Eric Gordon gave the Suns a 22-19 lead with 1:31 to go, Giannis Antetokoumpo got to the paint for his two baskets of the night to end the quarter with the Bucks up 23-22. Both squads shot below 40% in the first quarter, but the difference came in the Bucks going 4-for-13 from beyond the arc, while the Suns shot 1-for-5 from downtown.
Now without Middleton, Doc Rivers went to the bench to sustain guard and wing play without his two All-Stars. Rivers said to TNT’s Jared Greenberg during the first quarter intermission “we pay them all, we’re gonna use them all,” and that he did by playing AJ Green and Jae Crowder for nearly 20 minutes in the first half. It did not start well for the Bucks, as the Suns scored the first seven points to take a 29-23 lead, forcing Doc Rivers to call a timeout. The timeout seemed to settle Milwaukee back into the game as they slowly inched their way back to tie the game with four straight points from Jae Crowder and a tip layup from Giannis. The two teams both struggled to get anything going offensively, but thanks to the bench, the Bucks took a 47-40 lead with 1:53 on the clock. The Suns weren’t done yet, as the duo of Devin Booker and Kevin Durant scored six of the final eight points for Phoenix to cut Milwaukee’s lead down to just one heading into the locker room, 49-48.
The Suns carried that momentum they built from the end of the second quarter to the start off the third, going a 14-5 run. That run gave Phoenix a 62-55 lead with 7:40 on the clock before the Bucks crept back into the game. After a reverse layup from Giannis put the Bucks back up four, Suns head coach Frank Vogel called a timeout to get his guys back on track. Booker scored five straight points after the timeout and pushed the Suns' lead back out to nine points. Giannis and the Bucks would respond with a counter of their own, with the two-time MVP scoring or assisting on six of the eight points Milwaukee put up to bring the game back within two. The Bucks and the Suns went back and forth throughout the rest of the quarter until Booker, Beal, and Bol Bol scored six of the next eight points to preserve the Suns’ lead, finishing the period at 79-73.
After being held to fourteen points on fourteen shots in the first three quarters, Durant turned on some of his fourth-quarter magic and scored fourteen more in the fourth alone. A six-point deficit at the end of the third quarter turned into an eleven-point deficit, with Durant and Beal spearheading the Suns offense throughout the quarter. Midway through the final stanza, the Bucks were trailing by nine points after Jae Crowder had made a layup to bring the score to 95-86 Phoenix. Former Buck Grayson Allen would score on two enormous possessions to get the Suns' offense running like a well-oiled machine. An Allen three-point make and two free throws spurred the Suns to a fourteen-point lead with 6:09 to play. The Bucks would slowly bring it back within single digits with 97 seconds on the clock. After turning the ball over on a five-second violation, Beal hit the dagger shot with 45 seconds left, putting the game out of reach at 110-99. The Bucks hit some quick layups to try to make any sort of move on the Suns lead, but by then it was too little, too late for the Bucks to have any shot.
What Did We Learn?
The defensive improvement under new head coach Doc Rivers is real. One of the most maligned aspects of the Adrian Griffin era was the lackluster defense and each game turning into an offensive shootout. Now, five games into the Doc Rivers era there has been a marked improvement on that side of the floor for the Bucks. In the five games Rivers has been coaching, the Bucks are sixteenth in defensive rating (115.8), tenth in opponent second chance points (11.8), twelfth in opponent points in the paint (50), and fourth in opponent fast break points (12.2). Tonight, all of those numbers were on display as the Bucks only allowed 19 fastbreak points, 50 points in the paint, and 19 second-chance points and forced 13 turnovers from Phoenix (which turned into 23 points for the Bucks).
There is seemingly a new energy for all five guys on the floor to play defense with intensity and new tactics to follow that energy. One of the things Rivers did against the Mavericks was he started doubling Luka Doncic in the pick-and-roll to get the ball out of Doncic’s hands. Rivers did the same thing tonight with Devin Booker and Beal, the latter of whom was relatively quiet until the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth quarter. When the Bucks get back to full strength, if they can figure out the offense, the defense will be there through this growing process.
Malik Beasley is finding his footing in February.
January was the worst month for Beasley in a Bucks uniform, averaging just 9.9 points per game with eight games of scoring in single digits. After a rough game against the Mavericks, Beasley has rebounded in his last two, scoring a combined 38 points (19 per game) on 10-for-20 shooting from beyond the arc (50%). Last night was his best performance scoring-wise, totaling up 22 points to go along with four rebounds and two assists. Beasley is heating up at the right time not only for the Bucks but for himself as he prepares for the three-point competition during All-Star Weekend.
Cam Payne redemption tour?
With Lillard out and then Middleton exiting in the first quarter, Cam Payne was thrust into a bigger role off the bench and he made some solid plays for the Bucks. The former Phoenix Sun finished with eleven points, four rebounds, three assists, and had one turnover in 23 minutes of action. It was the first time that Payne had played 20+ minutes in a game since Dec. 27 against the Brooklyn Nets. While it wasn’t a perfect performance, Payne showed he can be an excellent first guard off the bench, even with some of his ill-advised shot selection.
Free-throw shooting doomed the Bucks.
Milwaukee and Phoenix were fairly even in most of the stat categories from yesterday’s contest. The biggest glaring one was the Bucks’ inability to hit free throws and hit them in clutch situations. On the game, Milwaukee went just 15-for-25 from the charity stripe and 7-of-15 in the fourth quarter. Giannis himself had five misses on his own, which could have brought the Bucks closer to the Suns in the fourth.
Bonus Bucks Bits
- First an update on Khris Middleton’s ankle sprain. According to Doc Rivers, Middleton had an x-ray done and it came back negative. He was walking out of the locker room in crutches and a boot, according to Eric Nehm of The Athletic:
While the x-rays were negative, Khris Middleton just walked out of the arena in a walking boot and crutches.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) February 7, 2024
- The reason that Brook Lopez was out of the lineup last night was that he became a father for the first time. So a big congratulations to Brook and his wife Hailee on their child!
Brook Lopez just became a father— ³⁴ (@GiannisWorld) February 6, 2024
Congrats to the big man pic.twitter.com/E5DQGSRs1H
- Last night marked the 30th time this season that Giannis has put up 30+ points. February has been very kind to Antetokoumpo so far, with him recording 30 or more points in each contest this month, including 48 points against Dallas this past Saturday. In the three games so far, Giannis is averaging 40.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
- It had been 1,000 days since the Milwaukee Bucks have lost on a Tuesday. Milwaukee came in with the most consecutive wins on Tuesday in NBA history with 26 straight wins. Their last loss came on April 6, 2021, against the Golden State Warriors. It was a one-point loss where Giannis did not play and Jrue Holiday had 29, while Jeff Teague had fourteen off the bench. Steph Curry had 41 for Golden State and Kelly Oubre had nineteen on four made three-pointers.