MILWAUKEE – For the first time this season, the Milwaukee Bucks faced the same team for a second time, as they hosted the Denver Nuggets at Fiserv Forum.
Despite a rare sluggish performance, the home side ran out 104-98 winners. The win improved Milwaukee to 12-4 on the season, and a dominant 8-1 on their home floor.
Despite some hairy moments, the crowd once again had the arena walls reverberating in the final minutes, as the Bucks came up clutch. Khris Middleton buried a tightly contested step back 3-pointer with just 27 seconds left on the clock, extending the Bucks' lead to five.
According to Bucks PR, the win gives Milwaukee their best 16 game start to a season since 1985-86.
The two-game win streak comes on the back of losing their primary back-up center John Henson to a left wrist injury. The injury has seemingly given Thon Maker a primary path back into the rotation, and Denver head coach Michael Malone spoke pre-game about Maker's potential impact.
“Thon Maker hit three 3-pointers and took seven against Chicago last game,” Malone said. “He’s long, he’s active, he gives them great length on defense and he’s another guy that’s going to space the floor and take 3-point shots. He’s shown over the last couple of years that he can make that shot.”
Despite positive performances from Maker last week, tonight was far from his best showing. The big man only played four minutes to start the second quarter, and two fumbles with the ball, highlighted the improvement he needs on finishing.
Maker was far from alone in having a rough night. The ugly first half was illustrated when Ersan Ilyasova blew a wide open lay-up while standing alone under the rim in the second quarter.
Trailing by ten points at half-time, MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo decided he’d had enough. He was at his physically intimidating best in the third quarter, tallying 15 of his 29 points in the period, including a number of vicious dunks that unglued the Forum crowd from their seats.
In many respects, the win felt like further affirmation that this team is a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. It was far from their best outing, but when the whips where cracking in the fourth quarter the cream rose to the top.
As has been the case all season, the post-game Bucks locker room had a calm atmosphere about it, as if the result was never in doubt. Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe knew the reason for the team's unwavering belief, in comparison to last season.
“It’s Bud. He’s told us if we are open shoot it, don’t hesitate and we’re doing it at a high rate,” Bledsoe revealed. “Unfortunately it didn’t fall for us in the first half, but later on in the game they started to connect.”
Antetokounmpo echoed his point guard's thoughts.
“This year we’ve realised how good we are and how talented we are,” he said. “We know we are gonna make shots, we know we are gonna get back in the game.”
With that level of confidence running through the Bucks locker room, it’s hard to see the best start in over 20 years coming to a halt anytime soon.
Perhaps more importantly, they don’t believe it will.
The rough night for Maker will be unlikely to impact his role in the rotation moving forward. Much like Henson previously, his minutes will be based on the impact he can have early in his first burst. Pre-game, Budenholzer spoke to about new challenges facing Maker, but as always, remains confident he will be just fine.
“He’s learning a different way to play and I think he’s enjoying both his impact defensively and what he can do offensively,” Budenholzer said. “We just got to keep him in a good space mentally.”
Matthew Dellavedova failed to see the floor on Tuesday morning, with Sterling Brown receiving some of the backup minutes made available by Bucks rookie Donte DiVincenzo’s absence. Budenholzer had alluded to Brown and Dellavedova being in line to battle for those added minutes, so it would once again seem like the gritty Australian has been overlooked to break into the rotation.
The Milwaukee Bucks are back in action on Thursday morning against the Portland Trailblazers – Tip-off is at 12:00pm (AEST)