MILWAUKEE – Sunday morning pitched two veteran Boomers against each other, as Patty Mills and the San Antonio Spurs visited Milwaukee for the first of their two meetings this season.
It was the first time San Antonio had squared off against the Bucks without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker since February 21, 1997. On that night, current Milwaukee assistant coach Vin Baker, led the Bucks in scoring with 27 points.
Speaking before the game, head coach Gregg Popovich explained to The Pick and Roll –eventually, after a very humorous ‘Pop’ interaction-- what Mills means to this Spurs team, in the wake of the Hall of Fame trio's departure.
“He’s our inspiration. He’s an ultimate warrior,” Popovich said. “He gives everything he’s got all the time. He feels responsible to everyone and he’s always pumping everybody else up. He’s just a wonderful teammate. He’s a huge part of everything we are.”
The exchange preceding that answer --seen in the tweet below-- was my initiation to what is the inevitable gouging by coach Popovich in the media scrum. Fortunately for my sake, the back-and-forth was friendly banter, met with plenty of laughs, and a smirk from Popovich. I was determined to capture a quote for what was a genuine storyline. After all, Mills has become an integral piece of the post-Big 3 Spurs system, and a part of the new Spurs leadership.
Nonetheless, when you have a Hall of Fame coach challenging you from less than a metre away, it's still an intimidating moment. I was however, far from the only journalist who was on the receiving end of coach Pop's sarcasm this night.
Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked Popovich what it meant to coach against a former assistant of his, Mike Budenholzer. This was met with a typically blunt response that garnered further laughs.
"Absolutely nothing... what, do you want me to cry, pull out a picture of him from my wallet?"
Then, there was Eric Nehm of the Athletic, who asked whether Popovich's distaste for the 3-point shot would cause some conflict between him and Budenholzer.
"This has nothing to do with Bud! I could get you a job in politics if you want to start crap like that," Popovich said with a wry smile.
What a session it was. It was my first time encountering the coaching legend, and it was everything I expected and more. One thing's for sure, it's the first time I've laughed that much in a pre-game presser.
The Bucks were coming off their worst performance of the season just 24 hours earlier, having dropped a close one to the Phoenix Suns, 116-114. Losses have been few and far between for Mike Budenholzer’s squad, but they’ve responded viciously to those losses, winning all four games by an average 21 points.
In an eerily similar story to the night before, the Bucks once again found themselves up by six points late in the fourth, this time with just 1:52 on the clock. Unlike 24 hours earlier, the Bucks were able to come up with two huge buckets, one an acrobatic finish at the rim by Eric Bledsoe, the other, a dagger three by Malcolm Brogdon that drew the loudest roar of the season from the Bucks fans in attendance.
Those thunderous roars of jubilation were hushed earlier in the fourth quarter however, as the Spurs opened up an 11-point lead with just 11:01 left in the game. Rumblings of frustration could be heard from the crowd, who have become accustomed to watching their side rattle off wins at Fiserv Forum.
The attendance of 17,559 was the third straight sell out for the Bucks, who have well and truly captivated local fans, who chanted MVP in unison during the fourth quarter as Giannis Antetokounmpo shot two of his staggering 13 final quarter free throws.
Following on from 24 hours earlier, Budenholzer called on Matthew Dellavedova earlier than usual, entering him into the game in the first quarter. The moved paid dividends, as Dellavedova was able to knock down a trademark floater, before dishing on two buckets before the period ended.
Both Dellavedova and Thon Maker finished with five points for the night, but it was once again the solid play from Delly that drew Bledsoe's praise, who along with his teammates, was all smiles in the locker room post-game.
“Huge, like I said earlier. [Matthew Dellavedova] came in and played some great minutes for us. He wasn’t playing, now he’s playing and producing,” Bledsoe said.
It's certainly a notable development for Dellavedova, who hadn't sniffed meaningful minutes through the seasons first 17 games. The pending return of impressive rookie Donte DiVincenzo will likely put a dent in the Australians place in the rotation, but for now, he has proven to his coach and teammates that he can be plugged in at any given time.
Mills on the other hand, played his customary key role for the Spurs, but his impact was largely subdued, tallying nine points while dishing three assists in his 22 minutes on court. He did finish with a +18 on the boxscore however, as the Spurs second unit proved potent on the night, none more so than Davis Bertans, who dropped 17 points on 4-for-7 from beyond the arc.
Mills was unavailable for comment post-game, in what was a largely a quiet Spurs locker room.
The win improved Milwaukee to 14-5 on the season, while the Spurs find themselves in unfamiliar territory, below .500 at 9-10.
After a lengthy stay at home, the Bucks will now return to Charlotte, where they kicked off their season with a one-point win, while the Spurs head to Chicago in an attempt to get back to level pegging on the season.
The Milwaukee Bucks face the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday morning - Tip-off is at 11:00am (AEST)
San Antonio take on the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday - Tip-off is at 12:00pm (AEST)