MILWAUKEE- The NBA's last two undefeated teams squared off in a historic showdown at Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee.
It would sound like hyperbole when one describes an October matchup as historic, but it's not too far from the truth. According to Elias Sports, it's the first time two squads with a record of 6-0 or better have faced off in a regular season contest.
A franchise that has often been looked over in the Wisconsin sports scene, the Milwaukee Bucks are gaining traction among locals, as excitement continues to build about their prospects. The game suffered a significant blow however, when Giannis Antetokounmpo (concussion) and Kawhi Leonard (rest) were ruled out of the game earlier in the day.
Despite both franchises missing their marquee stars, the overwhelming feeling as you walked around the arena was a palpable mix of excitement and anticipation. This should come as no shock, given the Bucks were playing to match their best start to an NBA season since 1971/72.
Thon Maker spoke with The Pick and Roll after the Bucks last matchup with Orlando, noting the good vibes among the group, while stressing there was no added motivation required when facing this Raptors squad.
“Everybody feels great, we’re fresh even though we just played a back-to-back," Maker said.
"We didn’t play that many minutes and me personally, [heading] into this game is going to be awesome. We faced them a few years ago in the playoffs, so there’s already added motivation, but you have to respect them because they’re 6-0 too.”
After getting fourth quarter minutes in back-to-back contests, Antetokoumpo's absence provided Maker with further opportunity to work his way into the regular rotation.
"We'll keep tinkering with [the rotation], but my guess is Thon will get an opportunity and we'll see where it goes passed that. Some smaller guys might play some more, [but] we're going to need more minutes from certain guys."
As Budenholzer hinted, Maker did indeed come off the bench early, checking in with 5:41 remaining in the first period. As he did in his season debut, he connected on an early 3-point attempt to lock the game up at 26 with 2:29 remaining in the first quarter.
After the Orlando game, Maker explained some of the difficulties his sporadic minutes can cause, when trying to find rhythm and shake off early season rust.
“It’s tough sometimes just to find that rhythm and slow the game down,” he explained.
“You don’t have that right away, because [if you play] the full game and you come back in the second time, the game is slower.”
True to his word, Maker’s second stint came during a pivotal run for Milwaukee. The 7-foot-1 big man poured in seven points for the period, including a second long range bomb and a dunk off after a beautifully timed baseline cut to receive the Khris Middleton dime.
The Bucks outscored the Raptors 32-24 for the period, opening up a nine point edge at the half, with the home crowd sensing another runaway victory was on the cards.
True to early season form, the second half barrage arrived, and the Raptors simply had no answer to the Milwaukee onslaught. By the time Matthew Dellavedova checked into the game with 4:29 remaining, the lead had ballooned to 25 points. The only question remaining, was whether or not the Bucks, stuck on 19 3-point makes, could connect on another triple to break the franchise record.
With each attempt, the crowd simultaneously rose as one, but ultimately were left disappointed, as both Dellavedova and Maker joined a group of players to miss out on topping that mark.
After the game ended, Maker’s influence on the Bucks gaining separation from the Raptors was not lost on Budenholzer, who pointed to his interrupted preseason as a valid reason for his early season absence in the rotation.
“It was great for Thon. He had a little bit of a tough preseason with being banged up and not being able to practice or [being able to] play,” Budenholzer said. “He wants to play so badly, he’s such a great worker, competitor, all those things, I thought he was huge in the first half. His minutes, his shot making, I thought it was a big part of the first half [run].”
In the Bucks locker room post game, the music was pumping – as it has been after every home victory this season. A vibrant mood greeted the visiting media, a collective that has steadily grown in number from previous games, as the Bucks continue to impress.
The Pick and Roll caught up with Maker away from the throng, where he touched on benefiting from early minutes and being able to work his way into the contest, in what was his first meaningful minutes of 2018/19.
“When I come back in the second time, the game is super slow,” Maker said. “That’s me finding my rhythm. There was a time in high school where I used to start the game and check myself out after the first whistle and then come back in, and the game was slower.”
The Bucks' second unit outscored the Raptors 48-32, and Maker went on to talk about the confidence the undefeated Milwaukee squad have in their system, even when their franchise superstar is forced to sit out.
“We’re definitely confident as a unit [without Antetokounmpo]. The system is set up for everybody to succeed, so as a team you have to respect each guy and stay ready, because anyone can shoot. With the new system, you’ve just go to trust it, and we do.”
Maker would finish the night with those 11 first half points, adding seven rebounds, two assists and a block shot in 23:13 of playing time.
When it was all said and done, the Bucks had once again blown out a fellow Eastern Conference contender. While both teams where missing their key star, it was hard not to walk away thinking anything other than this team is the real deal.
Bucks fans gleefully chanted, “This is awesome!” as time wound down in the final quarter, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment.
After convincingly handling each of the projected challengers in the conference through the season’s first two weeks, the Bucks have one last road block in an attempt to reach what would be a franchise record 8-0 start to the season.
The TD Garden in Boston awaits - the same venue Milwaukee had their season crushed in Game 7 of the first round in April. As far as early season contests come, this one will mean something for this group, who has its sights firmly set on ensuring their season continues beyond April this time around.