MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks’ first possession on Sunday afternoon started, as so many of their possessions do, with Giannis Antetokounmpo bringing the ball up the floor. Half-a-dozen passes later, and after multiple touches in and around the paint, it finished with a wide-open 3-point attempt by Khris Middleton. He missed the shot, but the process was more important than the result, and proved to be a strong omen for the Bucks.
A few hours later, they had secured one of their most impressive victories of the season, a 106-103 triumph over the visiting San Antonio Spurs. “San Antonio is a really good team,” Antetokounmpo, who returned from a one-game absence caused by a sprained ankle, said after the win. “They have been playing really good lately. I think we did a great job setting the tone, coming out playing hard defensively and running. We were running all night and they had to adjust to that.”
The victory ended the Spurs’ six-game winning streak, and also moved the Bucks into seventh place in the Eastern Conference at 39-34, half a game ahead of the Miami Heat. (The Heat do own the tiebreaker.) Most importantly, though, it was a performance that showed just why so many people believe the Bucks can be dangerous in the postseason.
Everyone knows about all of the talent on the roster. Alongside Giannis, they have Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker, who together make up an impressive supporting cast. And that quartet had it going on Sunday, combining for 75 points. Bledsoe, in particular, was impressive, finishing with 23 points on 9 of 15 shooting, five assists and three rebounds. And the Bucks are a much better team when he’s attacking — getting into the paint either for himself or to create open shots for others — instead of settling for jumpers.
But the way the Bucks play is more important than simply having the talent, and they were playing exactly the right way on Sunday.
They were attacking right from the opening tip, playing downhill, getting the ball into the paint, and sharing it without hesitation. Of their 42 made field goals, 27 were assisted. It was the 22nd time the Bucks have recorded 27 or more assists in a game this season; they’re 15-7 when they reach that number, and 24-27 when they don’t.
“They were very active, and [coach] Joe [Prunty] has them moving the ball, rebounding and doing a good job,” Gregg Popovich said following his team’s loss.
On the other end of the floor, the Bucks succeeded in keeping the Spurs from getting going from the 3-point line, holding them to just 4-for-17 from downtown. Admittedly, the Spurs are one of the poorer 3-point shooting teams in the league, and they missed a few open looks, but it was once again a good sign for the Bucks. Including the Spurs’ 23.5 percent performance, Milwaukee is now 16-0 this season when keeping teams below 30 percent from 3.
“That’s what we wanted to do,” John Henson said in regards to defending the 3-point line. “If they kept taking tough 2s and fadeaways, we’d be alright, as long as we don’t give up 3s. We gave them a couple crucial ones at the end, but overall we stuck it out. The Spurs are a good team, so that’s a good win.”
It was indeed a good win, and the type of performance that makes you at least understand where people such as Charles Barkley are coming from when they pick the Bucks as a dark-horse contender in the East. As esteemed Bucks writer Eric Nehm tweeted on Twitter, “When national folks say, ‘Nobody wants to see the Bucks in the first round,’ ” this is the Bucks team they think they’re talking about.
The next step for Milwaukee, and one they’ve had trouble with all season long, is playing like this consistently — both from quarter to quarter, and game to game. “This is why you show film,” Prunty said after his team’s victory, in regards to how playing a complete game could help the Bucks moving forward.
“We’ve done it before. This isn’t the first game. It’s obviously the most recent. … So now, with a game like this where we do play very well and have multiple people contribute, there’s a lot of things to build on.”