CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Milwaukee Bucks were who we thought they were, carrying over a preseason full of three-pointers, offensive efficiency and double-digit leads into their season opener against the Charlotte Hornets.
Then, after a stellar first half Wednesday night, they reverted back into who they have been. The three-pointers dried up, the ball got stuck, turnovers piled up and Giannis Antetokounmpo, thanks to three offensive fouls, had his wings clipped.
In a game that included the Bucks leading by as many as 20, Milwaukee had no control over the outcome on the night’s final possession but still escaped with a 113-112 victory at Spectrum Center.
“We were a little bit sloppy with the ball,” said Antetokounmpo, who had eight of Milwaukee’s 21 turnovers. “When we’re up we tend to play bad basketball, so we’ve got to stay within our principles. We gave them a chance to believe they could come back. … Got to do a better job taking care of the ball, running our offense and moving forward and not allowing teams to come back.”
After giving up the lead for the first time since the first quarter with 36.3 seconds left, the Bucks put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands. He went inside, and after drawing plenty of contact but not as many whistles all night, earned a trip to the foul line.
With the Spectrum Center buzzing, Antetokounmpo calmly made both free throws with 24.5 seconds left.
“Gotta knock them down,” Antetokounmpo said after the game in a voice deeper and coarser than usual courtesy of a cold he’s fighting. “In that situation, you try to not think much, just try to do whatever it takes to give your team the win.”
BOX SCORE: Bucks 113, Hornets 112
As expected, Kemba Walker got the ball for the Hornets with the game on the line. The dynamic point guard already had 41 points, including 24 in the second half to fuel the comeback.
Walker used a pick-and-roll to drive on John Henson and Eric Bledsoe, but Henson kept up, contesting from the front while Bledsoe contested from behind. Walker’s layup chance didn’t fall.
Henson slapped the rebound away from the paint – right to Marvin Williams. Williams swung a pass to Nic Batum, who squared up for a wide-open look from three-point range.
The closest man to Batum, Henson could only run out from the paint and pray for a good result.
“I should have grabbed that board, but I thought time was a little lower so I hit it out,” Henson said. “I turned around and I saw it go off the backboard, but it looked good from my angle for a little bit. A win is a win.”
Antetokounmpo, who had far from his best game, came up clutch when it mattered most. He finished with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.
Khris Midldleton chipped in 19 points and Bledsoe added 17. No one was as stellar as Walker, who torched the Bucks all night long, creating off the dribble and knocking down 7 of 13 three-pointers.
“He had what, 41 points? I guess I didn’t do too good,” Bledsoe said. “He’s a tough guard, man. I thought everybody locked in on him down the stretch and kind of helped me out a little bit. It’s a team game.”
The close game materialized almost out of nowhere after the Bucks spent most of the evening keeping the Hornets at arm’s length. A 14-2 first-quarter run gave the Bucks a 15-point lead early. In the last minute of the first, a Donte DiVincenzo three-pointer gave the Bucks a lead that wouldn’t go under double digits until the fourth.
But after making 11 three-pointers in the first half, the Bucks cooled. Faced with a small-ball Hornets lineup, the Bucks stagnated, which signaled the start of the turnaround.
“It certainly put more shooting on the court for them,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think there were some defensive breakdowns. I think it was more just, I hate to say it, but in the NBA teams come back. And part of it is small ball; we tried to go big. And there were a couple possessions where big looked good, but then I think we lost track of some shooters and the momentum just swung in general.”
As Antetokounmpo picked up offensive fouls, he looked frustrated and reticent to drive and kick. Milwaukee’s 21 turnovers, included a critical giveaway by Malcolm Brogdon in the final minute, kept Charlotte alive.
For the first time this year, the Bucks – in a game their starters played – were put to the test. It wasn’t pretty, but they survived.
LOST ART: The NBA has been trending away from midrange shots for years and the Bucks have seemingly caught up to that change.
In the first quarter, Milwaukee didn’t attempt a single two-point shot outside of the paint. In the second quarter, the Bucks put up just one, with Eric Bledsoe missing from just outside the lane.
At the other end, the Bucks looked content to let the Hornets attempt as many midrange jumpers as they desired, including some that were barely contested after closeouts at the three-point line.
By the end of the night, the Bucks were 1 of 4 on two-point shots outside the paint while the Hornets were 4 of 15.
CLEANING THE GLASS: One of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA last season, the Bucks made rebounding a priority from the jump. Milwaukee corralled every Charlotte miss in the first quarter, with Antetokounmpo grabbing seven of the Bucks’ 14 defensive rebounds.
Milwaukee finished the night with a 57-46 rebounding edge, collecting 46 defensive rebounds and 11 offensive boards.
SIXTH MAN, AND SEVENTH: Ersan Ilyasova and DiVincenzo made their season debuts with 5 minutes 26 seconds left in the first quarter as Milwaukee’s first subs. Together, those two made a big impact with 19 points on 8 of 11 shooting, including going 3 for 5 on three-pointers, before halftime.
Ilyasova played a key role down the stretch, countering the Hornets’ small lineup as the Bucks’ center before fouling out late. He exited the game with 13 points, one of six Bucks players – and the only reserve – in double figures.