This summer, the Milwaukee Bucks set out to assemble the best possible roster to compete at the highest levels of the NBA.
Obviously, that meant getting the right pieces to put around superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, having a strong supporting cast doesn’t mean much if they only work around the star. In order to be the best version of themselves, the Bucks needed to find the combination of talents to fit within coach Mike Budenholzer’s system regardless of who was on the court.
With Antetokounmpo sitting behind the bench in a salmon-colored suit while in the concussion protocol Monday night, his teammates demonstrated that, unlike years past, they’re more than up for the challenge without their leader.
In a battle of 6-0 teams against the Toronto Raptors, who were also without their superstar Kawhi Leonard, the Bucks didn’t miss a beat in a 124-109 victory at Fiserv Forum.
“As another team’s defense, you’ve got to find a way to respect everybody on the floor at all times,” Bucks center Thon Maker said. “The system’s set up for everybody to succeed if we just do our jobs. We did a great job of doing that tonight. (Antetokounmpo) had our back, having that beautiful suit on the sideline, too.”
BOX SCORE: Bucks 124, Raptors 109
By virtue of the win, Milwaukee moved to 7-0 and became the only remaining unbeaten team in the NBA, a title they’ll carry into November and a matchup with the Boston Celtics on Thursday. For the seventh consecutive game, the Bucks led by 16 points or more, with that lead growing to as many as 25 in the fourth quarter.
Milwaukee’s victory was the consummate team effort, something that has been a hallmark of the team in the early days of Budenholzer’s tenure. No Bucks player scored more than 20 points and seven reached double figures. Ersan Ilyasova, who filled in for Antetokounmpo as a starter, led the Bucks with a collected 19 points and 10 rebounds, much of his output coming in the first half as he made his presence felt early by scoring Milwaukee’s first five points and 14 before halftime.
“Offensively, we play with a lot of randomness, a lot of ball movement, a lot of people movement. It’s not as orchestrated or choreographed maybe some other situations,” Budenholzer said before the game. “I think it gives us a chance to be successful without a player like Giannis and not have the drop-off … when a team or players are used to just kind of sitting there and watching one guy be amazing.”
In year past, if Antetokounmpo didn’t play and Khris Middleton was a mere 1 of 7 from the field in the first three quarters, a 15-point margin would be expected, with the Bucks doing the trailing. Instead, under those exact conditions, it was Milwaukee that took a 15-point advantage into the game’s final quarter.
“Of course, we have more confidence with (Antetokounmpo) on the floor, but we have a lot of confidence even when he’s not on the floor due to the system, due to the confidence that (Budenholzer) gives us,” Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon said.
Along with Ilyasova’s strong effort, Maker came back to life, something he’s been known to do against Toronto. Moved up in the rotation by Antetokounmpo’s absence, Maker scored all 11 of his points in the first half and added seven rebounds in an efficient performance ripped from the pages of playoffs past.
“It’s great for Thon,” Budenholzer said. “I think he had a little bit of a tough preseason with just being banged up and not being able to practice, not being able to play in several preseason games. 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 minute, his shot-making – I thought it was a huge part of the first half.”
In a game in which the Bucks shot 48.9% from the field, tied their franchise record with 19 triples and spread out 29 assists, there were plenty of strong individual offensive performances.
Eric Bledsoe collected 17 points and eight assists. Malcolm Brogdon continued his streak of dynamic play with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists. Middleton woke up from his slow start with a trio of triples in the fourth quarter to reach 14 points. Donte DiVincenzo had 12 points, including a triple to end the third quarter that brought the Fiserv Forum crowd to full throat, as well as eight assists. Tony Snell added 11 points on an efficient 4 of 5 shooting.
“I think we’ve got really good players,” Budenholzer said. “The roster here was in a great place. … Great additions with Brook (Lopez) and Ersan that really are great players. You just kind of build it around those guys. Giannis, Khris, Eric, you go up and down, Malcolm, the players are always the key. Anyone that thinks something different is crazy.”
In a game that was supposed to lose its luster with the two marquee stars sitting out, the Bucks still put together a sterling performance. Maybe it’s not the kind of game you can use to extrapolate what may happen in the playoffs, but for right now, the take-home message is the Bucks are clearly a force to be reckoned with.
And they’re still the only unbeaten team in the league.
“Honestly, I knew we were a very good team preseason,” Brogdon said. “Sometimes how good you think you are doesn’t predict … wins, but I knew we were capable of having the start we’ve had.”