During October, the Milwaukee Bucks performed like a well-oiled machine. They won all seven games, six in a row by double digits after squeaking out a one-point win on opening night.
However, the Bucks have sputtered a bit in November. Heading into Friday’s 8:30 p.m. clash with the Chicago Bulls at Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee has alternated losses and wins during the first half of the month.
While frustrating losses, including Wednesday’s uneven performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, have been balanced out by impressive road wins over the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets, the Bucks know the current pattern doesn’t reflect their goals or talent level.
“That’s been on my mind a little bit this morning,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said following practice Thursday. “We obviously need to continue that cycle for one more game and then break it. Just that attention to detail, that focus every day, I think those are the things that are going to get you over the top where you can start stringing together success and feeling good.”
During the first 14 games of the season, as well as the Bucks have played overall, they’ve had a tendency to get behind early before bouncing back.
Sometimes all it takes is an early timeout to kick things into gear. Sometimes it just takes getting to the second quarter, a period in which the Bucks have excelled this season. Sometimes, though, their inability to get going lingers with them throughout the game, setting them seriously behind and necessitating double-digit runs just to make things competitive, as was the case Nov. 1 against the Boston Celtics and Wednesday night against the Grizzlies.
“I think we’re trying to get a feeling, a rhythm for the game instead of just going out there and establishing it,” wing Khris Middleton said.
The Bucks’ problems have come when they haven’t been able to quickly turn things around and dictate the tempo. They’re 2-4 when trailing after the first quarter and their record gets worse the later in the game they’re still behind. The Bucks are 0-3 when trailing at halftime and 0-4 when down heading into the fourth quarter.
The Bucks have had plenty of opportunities to end games in a more positive fashion. Against the Celtics, they squandered multiple fourth-quarter possessions that could have tied the game despite opening the period down by 15. In Los Angeles, the Bucks hunkered down on defense to rally and force overtime before falling to the Clippers.
On Wednesday, Milwaukee used a 27-4 run to turn a 15-point deficit into an eight-point lead with nine minutes remaining but got knocked down by Memphis’ counterpunch.
With five games remaining in their current home stand, the Bucks know they have work to do in order to return to the level of consistency they had to start the season.
“We’ve just got to stay focused, stay locked in as a team,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve been winning, losing, winning, losing, but I think overall we’ve had a great season. But we can do better. We can do a lot better.”
Bringing the energy: Seldom used this season, Thon Maker knows his role. An energetic force off the bench, the 7-foot-1 center sees the talented players ahead of him in the rotation and recognizes that if he’s going to get playing time he’s going to need to work hard in practice and be prepared to make an impact on the night’s when he does get the call to sub in.
One of those nights was Wednesday, marking Maker’s first meaningful minutes since Oct. 29. When he came in, the Bucks were down by 15 with 2 1/2 minutes to play in the third quarter.
Maker immediately recorded a block then continued flying around on defense while throwing a different look at Grizzlies center Marc Gasol that proved to be successful. Add in a three-pointer during Milwaukee’s 27-4 run over 5 1/2 minutes and Maker made a major impression on his coach.
“Thon was great,” Budenholzer said. “Looking at the film again this morning, his energy and activity was really good. He brought us a great boost. We went from down 15 to up eight. I think that’s part of his calling card. It’s great to have Thon step in and play well.”
Budenholzer has noticed Maker getting after it at practice and throwing himself fully into his daily vitamins – the team’s term for individual workouts. That hard work, discipline and a positive attitude combined with Maker consistently performing well in spot minutes are the kinds of things that have Budenholzer inclined to give the 21-year-old more opportunities.
His teammates have taken notice, too.
“I’m happy for him,” Antetokounmpo said. “I hope he gets even more opportunities because we need him as a team. We want him to be ready and stay ready for us because it’s a long season. And he’s definitely going to get an opportunity because he’s putting in a lot of hard work at practice.”
Injury update: Rookie Donte DiVincenzo left in the second quarter Wednesday due to left knee soreness and did not practice Thursday. His status for Friday’s game had not yet been determined by the time Budenholzer spoke with the media after practice.