Through 24 minutes, the Milwaukee Bucks were an absolute wreck Friday night against the Chicago Bulls at Fiserv Forum.
Milwaukee’s usually high-flying offense had been grounded by uncharacteristic selfishness. On defense, they looked uncoordinated as Justin Holiday splashed six three-pointers and former Buck Jabari Parker cooked them to the tune of 17 points by halftime in his first regular-season game against the Bucks.
The Bucks went into halftime with an 18-point deficit, just 45 points to their name and playing their least inspired basketball of the season against what on paper was their worst opponent.
The thing about rock bottom, though, is the only way to go from there is up.
BOX SCORE: Bucks 123, Bulls 104
Milwaukee’s bounce back was the kind of thing you don’t see every day. Thanks to a 46-point third quarter – one more point than they scored in the whole first half – the Bucks made a 180-degree turnaround, dominating the rest of the game on the way to waxing the Bulls, 123-104.
According to Basketball-Reference, the largest margin of victory for a team that trailed by 18 points or more at halftime was 20 points, which the Miami Heat accomplished in November 2015 in a game against the Houston Rockets. If it weren’t for a Bulls basket in the final minute, the Bucks would have eclipsed that record.
Still, the turnaround matched the second-largest halftime deficit the Bucks have overcome in franchise history.
“I think it’s fairly obvious with the difference with us between the first and second halves,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I thought the competitive spirit, the competitiveness, the toughness, the energy, the effort, and the focus, all those things you have to have, were apparent in the third and fourth quarter. Hopefully, as a group, we can think about what we want to do that from the start of the game to the end of the game. Give credit to the players, playing a half like they did.”
While Budenholzer gave the players the credit, they pointed the finger back at their head coach.
Point guard Eric Bledsoe noted that most of the Bucks are players who like to lead by example and that there aren’t a lot of talkers in the locker room. When Budenholzer came in, he had plenty to say. While the exact content of his speech won’t leave the locker room, the tone certainly made an impression.
“Coach came in and he let us know we weren’t putting enough effort and energy into the game and we had no pace on offense – we were trying to do it ourselves,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “He was mad. He was really upset. But he believes in us, he trusts us. We don’t have to have that type of half for us to pick it up. We have to be able to – from the first minute of the game – be able to set the tone and do what we do.”
Getting back to doing what they do is how the Bucks flipped the game around. They moved the ball on offense, knocked down three-pointers and most importantly, locked down on defense.
Milwaukee got cooking with a 7-0 run to start the third quarter and the success snowballed from there. Bledsoe, who finished with 25 points on 10 of 13 shooting to go with six assists, four rebounds and three steals, put his fingerprints all over the third quarter, breaking up passes on defense and slicing through the defense for buckets and kickouts on the way to scoring 14 points in the period.
The team’s other two stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, kicked their games into high gear as well. They combined for 20 points in the period and finished the game with 23 apiece as the Bucks put their foot on the gas pedal and never let up.
When the buzzer sounded on the third quarter – with a Bledsoe three-pointer beating the buzzer – the Bucks had used a 46-17 run to take an 11-point lead into the fourth. Add in the last minute of the second quarter and the Bucks’ run was 50-17, during which they went 7 of 13 on three-pointers.
Defensively, the Bucks went from scrambling on defense to holding the Bulls to 6 of 23 from the field in the third, with the 29-point margin tying a Chicago record for the largest deficit in a quarter.
“We knew we had to buckle down,” Bledsoe said. “Their record don’t speak, but they got a talented group over there and they came out hungry and we had to match that intensity.”
As the offense started flowing, the shots started falling and the defense strung together stops, the Bucks started to display the confidence and swagger that had eluded them. During the third-quarter run, Thon Maker — in the rotation due to John Henson’s left wrist injury — swatted a Zach LaVine shot deep into the stands, drawing a roar from the sellout crowd. Antetokounmpo then approached him and put his hand above his eyes and feigned peering into the seats for the ball only for Maker to point out where it landed.
After a sloppy, frustrating first half, the Bucks had found their fun again. They had fallen behind by as many as 22 points during their inital sleepwalk but found a way to flip that around, growing their margin to as many as 22 in the fourth quarter with what amounted to a 73-33 run.
Brook Lopez played a notable role in the comeback, connecting on two of his four three-pointers during the third quarter, and finished with 14 points. Malcolm Brogdon, too, shook off an early slump to join the rest of the starters in double figures with 13 points.
Now the challenge for the Bucks as they head into Monday’s game against the Denver Nuggets will be to solve their issues with slow starts, something that has plagued them throughout the young season.
“I feel like if we get better in that part of the game we’re going to be a really dangerous team,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re not going to have the other team knock us in the mouth first and we’re going to be able to set the tone.”