Coming off a 43-point thrashing of the Portland Trail Blazers – the team with the best record in the Western Conference heading into Wednesday’s game – the Milwaukee Bucks hosted the Phoenix Suns, which entered Friday’s contest at the other end of the West standings.
Easy, right? Not so fast.
Milwaukee, particularly its starters, looked listless and disconnected for long stretches. That both allowed the Suns to maintain control for most of the game and prompted Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to go deep into his bench as he searched for a combination of players that would give his team a spark.
BOX SCORE: Suns 116, Bucks 114
Thanks to a bench-led surge late in the third quarter, the starting unit was given the chance to close out the game. They came to life, using a 14-0 run over nearly six minutes to take a six-point lead with 78 seconds left.
But they couldn’t hold it. Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo lost the ball on final-minute possessions and veteran Suns guard Jamal Crawford hit a 17-footer with 0.8 seconds left. Middleton then swished a corner three-pointer, but due to a bobble his attempt came after the clock expired, sending the Bucks to an embarrassing 116-114 loss at Fiserv Forum, snapping their three-game win streak.
Based on their overall play, it was a game the Bucks (13-5) didn’t deserve to win. Outside of Antetokounmpo, who had a season-high 35 points on 14 of 16 shooting along with 10 rebounds, Milwaukee’s starting unit was lacking through much of the night.
Brook Lopez had a historically bad shooting night, missing all 12 of his three-point attempts despite most of them coming on quality looks. Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon put up solid offensive numbers, but turnovers, inconsistent defensive effort and ill-timed mistakes led to each of them sitting for extended minutes at certain points in the game.
For a team that has bounced back the third quarter numerous times, Bucks failed to flip the switch after taking a three-point deficit into the break. With their starters on the floor for much of that period, they fell behind by as many as 12 points as Suns guard Devin Booker caught fire as part of a 29-point night.
With less than four minutes left in the third, Budenholzer went with a lineup of Antetokounmpo, Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova.
For the first time all night, that unit strung together defensive stops, including an Antetokounmpo steal and a pair of Ilyasova charges. They translated that to success on offense as the Bucks churned out an 11-0 run to end the quarter within one point.
It stayed close throughout the fourth before the Bucks made their move. Buoyed again by active defense, they embarked on an impressive 14-0 run over nearly six minutes, rattling the Suns as coach Igor Kokoskov and Booker earned technical fouls.
But Milwaukee couldn’t finish. Its last points came with 3 minutes 26 seconds left on a free throw by Brogdon. After that, Lopez missed a pair of three-pointers and Bledsoe had a triple go in and out. Then Middleton missed a layup, had a jumper blocked off him out of bounds and Antetokounmpo lost the ball on a critical drive with less than 15 seconds left.
Now, the Bucks will have to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it – and quickly – as they host the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night.