MILWAUKEE — When two established contenders square off early in the regular season, it’s a virtual guarantee that both teams will downplay the magnitude of the meeting. But the Milwaukee Bucks, still fighting to stake their claim as one of the NBA’s best teams after a first-round playoff exit last season, openly admitted that Friday night’s showdown with the Golden State Warriors carried extra significance.
The Bucks viewed the game against the Warriors as the first part of a test that will continue against the Toronto Raptors, another aspiring contender, on Sunday. Friday was a measuring stick for how well Mike Budenholzer’s high-powered system — which rocketed Milwaukee to the NBA’s No. 1 offensive efficiency ranking heading into the game — could hold up against the back-to-back NBA champions.
“I do like the word test,” Budenholzer said before the game. “Golden State has established themselves as one of the best teams in our league. A great run that they’re on for the last three, four, five years. Anytime you play the best team in the league, they test you on both ends.”
It’s a good thing Budenholzer isn’t using a pass or fail grading rubric. The Warriors double-teamed power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo on six of his eight post-up plays — the most times he has been doubled in the post in his career, according to Second Spectrum. The strategy helped short-circuit Milwaukee’s offense, as the Warriors won 105-95 and held the Bucks to a season low in points.
“Obviously the season is not over based on this one game,” Milwaukee center Brook Lopez told ESPN after the game. “If we won the game, we wouldn’t have necessarily won the championship. We lost. It’s not the end of our season, but it’s definitely a good learning experience.”
The Bucks prepared carefully and studied diligently for this exam.
Antetokounmpo spent hours in the gym Thursday, his 24th birthday, fine-tuning his game and watching film. Malcolm Brogdon, who was fighting a cold during Wednesday’s game against Detroit, spent all of Thursday resting so that he would be at full strength. Security guards arrived to the arena earlier than usual Friday morning and rhapsodized about the weight of the game they were about to watch.
Lopez called the matchups against the Warriors and Raptors “a nice preview for the playoffs.”
The Warriors were not taking this game lightly either. After being drubbed 134-111 by the Bucks in Oakland earlier this season, every Warriors player showed up for an optional practice at Marquette University on Thursday.
“We were embarrassed a few weeks ago,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said of the Bucks. “We have an eye on them.”
The arena hummed with anticipation before tipoff. Instead of the Bucks’ usual introductions, Ohana Bam’s “Blow Your Mind” blared inside Fiserv Forum: “So you better not be the one to doubt us / ‘Cuz we gon’ blow your mind.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo comes down the lane and throws down a one-handed dunk.
But the game didn’t turn into the offensive showdown that fans had anticipated. The Bucks’ offense sputtered in the first half as the team shot just 36 percent from the field. Khris Middleton, a key offensive producer for the Bucks, was scoreless in the first half. He finished with 10 points.
Middleton did deliver on the defensive end. Under Middleton’s watch, Kevin Durant struggled to find an offensive rhythm early. His four first-half points came on free throws. It was the first time this season that Durant had failed to score a field goal in the first half. The last time Durant didn’t make a shot in a first half when playing at least two minutes was Oct. 29, 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Durant finished with 11 points.
“I don’t think of it as a pass-fail,” Budenholzer said. “There’s a ton of positives from tonight. We’d love to have won of course, but our guys competed.”
The game was a season-worst for the Bucks in points, field goal percentage (39.1 percent), 3-point percentage (17.9 percent) and assists (18). It was also the first time the Bucks failed to score 100 points. Entering Friday, they were the only team to have scored 100 points in every game this season. The Bucks also finished with more turnovers (19) than assists for the third time this season.
“We weren’t very good tonight offensively,” Budenholzer said. “I think we will learn from both ends of the court tonight.”
The Bucks will have one day to sharpen their tools and regroup before taking part two of their exam in Toronto.