Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Donte DiVincenzo carried enough of the load Saturday night, so when Giannis Antetokounmpo did his usual heavy lifting the Milwaukee Bucks turned what looked like a struggle into a cruise.
Lopez didn’t miss a single shot inside the arc on his way to 25 points, Mirotic broke out of a shooting slump to make 8 of 10 shots for 18 points, and DiVincenzo provided a major spark of energy and also chipped in 11 points as the Bucks pulled away for a 131-114 victory over the Charlotte Hornets Saturday night at Fiserv Forum.
Antetokounmpo continued his drive for MVP consideration with 26 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, as the Bucks recovered from a 14-point second-quarter deficit to lead by as many as 18 in the fourth quarter. Malcolm Brogdon added 18 points for the Bucks.
The Bucks recorded their 50th victory against 16 losses, improving their lead to three games over Toronto for the NBA’s best record.
It didn’t come without a struggle in the early going. The Bucks went just 9 for 25 in the first quarter (36%), including 4 for 15 (26.7%) on 3-pointers to trail, 32-24, after a quarter.
The deficit reached 14 points in an embarrassing fashion With 7:46 left in the half, Cody Zeller made the first of two free throws to make it 43-31. The Bucks called a timeout after the first free throw. When play resumed, apparently one of the referees said “two shots.” Zeller missed the free throw, and the ball fell into the hands of Antetokounmpo, who stood still holding the ball. Zeller ran up to him and took the ball out of his hand and dunked it. Basket good.
That made it 45-31.
DiVincenzo started the Bucks on their way back by making his second 3-pointer of the quarter, and Mirotic added two more to help cut it to 59-55 at the half.
Mirotic made 6 of 10 shots (5 of 7 on threes) after going 5 for 27 (4 for 19 on threes) over the previous three games.
Lopez took over in the third quarter. He scored 18 points in the period, overpowering the Hornets inside. He made 5 of 5 2-point attempts (he did miss one 3-pointer) and 8 of 8 free throws. He also grabbed five rebounds in the period.
Milwaukee took its first lead since 11-9 on Mirotic’s free throw with 4:49 that made it 74-73. Lopez scored seven points in an 18-8 run that gave the Bucks a 94-85 lead before Kemba Walker’s running banker at the buzzer pulled Charlotte within 94-87 entering the fourth.
Antetlokounmpo made two free throws and swished back-to-back 3-pointers in the first 1:46 of the fourth quarter to push the lead to 102-91, and the Hornets never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
After their 9-for-25 first quarter, the Bucks made 35 of 65 (53.9%) over the final three quarters, including 13 of 29 (44.8%) 3-pointers.
Walker led the Hornets (30-36) with 25 points. Frank Kaminsky, the former Wisconsin Badger, added 16 points, going 4 for 5 on 3-pointers.
The Bucks recorded a 50-win season for the first time since the 2000-2001 season and the 14th such season in team history. They posted five straight seasons of 50-plus wins from 1969-’70 through 1973-’74 and seven straight from 1980-’81 through 1986-’87.
With 16 games remaining, they would have to go 10-6 to record the fifth 60-win season in team history.