NEW YORK — The shooting outside was frightful, but the defense was so delightful for the Milwaukee Bucks. And Giannis Antetokounmpo put on a show, too, making the Bucks’ return to Christmas Day competition after 41 years away a cheerful occasion for the road team.
Anteteokounmpo wrapped up his Christmas debut with 30 points, 14 rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks in 35 minutes Tuesday to lead the Bucks to a 109-95 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The victory marked the 10th time in as many opportunities that they Bucks have followed a loss with a win this season.
It’s the first game on Christmas Day; the whole world is watching,” Antetokounmpo said. “We want to show the world what the Bucks are capable of. We want to move the ball and defend well and we were able to get the win.”
The one-sided nature the game eventually adopted was a testament to the Bucks’ afternoon-long intensity on defense along with an offensive outburst built on paint scoring in the third quarter. On a day when three-pointers refused to fall – the “let it fly” Bucks made a season-low six three-pointers on 32 attempts (18.8 percent) while missing 17 straight over a stretch of 25½ minutes — it was taking care of business in those areas that made the biggest difference.
Defensively, the Bucks looked worlds different from the team that couldn’t contain the Knicks in an overtime loss at the start of the month. They combined for 10 steals and seven blocks while running three-point shooters off the line, forcing the Knicks into tough attempts and challenging shots as often as possible.
“Happy with the defense,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Any time you come out with a 12 o’clock game, offensively it can be a struggle but to be solid defensively, for really most of the game, (we) hang our hat there.
“Hopefully our identity is built from our defense. We know that’s going to be there every possession every night. We’re going to take the shots offensively, try to play with great place, all those things, but not let our overall energy and effort be affected if we’re not making shots.”
The Bucks limited the Knicks to 46 points on 32 percent shooting in the first half, but their own struggles on offense — just 3 of 18 on three-pointers and 8 of 20 on shots inside the paint — meant Milwaukee only took a two-point lead into intermission.
BOX SCORE: Bucks 109, Knicks 95
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Then the third quarter came and the atmosphere of the game changed dramatically.
Not only did the Bucks get stops, including forcing six turnovers that led to 10 points, but they also found a groove on offense built on both getting to the paint and finishing there. Riding drives from the likes of Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe along with inside finishes by Brook Lopez and Thon Maker, the Bucks went 12 of 13 in the paint as part of a 36-point third quarter in which they built a lead as large as 19 points.
“I think we were moving the ball well,” Antetokounmpo said of the third-quarter barrage. “Not just the ball, we were moving our bodies. We were able to set screens with pace, got some open looks, got the paint, made plays. We were the aggressor.”
Even the three-pointers started falling late in the quarter, with Sterling Brown snapping the streak of 17 misses with a swish from the corner and George Hill converting another shortly after following a steal by D.J. Wilson and a kick-out by Brogdon.
From there, the Knicks never sniffed the lead with the Bucks maintaining a margin of 13 points or more throughout the fourth quarter. In addition to Antetokounmpo’s exploits, Lopez finished with 20 points, Brogdon had 17 and Bledsoe chalked up 15 to go with a team-high five assists.
Maker had a pair of blocks while matching his season high with 12 points, which he scored without the benefit of a three-pointer. After a shaky start, he settled in to score in multiple ways, including from midrange, at the free-throw line and off a cut in the third quarter in which he caught a pass from Brown and confidently leaped for a dunk while adjusting in mid-air to get around 7-footer Luke Kornet.
“Just got to understand the game within the game,” Maker said. “Seeing guys running at me now, I have to be a playmaker, not just a catch-and-shoot guy. But still, it takes making those shots for them to close out like that.”
Late in the game, a generally subdued holiday crowd offered Antetokounmpo a nice ovation as he walked off the court with the win well in hand. It was a positive final memory for the star in his successful Christmas debut, which moved Milwaukee to 3-2 all-time on Christmas Day.
Antetokounmpo hopes that both the holiday win and appearance represent the beginning of the Bucks becoming a mainstay on Christmas.
“This is one of the highest stages,” he said. “Special teams play on Christmas Day and it’s an opportunity for us. We’re really happy and it’s a big honor for us to represent the Milwaukee Bucks and the city of Milwaukee in a Christmas game.”