In a season filled with impressive victories, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 117-106 victory over the Chicago Bulls Monday night at the United Center deserves a place among the top 10.
Yes, the Bulls are a team the Bucks are supposed to beat this season. They’re 16-45 and feeding at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. But they were playing much better, entering the game on a three-game winning streak.
And the Bucks were without superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who sat out to rest some right knee soreness. They also were without key bench players George Hill (groin) and Sterling Brown (wrist).
Remember the last time Antetokounmpo sat out? That was Feb. 9, and the Orlando Magic came into Fiserv Forum and pasted the Bucks, 103-83.
That game had to be entering the Bucks’ minds in a first quarter that saw the Bucks allow easy penetration into the lane as the Bulls took a 38-23. Similar to the loss against Orlando, the Bucks started the game 0 for 6 on 3-pointers. Who was going to step up? How about Isaiah Canaan? Signed hours earlier, Canaan made two first-quarter 3-pointers that kept the period from being a total disaster.
So what made this victory so impressive? The second quarter saw an impressive turnaround. Tired of being pushed around, the Bucks got serious on defense. They held the Bulls to just seven points in the first 10 minutes of the period. When Ryan Arcidiacono knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:55 left in the half, that ended what had been a 28-7 run that had given the Bucks a 54-48 lead.
After Arcidiacono’s three, Khris Middleton took over for the Bucks, scoring nine points in the final 1:14 of the half, helping the Bucks to a 63-54 lead.
The Bucks led by as many as 14 in the third period before settling on a 90-80 lead after three, then pushed it to 20 in the fourth quarter before the Bulls cut the final margin in the last two minutes.
Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon led the Bucks with 22 points each. Even those numbers point to why this victory ranks among the more impressive. The Bucks pulled away and never needed an outlier performance from anyone.
Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic tallied 13 points each, Erson Ilyasova and Pat Connaughton added 10 each.
D.J. Wilson, who lost his rotation minutes to Mirotic, stepped back in without missing a beat, grabbing a team-best eight rebounds and chipping in seven points.
This one was a team effort all the way around, particularly on the boards. Eight players grabbed at least four rebounds as the Bucks won the battle of the boards, 45-41.
So on a night without Antetokounmpo, and where Eirc Bledsoe managed just eight points, no problem.
Just as impressive was what the Bucks did defensively after the first quarter. Lauri Markkanen posted 14 points in the first quarter, and Zach Lavine had 10 at that point. Lavine scored just one more point on the night. While Markkanen finished with 26, only six came in the second half.
Robin Lopez matched Markkanen’s 26 points, as he dueled with twin brother Brook Lopez. Robin won the individual battle, but Brook got the victory.
After the Feb. 9 debacle, the Bucks proved they can get the job done without Antetokounmpo.
With their fifth straight victory, the Bucks improved to 46-14 and now lead Toronto by 2 1/2 games for the best record in the league.