Bucks veterans use experience to pick apart Hornets for In-Season Tournament win

CHARLOTTE — As the Milwaukee Bucks took the floor with a 16-point lead and a little more than four minutes remaining in Friday night’s In-Season Tournament game, Khris Middleton could sense something was up.

Walking to the opposite end of the floor from the Bucks bench to inbound the ball, Middleton started counting Charlotte Hornets and realized Hornets coach Steve Clifford was about to try to use his team’s young legs to get back in the game and ambush the Bucks with a full-court press out of the timeout. Middleton alerted his teammates and they started to run toward the backcourt to make sure he could get the ball in play, but Middleton stopped teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo.

With four Hornets in the backcourt, Middleton could create a 2-on-1 fast break, if Antetokounmpo just stayed at half court. Middleton, who loved baseball as a kid, could make an on-target overhand throw. As the Hornets started jumping around and applying pressure to Damian Lillard and Malik Beasley in the backcourt, Middleton calmly took the ball from the official and whipped it to Antetokounmpo.

“I have that count about who was behind them,” Middleton said. “Once I see Giannis has an advantage with a two-on-one situation or any type of advantage, I try to give him the ball, especially going downhill. I trust him and he made the right, easy play to Brook for the dunk.”

It was a simple play in a game that might have already been decided, but it was the perfect encapsulation of a Bucks victory in which a veteran-laden Bucks roster used their intelligence to defeat the Hornets, 130-99, to move to 8-4 on the season and 2-0 in group play for the NBA In-Season Tournament.

“Khris is one of the most intelligent players I’ve been around,” Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said. “Even going back to when I was with the Raptors and we had to go through the Bucks, we knew that, you know, Giannis, you gotta build a wall, you gotta do all that, but we knew Khris was the guy that we had to stop. So we had a separate game plan for Khris because he’s just so lethal and he can do it with the shot, he could do it with the pass.”

Middleton ended the night with 12 points, six rebounds and an assist in a season-high 22 minutes, but the Bucks’ high-level execution kept him from running his minute total up to the 25 minutes Griffin had allotted for him on Friday night. And while Middleton may not end up playing on Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks as the Bucks bring him back slowly from his offseason right knee surgery, the Bucks’ intelligent performance kept the entire roster from overexerting itself on the first night of a back-to-back.

And it wasn’t just Middleton. All game long, the Bucks created advantages, watched the Hornets take themselves out of position or get slightly overzealous on a particular play. The Bucks made the right play repeatedly to secure a win.

Look at this fourth-quarter assist from Antetokounmpo, who told reporters post-game that he was not feeling 100 percent after missing Wednesday’s game with a right calf injury, but still felt like he was “at a level that (he) could compete.”

Antetokounmpo and Middleton have been making this play for the better part of a decade at this point. It’s just simple, smart basketball.

Stationing Middleton in the high quadrant above Antetokounmpo as he posts up puts defenses in an impossible position: either let Antetokounmpo work one-on-one in the post or surrender an open catch-and-shoot 3 to Middleton. If the closest defender decides to “dig” down on Antetokounmpo’s post-up, as Bryce McGowens does on the play, Antetokounmpo just kicks it out to Middleton for an easy 3-point look.

And those were the types of plays the Bucks made all night long as the Bucks dished a season-high 32 assists against the Hornets and seven players tallied double-figure point totals.

“I loved how we shared the ball and moved the ball and looking for each other,” Griffin said. “That’s something that we’ve been stressing in the last week or so. And just a fun way to play. And I think, Giannis really spearheaded that, just start spraying it around. We were getting open shots and they trust each other.”

And while Antetokounmpo and Lillard have a long way to find the chemistry Antetokounmpo and Middleton have developed over the last decade, the Bucks’ new superstar pairing had a couple of nice plays together on Friday night, including this third-quarter Lillard 3-pointer.

Like the Middleton 3 in the fourth quarter, this is simple basketball. Lillard pushed the ball off of a defensive rebound and then found Antetokounmpo streaking down the middle of the floor in transition. And then Antetokounmpo followed that up by making a simple play of his own and kicking the ball back out to Lillard on the right wing as the defense collapsed around him trying to drive to the rim.

“We started moving the ball more,” Antetokounmpo (16 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) said. “Guys were running, guys were running to the spots, we moved the ball. There was a lot of not just assists, like hockey assists too, like there were so many extra passes. Like pass, pass to a shot. And at the end of the day, once you start feeling that energy, everybody’s touching the ball, it’s easier to make shots. And once one goes in, then other shots started falling.”

And while the simple basketball play often tends to involve using a teammate, sometimes it is about calling your own number. And Lillard did that multiple times in the third quarter.

After the Bucks took a double-digit lead, Clifford shifted the Hornets into a zone defense to mess with the Bucks’ offensive rhythm and it worked. On the Hornets’ first possession in zone, Pat Connaughton (11 points, seven rebounds) committed a turnover as he pump-faked a corner 3 and tried to find Bobby Portis (13 points, seven rebounds) cutting to the rim. On the next possession, Lillard informed his teammates the Hornets were playing zone and got himself an open 3 on the left wing.

“In zone, you just gotta be able to manipulate the rotations that you see,” Lillard explained after putting up 27 points, five rebounds and five assists in the win. “How are they matching up with the ball? Where are they rotating front of you? Once you do that, I think it makes it a little more simple to attack.

“And tonight, a couple of times I took the ball off the center to see who was going to take the ball and see how they would match up with the ball on the left and then I saw how they would match up with it on the right. And then I basically put myself in the situation where I would be coming off and nobody would be there to defend me unless a guy left somebody else open. So I was able to get some opportunities that way.”

But simple basketball is not only scoring efficiently, it is also defending with a logical plan and putting players in the right positions to succeed. And while the Bucks struggled with that a bit at the start of the season, they effectively ran the Hornets off the 3-point line on Friday night and funneled everything into Brook Lopez who had six blocks while patrolling the lane in drop coverage.

“Defensively, we were making them take tough 2s,” Antetokounmpo said. “Kind of eliminate the 3 from them, had them driving and shoot floaters, shoot tough 2s over Brook or over Khris or over me or BP and then crack back and pursue and rebound the ball, go the other way.”

Griffin spent his post-game press conference talking about his team’s unselfish ball movement and togetherness, but he also made sure to call out the effort of one of his players at length at the start of his presser.

“I really want to take this time and just give my appreciation for Brook and all that he does out there,” Griffin said. “He’s a plus-30 — and I don’t look too much into that at times — but when he’s on the floor, we’re just a better team. And he does a lot of the gritty, tough work protecting the paint, coming up with and fighting for rebounds and he’s so unselfish on the offensive end. So, he’s been tremendous for us.”

And while that effort tends to be under-appreciated because it leads to players shooting floaters over the top of him or his teammates grabbing rebounds while he boxes out opposing bigs, Lopez managed to get everyone’s attention with one of his blocks on Friday. As Antetokounmpo laid out, the Hornets settled for tough 2s for most of the game, but rookie Brandon Miller, the No. 2 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, was young (and foolish) enough to try Lopez at the rim once in the first half.

It did not work out for him.

“I’ve tried to dunk on Brook many times in practice,” Antetokounmpo said with a smile. “It’s kind of hard, man. He has great timing and he has a big body, so it’s hard to get over the top of him. It’s always good to have him on your side and it’s good to see other players learn their lesson when they try to dunk on Brook.”

In the end, the Bucks compiled a 31-point win, their second double-digit victory of the season, but it did not come about through the flashy individual effort of just one player, but rather, it was a smart, full-team effort that showed off the composure and intelligence the Bucks have throughout their roster.

(Photo: Kent Smith / NBAE via Getty Images)

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