Tyrese Maxey has his way with the Bucks — until the fourth-quarter ‘mud’ arrives

MILWAUKEE — For three quarters, the Philadelphia 76ers were tougher than the Milwaukee Bucks.

The road team came into Fiserv Forum on Thursday and dictated the game’s terms with their physicality, and the Bucks didn’t have an answer. Tyrese Maxey was dominating and scored 29 points in the first three quarters. With their backs against the wall, the Bucks fought back, according to their coach.

“I feel like it’s a game we should excel at, but I don’t think we did tonight until the fourth quarter,” Doc Rivers said. “With our size, to me, if I’m going to get into mud wrestling or a track meet, with this team, I want the mud. I don’t want to get in a track meet. It kind of fits what we should be.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo kept the Bucks in the game for the first three quarters and eventually helped close the door on the 76ers with 32 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in the Bucks’ 114-105 win.

But the Bucks (43-24) flipped the game in the first six minutes of the fourth with their superstar on the bench. As a team, they turned up their intensity on defense and gave up just seven points in the first 5:50 of the final quarter, including a two-and-a-half-minute stretch when the bench unit held Maxey scoreless.

“We just picked up our physicality,” Damian Lillard (17 points, nine assists) said. “We didn’t make it a one-man job. We were on a string. Played more physical. We made (Maxey) play in a crowd. Brook (Lopez) kept coming over, protecting the paint, and I think he trusted the next guy to hit his man. And when you play like that, teams have a harder time scoring, you know, especially with (Joel) Embiid not being out there.

“They’re a more limited team than when he is out there. … We played smarter. We closed out to their bodies, and we made (Maxey) put the ball on the floor, and nothing really came easy.”

AJ Green and Bobby Portis tallied the Bucks’ final 12 points in the 16-7 run that flipped the game. But it was all about the Bucks finding another level defensively, especially against Maxey, who re-entered the game with 8:42 remaining. All night, officials allowed physical play, and the Bucks finally took advantage in the fourth with their defensive intensity on the ball and around the rim.

On this block early in the quarter, Lopez made a physical contest of Maxey at the rim, but Portis started the defensive possession by forcing the ball out of Maxey’s hands.

“Obviously, the guards were doing a good job making it tough for him, but I think Bobby kind of set the tone,” Antetokounmpo said. “In every pick-and-roll, he was up there. He was trying to blitz, tried to get the ball out of his hands and make somebody else make a play. And then, in the early in the fourth quarter, that was the tone.

While Lopez does not have the foot speed to blitz pick-and-rolls like Portis does, Rivers asked the Bucks’ starting center to defend much higher up the floor than his usual drop. Lopez held up well, consistently putting pressure on Maxey throughout the fourth.

On the play below, Maxey eventually shook free, but he still needed to make a great move and then shoot the ball high over the top of Lopez as he faded away from the basket to try to score.

“He’s tough to slow down, but just having trust in the guard we’re going out there with is big,” Lopez said. “Bobby, Giannis, whoever it is, we gotta go out there and do our job. And obviously, we trust that the guard’s gonna push a player like Maxey to us, so we can even get to the trap. And then, it’s trusting in the backside behind us as well.”

As the Bucks got more comfortable with their aggressive defensive strategy on Maxey, they were even more successful getting the ball out of his hands.

On the Bucks’ next defensive possession, the Bucks forced the 76ers’ All-Star point guard twice to give up the ball with well-timed traps. First, Green pinned Maxey to the sideline, and Lopez planted himself 3 feet above the 3-point line. Then, Green sprinted at Maxey late to force the ball out of his hands and over to Tobias Harris.


“A player like that, it takes a team,” Green (14 points, five rebounds) said of defending Maxey. “We wanted to get the ball out of his hands a little bit more. So we started, blitzing, corralling the ball screen and making him give it up. And then I just tried to deny it back.

“When I was guarding him, just make it tough. He’s going to make shots. Just make him work for all those shots. Brook, Bobby, Giannis, they all have my back down in the paint, so it makes my life easier as well.”

The Bucks made some big offensive plays in the fourth too. Lopez finished off a slithery drive to the rim with a nice drop-off pass to Portis for an easy two. Green hit a big 3 on an extra pass from Pat Connaughton, which developed because of a drive-and-kick from Lillard. Lopez hit a deep 3 on another kick-out from Lillard, similar to the one he hit in Los Angeles against the Clippers. But those offensive plays only ended up mattering because of the Bucks’ improved effort defensively.

Just watch Lopez’s effort on this late block that helped seal the win.

Not only did Lopez show out to 30 feet in the pick-and-roll against Maxey, but he recovered to his man to force the next action. Then, he pinned Kelly Oubre Jr.’s shot to the glass. He ended it with a fancy bit of footwork to keep the ball inbounds and secure the possession.

“Brook, in the second half, was absolutely unbelievable defensively,” Rivers said. “(He) trapped, got back into coverage. We were laughing, we said, ‘Now, we know.’ We haven’t done it with him. And we were laughing and he said, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ Because that’s tough for Brook, honestly. But with Maxey, you just had to be up; otherwise, he’d come downhill at Brook or whoever and you’re in trouble.”

The Bucks weren’t perfect on defense in the fourth. To get the ball out of Maxey’s hands, they gave up some good shots to other Sixers, but they held Maxey to just one point in the final frame. That was enough against a short-handed 76ers team.

The past week has shown the Bucks do not have the ideal personnel to handle quick guards and significant off-ball movement from their opponents. If they are going to survive against those players in the postseason, they will need to be able to execute different defensive schemes, including some that might make them uncomfortable. For that reason, Thursday’s win over the 76ers proved to be a valuable experience.

(Photo of Brook Lopez and Tyrese Maxey: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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