What I’m Hearing: HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy spoke with a couple of NBA executives who explained to him how the Milwaukee Bucks are pushing all the right buttons to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo in the organization for a long time.
MIAMI — By the time the Milwaukee Bucks went into halftime trailing the Miami Heat by 20 points, there could have been a deserved sense of here-we-go-again.
The Bucks had lost five straight games in Miami, their last victory coming more than three years ago on Jan. 19, 2016. AmericanAirlines Arena was the site of one of the Bucks’ worst offensive showings this year, too, as they mustered just eight first-quarter points on the way to a 94-87 loss on Dec. 22.
To make matters worse — hard to do facing a season-worst 20-point deficit at halftime — the Bucks lost starting guard Malcolm Brogdon to right heel soreness after he played just 6½ minutes.
But after booting the first half, the Bucks rallied in a major way in the second.
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Giannis Antetokounmpo out-muscled anyone who dared get between him and the basket. Khris Middleton went on a shooting splurge. Ersan Ilyasova provided a critical bump off the bench, and the Bucks locked down on defense as they surged to a 113-98 victory to close out their three-game road trip and exorcise their South Beach demons.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re down 20, 15, 10, we’re going to keep playing hard and it’s a process,” Antetokounmpo said. “You’ve got to win games like this, you’ve got to face adversity while playing on the road because in the playoffs it’s not going to be easy. We want to be a great team and that’s why we’re going to keep playing hard every night and every time we go out there and have a chance to play a ball game we’ll always play hard.”
Milwaukee’s surge came after a first half in which Miami, led by Justise Winslow’s red-hot shooting and 20 points along with all-out hustle and intensity from up and down the roster, looked poised to blow out the Bucks — their would-be opponent in the opening round of the playoffs.
After trailing by as many as 23 points, though, the Bucks ultimately led by as many as 19 late in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Heat 71-36 after intermission. According to the Associated Press, Friday marked the first time in NBA history a team trailed by 20 or more points at halftime and went on to win by at least 15 points.
“It was a terrible first half,” Middleton said. “Bud came in here and didn’t yell at us, but he got his point across. We weren’t putting our bodies on them, making them play, just everything was too easy for them. In the second half, we tried to be a little bit more aggressive. … It worked.”
The biggest difference was Milwaukee’s second-half defense. Coach Mike Budenholzer adopted a switching scheme in the first quarter — much earlier than usual — as the Heat built that 23-point lead. It didn’t impact the game immediately, but over time the Bucks began to see results.
Antetokounmpo took on the challenge of guarding Winslow for much of the second half, holding him scoreless over the final 24 minutes. As a team, the Heat made just 27.5 percent of their shots (11-of-40) after the break, and the Bucks turned those misses into opportunities by pushing the ball off rebounds.
“Miami’s a great team if you play set offense,” Antetokounmpo said. “You play slow with them, they’re going to be able to stop you because they play great team defense. If you’re able to rebound the ball, run, make plays, get open shots and just play with pace, it’s harder for them to guard.”
Offensively, it was Middleton, who finished with 21 points, eight assists and five rebounds, who first gave the Bucks life. Middleton made a series of tough shots, popping a pair of 3-pointers and a long 2 to help the Bucks cut their 20-point halftime deficit down to 11.
Antetokounmpo chipped in seven points in the third quarter, but with both he and Middleton carrying a heavy load and Middleton getting into foul trouble, Budenholzer went to the bench toward the end of the period. That’s when Ilyasova took on the scoring mantle and kept the comeback going.
Ilyasova poured in 10 of his 15 points in the final 3:07 of the third quarter, drawing a foul and making both free throws, adding a 3-pointer, tapping back an offensive rebound and finally connecting on a corner 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds on the clock to bring the Bucks within one heading into the fourth.
“Khris really kept us afloat in a couple different stretches and then Ersan made some shots, Pat (Connaughton) made some shots, then Nikola (Mirotic) made some shots and it became contagious,” Budenholzer said.
Antetokounmpo took over from there, putting an exclamation point on the win.
He drove with ferocity to the rim for layups, dunks and fouls while scoring 11 of his 33 points in the final stanza. He ripped down rebounds in traffic and trusted teammates with passes, setting them up for success. He also anchored the defense, locking down Winslow and swooping in for powerful blocks at the rim on more than one occasion.
It was an MVP-caliber performance for the Bucks star as he buttressed his 33 points with 16 rebounds, nine assists, three blocks and two steals.
How did Budenholzer and the Bucks unlock that kind of second-half performance?
“I think Giannis probably got the key in his locker and took it out and used it on himself,” Budenholzer said. “He’s, I think, a mentally tough player. He’s a guy that expects a lot of himself, he has very high standards for himself.”
Eric Bledsoe supported the Bucks’ top scorers with 17 points — 12 in the second half — while Pat Connaughton added 13 points off the bench while slotting in for Brogdon. Budenholzer didn’t have an update on Brogdon’s heel soreness after the game, saying only that Brogdon would be evaluated further in Milwaukee on Saturday. Brogdon has been managing plantar fasciitis and pain in that foot at various times this season.
Guard George Hill returned from a left groin injury after a nine-game absence, logging seven quiet first-half minutes in the win. D.J. Wilson, stuck to the bench recently, also made a positive impact in the second half with four points in nine minutes along with a beautiful assist to Connaughton — Wilson caught the ball after cutting into the lane then did a 180-degree spin to fire to Connaughton wide open in the corner.
That connection gave Milwaukee its largest lead to that point — six points — with less than 8½ minutes remaining and the Bucks kept rolling from there.
Completing the comeback with a decisive win didn’t just mean something because it ended the Bucks’ South Beach skid. It also gave them confidence heading toward the playoffs since they potentially could see the Heat again in the first round.
“All those games when we play against Charlotte, Orlando, Miami, they’re possible opponents for us in the playoffs,” Ilyasova. “That’s why this game is important as far as sending the message we’re ready for whatever comes next.”
Matt Velazquez writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network.