The 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks are different. The team didn’t necessarily overhaul its roster this past off-season. They did add veterans Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova as important, veteran rotation pieces. Later, they added veteran point guard George Hill via trade approximately a month ago. While these transactions aren’t the type to get the most attention from a national media perspective, they did strengthen their rotation in spots where they under-performed last season.
Of course, the acquisition of new head coach Mike Budenholzer (well known in these parts) and his staff is a major change from last season. But the view from outside of Milwaukee this season seems to still be that “they’re the Bucks.” Budenholzer had an impressive run in Atlanta but he was never really able to get them toward the top of the league when the roster peaked, etc.
With that said, it also seems that any perceived view that they are “still the Bucks” ends the first time a team faces off with Milwaukee this season. That was the case for the Hawks on Friday night, when Atlanta fell behind by double digits within the first couple of minutes of the game and never made the game competitive at any point in the eventual 144-112 loss.
Milwaukee has now played every team in the Eastern Conference except the Washington Wizards. If they don’t know already, they too will find out that this Bucks team is different.
There are an endless number of ways to quantify how well Milwaukee has played this season. They have the best record in the league. They are first in offensive rating. They are third in defensive rating. They have the best net rating. They are the best team in the league securing defensive rebounds. They have the third-most points in the paint per game. I could go on.
But when it comes to preparing to play a team like this, sometimes the stats are useless. Sometimes the video is not fully useful. Sometimes you just have to experience a team to have any idea what it takes to prepare to face them. And that’s the way it looked on Friday night as the Hawks faced this particular Bucks team for the first time.
Typically, a team has an idea how an opponent can be attacked. You are good at what you are good at and they are bad at what they are bad at, etc. But that did not seem to be the case in this match up.
The quickness and use of angles of Trae Young, the speed and verticality of John Collins are usually what the Hawks look to build upon early in games offensively. But against this long and athletic Bucks team, Young used his change of pace dribble and his typical ability to create passing lanes, only to find that he would penetrate the middle of the Milwaukee defense and suddenly realize there were no passing lanes.
Collins would roll off of a screen or from the weak side and leap toward the rim and realize he was far from alone there. And when your primary tools of attack are rendered mostly useless, it’s hard to know where turn next. That’s how a 43-14 first quarter can happen. And that’s how a team as competitive as they try to be, at times, can lose sight of a possible path back into the game with that significant of a deficit.
The young Hawks team never really stopped playing hard. Statistically they played Milwaukee fairly even after the first period. But the game was never in question after the hugely lopsided first twelve minutes.
So perhaps the best time to evaluate the Hawks in the context of this matchup, probably the team that presents the most difficult head-to-head matchups of any team in the league, is not this game. Perhaps it when they face this team again, at home, next Sunday. Do they come back after experiencing this Bucks team with something different as to try to compete? Are they just more prepared for the type of punches this Milwaukee team throws early in games and show an ability to sustain them without falling so far behind that there is no realistic path back into making the game competitive?
Perhaps next week is too early to expect significantly different results come the end of the game. But demonstrating a readiness for what this match up presents for them, maybe that’s a fair time to analyze how they perform.
Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton led Milwaukee in scoring with 19 points each. Middleton did so in impressive fashion, needing just ten shooting possessions. Brogdon missed on all three of his attempts from the three-point line but was perfect on six two-point attempts and seven shots from the free throw line, continuing his otherworldly shooting from the charity stripe this season; he’s missed just one of his 57 attempts on the year.
Giannis Anentokounmpo was, unsurprisingly, Milwaukee’s best player. He had 16 points, ten assists and eight rebounds in less than 20 minutes of playing time. He set the tone on both ends of the court from the opening possessions.
The Bucks had seven players in double digits scoring and each of the 11 players that saw the court for them had at least eight points.
Former Hawks forward Ilyasova posted a double-double (ten points, ten rebounds) in his first game after missing the last eight with a broken nose. To no one’s surprise, the first thing he did upon entering the game was to take a charge, despite the protective mask on his face.
Despite the game looking somewhat respectful from the second through the fourth quarter (Bucks 101, Hawks 98), Atlanta was just overpowered and, frankly, the final three quarters might as well have been extended garbage time after the way the first quarter went. Milwaukee became just the second team this season to generate 100 field goal attempts in a game that ended in regulation. The Bucks amassed 74 points in the paint, tied for the seventh-best mark by a team this season in a game that did not reach overtime.
The Milwaukee shot chart from the first quarter kind of tells the story of this game.
That’s just one shot that is not either at the rim or behind the 3-point line. And of course that was a make.
For Atlanta, DeAndre’ Bembry set a career high with 19 points off of the bench. It was one of his better shooting performances of the season connecting on 7-of-12 field goal attempts including two of his four attempts from behind the arc.
Both John Collins and Trae Young used the noncompetitive portions of the game to generate respectable box score stats. That’s not at all to say they weren’t playing hard. Collins had 12 points, seven rebounds and two steals. Young had 13 points, ten assists and just two turnovers. He also continued his recent stretch of improved perimeter shooting in converting two of his four attempts from deep.
Alex Len was probably the Hawks most consistent performer in this game. His size allowed him to be less constrained by all of the length the Bucks threw at Atlanta. He had 12 points, eight rebounds and three assists, a line that would have looked even more impressive had he converted on more than three of his nine attempts from the free throw line.
It may have been a but lost is the general ugliness of the score, but Jeremy Lin was productive. He had 12 points and six assists. He’s probably never taken a possession off in his career and did not in this contest.
But this game also was just the type that can end up looking weird in the box score. Dewayne Dedmon shot the ball well in producing 14 points connecting on 5-of-11 from the field including hitting on four of his nine attempts from the three-point line. But he had just one rebound.
Daniel Hamilton, in his third career start, became just the 12th player this season to start a game and generate just a single field goal attempt.
It difficult to know how much it would have moved the needle in this matchup but it should be noted that the Hawks were playing without the two players who started a large majority of their games last season at the shooting guard and small forward positions. Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince continue to work to recover from respective injuries. Probably any team heading into a match up with Milwaukee this season would be best served by having their normal compliment of wing rotation players. It has not yet been determined if either will return to the court before next week’s rematch.
“All of these guys (Bucks players) are playing with an edge,” said Hawks’ coach Lloyd Pierce in post-game comments. “They’re the number one team in the league right now. They are playing with an edge and we saw that tonight. We just didn’t have it. But that’s part of our growing pains. And that’s part of our growth is to understand that you’ve got to go through these things.”
“We’ve had a few early where we got into a rhythm the last couple of weeks and we finally saw another team that is playing with an edge and a chip on their shoulder,” Pierce added. “They’ve got different goals at this stage of where they are. But it’s encouraging to see a group that had been through this come out and play with an edge and we saw that tonight.”
“I thought our guys put their heads down in the first quarter instead of staying with the plan instead of shooting with freedom and confidence,” Pierce said about the first quarter performance. “We tried to do other things and we got outside of ourselves a little bit tonight which is discouraging.”
“We got discouraged early, we got frustrated early. And they were playing with energy,” he added with an honest assessment of his team’s play. “But we got discouraged and we put our heads down and you can’t do that in this league.”
Bembry was also honest in his comments after the game despite his career best scoring night. “They brought it to us tonight. We weren’t ready for the first few punches they threw at us,” he said. “Normally when that happens you get a punch back but tonight wasn’t that case. They just kept coming, making shots, getting into the paint, doing whatever they wanted. It was pretty hard to come back from that.”
The schedule the Hawks face in January is brutal. They will next encounter a surging Miami Heat team who won for the eighth time in their last ten games with a victory over the Washington Wizards on Friday night. They’ve been leaning on their defensive play during the recent, successful stretch. One of those eight wins includes a game in which they held Milwaukee to a season-low 87 points two weeks ago.
Atlanta will host their divisional foes on Sunday at 6:00 pm ET at State Farm Arena.