Milwaukee — Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday explained the situation to Giannis Antetokounmpo, though knowing he knew the Bucks’ two-time MVP probably didn’t want to hear it.
“I told him this morning, like, ‘I know you’re going to want to come back, but if you don’t, just know we got you,’” Holliday said late Wednesday night. “Our team has absolute confidence in each other and we know what it’s like to be Giannis. We know Giannis is going to try that Superman effort and come back and play 48 minutes and do his thing, but, like I said, we can keep the fort until he comes back.”
Holiday and his teammates finally proved it Wednesday night with a 138-122 Game 2 win over the Heat. Seven of the nine players who played rotating minutes for the Bucks on Wednesday scored in double figures, but Holiday led the way with 24 points, five rebounds and 11 assists.
As a team, the Bucks tied the NBA single-game record by hitting 25 three-pointers and with a monster effort in the first half. And while they still needed to play well in the second half to finish the game, the Bucks tied the franchise record by scoring 81 points, taking an 81-55 halftime lead after leading by as many as 32 points.
“We were feeling the atmosphere,” said Grayson Allen (16 points). “There was a stretch where it felt like everything was going, and a lot of it was just piling up after a stop. And we were going out and running and were able to get about 3 seconds into the transition and move the ball around great. It was a great night all around.”
Despite the team promoting Antetokounmpo to questionable mid-afternoon, with 1 hour and 45 minutes to report, Bucks coach Mike Bodenholzer told reporters that Antetokounmpo would miss Game 2 due to a lower back bruise. This injury kept Antetokounmpo out for most of the last three quarters in the Bucks’ Game 1 loss, in addition to practicing in the days leading up to Wednesday’s game.
“He’s getting better every day,” Budenholzer said before the game. “He’s getting better, which has given us optimism that he might be able to play, but if you’re not (declared) dubious, it’s not an option.
“The only way to give us the option to play is to bring him into question and keep improving, but organizationally and speaking and working with him and the Sports Performance Group the decision has been made that he’s out. The players who are ready, the players who are available are good to go and we will continue to monitor him and expect him to improve and we remain optimistic that he will be ready.” soon to play.”
Bucks forward Bobby Portez, who scored 13 points, 15 rebounds and five assists at Antetokounmpo’s starting lineup position, told reporters after the game that the team knew Antetokounmpo would miss the game around the same time as the rest of the world. Find out that the Bucks and Antetokounmpo tried to use as much time as possible to make the decision.
“It takes the whole team. You saw that tonight,” said Chris Middleton after adding 16 points, six rebounds and seven assists in the win. “It wasn’t just one person who carried us.
“A lot of people expect me or Junior to take on all the burden that Giannis does, but what he does, we can’t match. So, we have to do it by committee. … But that’s what it’s all about, being a team.” We think we have the best player in the world, but we think we have the best players around him, the best team and that’s what gives us confidence. When a player goes down we still feel like we have a chance to compete at the highest level.”
On Wednesday, it all started for the Bucks with Brook Lopez and they made it clear from the opening tip. If you were curious about what the Bucks wanted or who was supposed to take the shot on their first possession of the game, just watch Portis on the play.
The Bucks’ Sixth Man of the Year candidate never shy away from an open shot and didn’t even look over the edge when he caught the ball behind the 3-point line on that pick-and-bop with Holiday. Portis put his feet up, picked up the ball and immediately began looking for Lopez under the rim.
“It has a mismatch on the bottom with some of the formations they throw at us,” Allen said. “To kind of counter it, they’re trying to collapse in there, so I think feeding it early helped get them to paint early and helped us get a more open look.”
To kick off Wednesday’s game, with 6-foot-5 forward Max Stross covering Lopez, the Bucks went out of their way to get Lopez in the paint, just as they did the last time Antetokounmpo missed a playoff home-game. 5 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals – When Lopez stormed out with a career-high 33 points in a dominant playoff win.
Sharing the floor with Antetokounmpo, López knows he needs to stand at the 3-point line to help make space and that Antetokounmpo will dive to the edge for downhill and alley lanes. When Antetokounmpo is out, Lopez is allowed to get back into the paint and hang around the rim.
“We love him shooting 3s, but also when he has a size advantage we want him to be in the paint as an enforcer,” Middleton said. “So Jrue and I do the same thing, but knowing we have 7 feet in the rim so give him a chance. Lead it, be ourselves, but knowing he’s there for us at the rim and we can throw it to him any time. We have confidence he’ll catch up.” and end it.”
By the end of the first quarter, Lopez had 14 points on 7-of-9 and knew he had his work done for the night.
“I think, regardless of whether Giannis was around or not, we knew we had an advantage in the paint at both ends of the ground and that was just the focus for us tonight, just to create the paint,” Lopez said. “It’s cool to see, you know, you can kind of see the opposing team crash when you’re cutting the paint and you see guys pull out for 3 seconds.”
With the Heat locking in the Lopez defense in the well-established paint, the Bucks began splashing the ball around the perimeter and splashing out some 3-pointers. In the 46-point second quarter, the Bucks went 9 of 15 from deep, and after a no-play in Game 1, Pat Connaughton started the party with a deep 3.
In this period, he hit all four of his shots, including three three-pointers. He made a blocked shot and then caught a pass that he finished with a transitional pass. He grabbed a rebound, drove the ball up the ground and hit Holiday for a cornerback 3. Connaughton did it all for the Bucks in the quarter and served as the spark plug for the Bucks’ 24-2 run that opened up a 32-point lead.
It was a big moment for Connaughton, who found himself behind Allen, Jay Crowder, Joe Engels and Wesley Matthews in Budenholzer’s playoff run and on the bench for Game 1. Connaughton stepped into the rotation on Wednesday and took full advantage with 22 points (6-of-10 3-point shooting), four rebounds and three assists.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Connaughton said. “I think a lot of you know me and I think sometimes, if I asked you guys what is my best quality as a basketball player, I would get a huge number of different answers. But one answer I don’t think I would get is just being competitive. I think this is the time. It’s a year for me to remind people of that.
“It’s not always going to be the same. In today’s NBA, they try to put you in a box — you’re a shooter, you’re a defender, you’re a little different, and so for me to go back to showing people what I can do just has an impact on the game in different ways, and that It’s the time of year that I love. It’s the time of year that I grow up. It’s the time of year where if I look back since I’ve been in Milwaukee, I always try to rise to the occasion.”
In the end, though, Connaughton needed a break in the second quarter and Engels picked up where Connaughton left off. With the Heat already swinging, Engels went up to a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions and increased the Bucks’ lead to 32 points.
Engels was solid, if unspectacular, in his first playoff game with the Bucks on Sunday with nine points in 15 minutes in game one, but game two was different as he knocked down five three-pointers and trash-talked after each one.
Engels put up 17 points, four rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes, including two three-pointers within a minute in the third quarter to give the Bucks a 34-point lead, their largest of the night, with 4:24 left in the second half. Third quarter.
And his new colleagues have noticed.
“He has all the confidence in the world,” Middleton said. “The slowest guy out there, he’s probably the most unsportsmanlike guy out there, but he’s a ball player. He loves the big moments. He loves the big shots. And he’s competitive. He loves competition.”
Engels, the Bucks’ resident trash-talker, wasn’t going to let Middleton talk trash.
“Slowest? On Earth?” asked Engels when he was told about Barb Middleton after the match. “Hasn’t he seen his own movie?”
While he may not have left already, as evidenced by Antetokounmpo’s morning off reassurance, the Bucks’ swagger has returned and found a perfect avatar in the Bucks’ 35-year-old, 3-point shooting, trash-talking forward. Without their MVP and MVP in the entire league, the Bucks dominated the Heat in Game 2 after being punched in the mouth in their opening game of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
And they know they will need to maintain the same courage and focus to move forward to finish this series, with or without Antetokounmpo.
“How fun is it to watch Joe talk after he makes each one of his threes? To the opposing team, turn around and do his little yell and all?” Lopez asked. “We had fun tonight. We just need to keep that energy going.”
(Photo by Joe Engels: Jeff Hansch/USA Today)
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