For Giannis and Bucks, a challenging week is only beginning

ByEric Woodyard ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 17, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- Inside the Milwaukee Bucks locker room following Monday's 120-116 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, players were not hanging their heads.

They don't have time to.

Their 18-game win streak was snapped two wins shy of the franchise record of 20 set during the 1970-71 championship season. Now Milwaukee's focus shifts to Thursday, when the Eastern Conference leaders will welcome the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers to town.

"Yeah, obviously. It's gonna be a good game, gonna be a test for us," said Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored a game-high 48 points to go with 14 rebounds and four assists Monday against the Mavericks. "The Lakers are one of the best teams in the league.

"We've gotta bring it, gotta play good basketball, gotta move the ball, but obviously as a team, we don't wanna lose two in a row," he added. "We've just gotta go out there and try to get a win."

The Bucks have lost consecutive games in the regular season just once since Mike Budenholzer took over as head coach entering the 2018-19 season. To avoid doing so a second time will mean beating a team led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

"They've got two of the top-five players in the world, so ..." Antetokounmpo said.

The Lakers have a top-five offense, but they're average at taking care of the ball, ranking 17th in turnover percentage entering Tuesday's road game against the Indiana Pacers. Only the Bucks and Mavericks shoot better, but the Lakers aren't nearly as potent from 3. They're more about interior offense.

That actually fits the Bucks' strengths defensively. The Bucks allow 12.9 field goals made per game inside the restricted area and only 54.5% in that zone, both league-wide lows.

However, for the Bucks to beat the Lakers will require more than the one-man show that was on display Monday. Antetokounmpo is capable of stuffing the stat sheet, as he showed in the loss. But he got little help. Against Dallas, he scored or assisted on 59 of Milwaukee's 82 points (72%) when he was on the floor, per ESPN Stats & Information research. He scored 48 points, and the rest of the starters scored 23.

The Bucks can't afford to shoot 41.9% from the field and 26.8% from 3 again. Some of the poor shooting Monday can be attributed to missing good looks. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, the Bucks had an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 47.1, despite a quantified shot quality (qSQ) of 54.1, meaning Milwaukee had an eFG% much worse than expected given the quality of the attempts.

Still, even if the open looks start falling Thursday, the Bucks can't rely as heavily on Antetokounmpo versus James and Davis. They'll need a total team effort. 2019 All-Star Khris Middleton, former Laker Brook Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Donte DiVincenzo (stepping up in the absence of the injured Eric Bledsoe) have to make an impact.

"I mean, that's what this NBA is. You can't get too up and down with each game," said Kyle Korver, who reached the NBA Finals while playing alongside James in 2017 and 2018. "It's a roller coaster if you do that, and by the end, you're just exhausted. We're exhausted anyway. It's a long season, but you've got to learn to build habits."

Before Monday, the Bucks had made winning a habit. They were the ninth team in the past 20 seasons to win 18 consecutive games. Five of the previous eight reached the NBA Finals, with four winning a title. While that remains the goal for Milwaukee, the Bucks aren't stressing that just yet, even with the showdown with the Lakers looming.

"After tonight, I think we just need to breathe, relax a little bit, enjoy that we won 18 games in a row," Bucks guard George Hill said. "That's something special. Then tomorrow in practice, [we'll] start focusing on the Lakers."

Budenholzer sees the Lakers as another great test and declared that "we'll be ready" come Thursday.

Before exiting Fiserv Forum, Antetokounmpo anticipated a quiet ride home with his mom and his pregnant girlfriend, who is due to give birth to the couple's first child in late February or early March.

Although his 48 points weren't enough on Monday -- in fact, no player had ever scored more in a loss that ended a win streak of at least 15 games -- Antetokounmpo was able to find a silver lining in defeat.

"At the end of the day, my dad and my brother always says this: 'To excel to be better, you've got to face adversity.' It starts from the leader of the team to the last player. We've got to see what we did wrong," Antetokounmpo said. "I've got to step it up defensively, play way, way better defense to help my team, and it's good. At the end of the day, you get better."

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