Milwaukee, Wis — — The Milwaukee Bucks know their defense will propel them out of the Western Conference and Sunday afternoon was no different.
The Bucks have not had much luck in playing the best teams of the Western Conference.
Milwaukee battled the second-best team in the West in the Los Angeles Clippers, and came away with a 105-100 victory at the Fiserv Forum.
It was the Milwaukee’s fifth straight win, behind 36 points and 14 boards from Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was his fourth straight game with at least 36 points in a game.
“He’s just being aggressive,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think he’s scoring on a lot of different levels. He’s getting to the free throw line a lot. I think he’s also playing unselfishly both as a passer, as a screener. He’s making a lot of good things happen. He’s so good. You just want to continue to appreciate it but push him to be even better.”
In the first half, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both were on fire. They got to the cup at will, combining for 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting. But their supporting cast was the problem early, only making 2-of-13 threes and couldn’t hit shots down the stretch.
The Bucks spread the floor and found Antetokounmpo in the lane one-on-one which allowed Milwaukee to take 53-48 lead into the break. Milwaukee had a 12-2 advantage in fast-break points, finding some lanes in the Clippers transition defense even if they couldn’t score in their half court sets.
In the third quarter, the Clippers got Serge Ibaka going. He made five straight shots, all from mid-range and deeper, finishing with 12 points and six boards in the frame. They finished the quarter on a 21-7 run.
The Clippers hung with the Bucks on their home court for most of the night, went cold and held Los Angeles scoreless over the final four minutes of the game and won for the first time in 11 games this season when trailing after three quarters.
“It’s great when you go against the best in the world down the stretch,” said Antetokounmpo, who also had 14 rebounds and five assists. “You’re trying to get a stop, and they’re trying to score on you to win the game. I love just taking that individual pride in guarding the best players.”
The Bucks took an 11-point lead early in the third quarter due to an 11-2 run to put them up 66-55 with 7:23 to go. But an Ibaka trey from downtown ended the run and it set the tone for the Clippers the rest of the quarter.
Los Angeles slowly chipped away at the Bucks lead behind Ibaka’s offense, he scored 14 of his team’s next 16 points to give the Clippers a 71-70 lead. Lou Williams helped Los Angeles take a 81-77 lead into the fourth quarter by scoring eight points in the final 2:18 of the period.
“A lot of great stops,” Budenholzer said. “Just getting a little bit better with a lot of different things. I think the activity at the rim, Giannis going vertical getting a couple blocked shots, Jrue really late with a great variety at the rim, when we’re small those guys have got to get in and kind of pull out some rebounds. The last three or four minutes we’re getting just enough rebounds and stops.
“Just a lot of good defensive plays, not just whether it be the pick and roll or different things but the activity behind it was good.”
Antetokounmpo had a three-point play to make it 100-99, and then provided the key defensive play minutess later when he blocked Leonard shot to force a 24-second violation. Trailing by seven points in the fourth, Milwaukee regained the lead 101-100 when Antetokounmpo made two free throws with 1:57 left.
The Clippers had the ball with a chance to take the lead on few occasions but just couldn’t convert. Paul George missed a layup with 1:35 remaining. Kawhi Leonard’s tying 3-point attempt bounced off the front rim in the closing seconds. Khris Middleton got the rebound and sealed it by making two free throws with 2.1 seconds remaining.
Leonard led five Clippers in double figures with 25 points. George finished with 16 while Ibaka scored 15 and had 11 rebounds.
Middleton finished with 19 points, eight assists and six boards. Donte DiVincenzo 11 and Brook Lopez 10 had double figures for the Bucks.
“We have good strides in games, closing them out and making the shots that we need to,” Leonard said. “It was just one of those nights.
Milwaukee guard Jrue Holiday returned to the lineup after missing 10 games due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Holiday acknowledged after the game that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I had symptoms,” Holiday said. “It wasn’t fun, but I’m glad everyone’s OK and that I’m OK now.”
Holiday came off the bench midway through the first quarter and finished with two points and three assists in 18 minutes.
“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow.”