An­te­tok­oun­mpo’s Bucks are spit­ting fire

Mil­wau­kee hasn’t got­ten over how last sea­son ended

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Ben Gol­liver

LOS AN­GE­LES — The Mil­wau­kee Bucks went from dar­lings to foot­notes dur­ing one fate­ful week in May, when four straight losses to the Toronto Rap­tors knocked them out of the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals and off the NBA’s radar.

Their league-best 60 wins un­der Coach Mike Bu­den­holzer, their 10-1 start to the 2019 play­offs and Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo’s MVP run were all ba­si­cally erased from the na­tional con­scious­ness. Into the void: Kawhi Leonard’s coro­na­tion, the Golden State War­riors’ trau­matic in­juries, spec­u­la­tion about An­te­tok­oun­mpo’s free agency and a block­buster sum­mer that saw su­per­stars such as Kevin Du­rant, An­thony Davis and Paul Ge­orge change Zip codes.

Al­most as soon as the NBA­nar­ra­tive mill had warmed to Mil­wau­kee and its ex­tra­or­di­nary progress, it moved on to new su­per­star pair­ings and back to the com­fort of big­ger mar­kets. The Bucks, though, have not for­got­ten how close they came against the Rap­tors, nor have they aban­doned the prin­ci­ples that got them there in the first place.

“I’m def­i­nitely not over it,” Bucks gen­eral man­ager Jon Horst told The Wash­ing­ton Post be­fore a 129-124 road vic­tory over the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers on Wed­nes­day. “We’re all re­gret­ful we didn’t win that se­ries. I don’t think any­one will be over it un­til you get an op­por­tu­nity to right the ship. That’s why we do this: Ev­ery com­peti­tor wants a chance to work and get bet­ter than they were last time. [Bu­den­holzer] has done that. Gian­nis has done that. All our play­ers have. Hope­fully you can see that from what our front of­fice did in the off­sea­son, too.”

If Horst sounds like a man on a mis­sion, An­te­tok­oun­mpo cer­tainly looks like one. On Satur­day, the Greek for­ward put up 36 points, 15 re­bounds and eight as­sists in a win over the Rap­tors, ad­mit­ting to “a lot of mo­ti­va­tion” in his first re­match against the reign­ing cham­pi­ons. On Mon­day, he pul­ver­ized the Tim­ber­wolves with 34 points, 15 re­bounds and six as­sists. On Wed­nes­day, as Leonard looked on from the bench while rest­ing be­cause of load man­age­ment, An­te­tok­oun­mpo tal­lied 38 points, 16 re­bounds, nine as­sists, two steals and two blocks to knock off the Clip­pers.

“I’m not go­ing to say I was dis­ap­pointed,” An­te­tok­oun­mpo said of his missed con­nec­tion with Leonard. “If Kawhi is play­ing, you’re go­ing to have a tough night. I’m ex­cited to see him in the fu­ture.”

Freed from his foil, An­te­tok­oun­mpo hit four three-point­ers, played the en­tire fourth quar­ter, made nu­mer­ous hus­tle plays and con­verted four free throws in the fi­nal minute to help seal the win. This was the type of tour de force that has be­come rou­tine for him, and he left the Sta­ples Cen­ter court to scat­tered “M-V-P” chants from ap­pre­cia­tive Bucks fans. Af­ter­ward, he mut­tered that he isn’t “as sharp as I want to be” with his shoot­ing stroke, a scary propo­si­tion given that he ranks fifth in the NBA in scor­ing while cap­tain­ing the league’s most ef­fi­cient of­fense.

In­deed, there is a deep-seated per­fec­tion­ism to every­thing An­te­tok­oun­mpo does, whether he is grunt­ing through con­tact drills more than two hours be­fore tip-off or de­scrib­ing re­cent tweaks to his shoot­ing me­chan­ics. His drive is matched by a fierce loy­alty to his team­mates. Af­ter Eric Bled­soe mis­tak­enly and embarrassi­ngly stepped onto the court in­stead of in­bound­ing the ball, An­te­tok­oun­mpo rushed to take the blame be­cause he had tried to call a play that prompted the con­fu­sion. When a re­porter in­quired about his ca­reer-high 7.6 as­sists per game, which places him in the NBA’s top 10, he Euro-stepped the premise and de­ferred all credit to the shoot­ers that sur­round him.

“He’s just a sen­sa­tional player with a sen­sa­tional men­tal makeup,” Clip­pers Coach Doc Rivers said. “There are very few play­ers that you have to deal with their tal­ent and with their ap­proach. When you play Gian­nis, he will try to kill you if he can.”

Horst’s off­sea­son plan for sup­port­ing his fran­chise player, who will be el­i­gi­ble to sign a five-year, $250 mil­lion su­per­max con­tract next sum­mer, wasn’t par­tic­u­larly flashy or com­pli­cated. While the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers, Clip­pers and Brook­lyn Nets loaded up on star power, Mil­wau­kee aimed to re­tain as many of its free agents as pos­si­ble while adding low-cost, high­char­ac­ter vet­er­ans to pre­pare for an­other deep play­off run. Af­ter ink­ing Bled­soe to an early ex­ten­sion, the Bucks re-signed starters Khris Mid­dle­ton and Brook Lopez be­fore adding Wes­ley Matthews and Lopez’s twin, Robin, on two-year con­tracts.

The one ma­jor ca­su­alty was Mal­colm Brog­don, a key sec­ondary ball­han­dler who re­ceived a four-year, $85 mil­lion con­tract from the In­di­ana Pac­ers in a sign-and­trade. Crit­ics quickly won­dered whether Mil­wau­kee was cut­ting cor­ners and cost­ing it­self a key play­off piece by not re­tain­ing the 26-year-old guard, who is av­er­ag­ing 22.3 points and 9.9 as­sists per game.

“I’m pained by it, yes,” Horst said of Brog­don’s de­par­ture. “Mal­colm is a great per­son and a great player. I wish him the best in In­di­ana. But I don’t feel like we were forced to do any­thing that we didn’t want to. We made a trade with Tony Snell that freed us up to match any of­fers. We have an own­er­ship group that has al­lowed us to do what­ever we need to do [fi­nan­cially]. The de­ci­sion on Mal­colm re­ally came down to what we thought we could get in re­turn. Do we want to pay for what we think his mar­ket could be or do we want to see if we could get some­thing that helps us now and go­ing for­ward?”

Mil­wau­kee re­ceived a first-round pick and two se­cond-round picks, help­ing to re­plen­ish an as­set pool that was de­pleted by win-now deals for Ge­orge Hill and Nikola Mirotic last sea­son.

“I don’t think it’s said enough in the NBA that it’s pos­si­ble for both par­ties to win,” Horst con­tin­ued. “It’s pos­si­ble that we could be a bet­ter team with­out Mal­colm. It’s pos­si­ble that he could be a bet­ter player in In­di­ana. It’s pos­si­ble that we could both do a great trade. Early on, it looks like that.”

The Bucks boast a 6-2 record and the league’s best net rat­ing, with An­te­tok­oun­mpo al­ready emerg­ing as one of the top 2020 MVP can­di­dates. Although Matthews and Robin Lopez, a 7-footer who is be­ing en­cour­aged to launch three­p­oint­ers for the first time, have yet to find their out­side touch, Bu­den­holzer’s five-out of­fense is tied for first in three-point makes.

MORRY GASH/AP

Mil­wau­kee Bucks’ Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo re­acts af­ter his dunk Nov. 2 in Mil­wau­kee.

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