MILWAUKEE — This wasn’t the Milwaukee Bucks‘ first preseason game of the new campaign — they beat the Bulls on Monday night — but this was the first game that Giannis Antetokounmpo played in, so in a way it was their first real game. In any case, they certainly look ready to contend again in the Eastern Conference, as they dominated the Utah Jazz, 133-99.
The reigning MVP put up 22 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in just 20 minutes, while Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton each added 14 points. One slight negative was that starting point guard Eric Bledsoe left the game with an oblique strain, but it’s not yet clear how serious that injury is or how long he’ll be out.
Here are a few key takeaways from the Bucks’ win:
Bucks are still the Bucks
In case there was any doubt, the Bucks are still the Bucks. They’re going to spread you out and play through Giannis, launch 3s and get after it on the defensive end. And, more often than not, they’re going to win.
The reigning MVP was spectacular in his first preseason game, throwing down a huge dunk and following it up with one of his patented mean mugs 40 seconds into the game, and only got better from there. He finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in just 20 minutes, and in fact may have been a little too eager to put on a show. Early in the third quarter, he landed awkwardly after throwing down a windmill slam in transition, and was immediately yanked from the game for good.
“He’s on go all the time and it sets the tone for our whole team and for everything we do,” head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think we take alot of pride in competing. I thought you were going to ask about not playing him, so that goes through your head a little bit more than calming him down. Giannis only plays one way and I would never want to change that.”
As a team, the Bucks fired up three dozen three-pointers, going 15-of-36 from downtown for a smooth 41.7 percent mark. As per usual, no one on the team was afraid to let it fly, with 16 of the 17 players who checked in taking at least one shot from deep. Even Robin Lopez was getting in on the act, following in his brother’s footsteps by going 1-of-2 from behind the arc.
The Jazz were not playing their real lineup, and even the starters that did play were only out there for the first half, so you don’t want to read too much into the Bucks’ work on the defensive end, but once again they were stellar. They held the Jazz to 37.2 percent shooting from the field and 20.7 percent from three, and boasted an 88.5 defensive rating. They finished with the No. 1 ranked defense in the league last season, and should be up there again this season thanks to Eric Bledsoe, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez leading the way.
Giannis still has work to do on his jumper
There was plenty of talk about Giannis’ lack of a jump shot after the Bucks were eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals by the Raptors, so much so that he even commented on it during an interview with the Bucks’ digital team in the offseason. “I can still win the championship not shooting the three, but I want to shoot the three,” . “I shot the three a little bit better this year, as the season went along I was getting better. Shooting the three is gonna make it a lot easier for my game and a lot easier for my teammates, so I gotta add that element to my game.”
It’s true that he wasn’t that bad in the second half of last season, shooting 32 percent after Jan. 1. However, as Wednesday night’s game showed, he still has plenty of work to do to make teams respect him from behind the arc. He put up three triples, and none of them were particularly close. In fact, the last one was an airball. It should be noted that they all came from the right wing, which is not his favorite spot on the floor, but still. It was an inauspicious start — especially after the likes of Ben Simmons, Steven Adams and Boban Marjanovic were cashing threes last night.
Last starting spot still up for grabs
The Bucks brought back most of their core from last season, and committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the roster in the process, but the one key piece they decided was too expensive was Malcolm Brogdon. In the end, they worked out a sign-and-trade with the Indiana Pacers that saw Brogdon sign a four-year, $85 million contract. He was an important player for them, especially in the playoffs, and that decision will be re-litigated over the next few years. But for now, his departure leaves a hole in the starting lineup.
This was the first game in which the Bucks ran out a legitimate lineup, and in the first half, Wes Matthews got the nod as the fifth starter alongside Bledsoe, Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Lopez. In the second half, however, head coach Mike Budenholzer decided to give second-year guard Donte DiVincenzo a shot, signaling that the last starting spot may still be up for grabs.
As a veteran, strong three-point shooter and hard-nosed defender, Matthews figures to have the upper hand in that battle, but he may not have the starting spot locked up quite yet. After the game, Budenholzer was non-committal, but did praise Matthews.
“Tonight it was Wesley,” Budenholzer said. “He’s been in the league for such a long time, he’s such a good competitor, I think he’s gonna fit in well with them. If we use other guys in that spot, I think there’s a lot of chemistry that whoever it is will bring to those four, but those four have a real understanding of each other.”