MILWAUKEE -- On a night ripe for milestones -- new arena, new coach, new beginning for the Bucks -- no one would have guessed that Mike Budenholzer’s first timeout would be called at Fiserv Forum before his team managed its first field goal.
Yet there it was, at 9:42 of the first quarter, Milwaukee down 8-0 to the Indiana Pacers.
“The first couple minutes, I don’t know what it was. We were on another planet or something,” Budenholzer said.
Opening night jitters? Pressure to instantly establish a home-court advantage in their shiny new digs? Understandable, actually, on a big night for a franchise that isn’t used to having such nice things, either around the court (the impressive building) or on it (Giannis Antetokounmpo’s burgeoning stardom).
The legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in the house Friday, two arenas removed from where he led the Bucks to their greatest glories early in their history. What he and everybody else saw in Antetokounmpo was Milwaukee’s best hope since those glory days to carry it to Finals appearances and someday even a second NBA title.
That’s a ways off, sure, but Antetokounmpo followed up his 25-point, 18-rebound performance against Charlotte on Wednesday by scoring 26 and grabbing 15 against the Pacers. The 33 rebounds through two games tied him for the most in Bucks history with, what d’ya know, Abdul-Jabbar.
Another bit of team history fell in their 118-101 victory: the Bucks launched 46 3-point shots, their most ever, and made 17. The Pacers were an old-millennium 6-of-18 by comparison, trading 2s for 3s as the gap on the scoreboard grew and grew.
How distance-daffy were the Bucks? Antetokounmpo missed all six of his attempts and no one cared. Khris Middleton jacked up nine, center Brook Lopez shot eight. And there was 6-foot-11 John Henson launching and hitting two, one deep into the second quarter, the other to end the third, both from the left wing.
He missed a “heat check” from the same area in the fourth to wind up 2-of-3 from the arc.
Which was a little better than the 1-for-13 he’d been through his first six NBA seasons, for five different Milwaukee coaches, through 392 career games.
No wonder Antetokounmpo was teasing him from across the locker room afterward. “John,” the Bucks’ spirited star called out, looking over a cluster of reporters, “I’m telling them about your 3-point shooting. You looked like KD out there.”
It’s a "Bud thing," as in Budenholzer, who has stretched his new team’s attack to more effectively comply with the league’s modern tenets and to open pathways into the paint for Antetokounmpo and guard Eric Bledsoe in particular.
There’s a truism in the NBA that offenses “take” what the defenses “give” them. But in this day and age, nobody is willingly giving an opponent 46 shots from 3-point range. Milwaukee is 31-of-80 (.388) after opening its season 14-of-34 against the Hornets. Last season, it averaged 8.8 makes on 24.7 attempts to rank 27th and 25th respectively.
“That’s kind of the way the offense is, man,” Henson said. “Our motto is ‘Let it fly.’ We work on it every day -- a lot. Shoot a lot of 3s. It’s part of what we need to do to be successful.
“This summer, Bud called me and told me, ‘Shoot a lot of 3s.’ That was the start of it. And that was kind of like, all summer. [The coaches] trust us, they give us confidence. But we work on it a lot. Every day we shoot 3s. Every day. Literally. That’s new.”
That includes Antetokounmpo, whose 0-for-9 start to this season has him at 28 percent for his career from deep. “It’s going up,” he said late Friday. “I’m not stopping. I worked hard this summer.”
There’s no sense doubting Antetokounmpo’s ability to add that weapon to his arsenal in time. As Budenholzer said after the 23-year-old’s dunk-filled display (with six turnovers for a total of 14 now), “I’m sure tonight he’s going to go home and think of all the ways he can be better.”
In the meantime, though, just having deep threats around Antetokounmpo opens up more opportunities than ever for him and the Bucks to slice and dice.
“It means more space for him,” Middleton said. “You saw a lot tonight -- attacking the gaps, guys hesitate a little to come over and load or come over and be the extra man at the rim. Because they know the big (Lopez or Henson) is out at the 3-point line or a guard is spotting up, waiting for him to pass it, and they know (Antetokounmpo) is a willing passer.”
With LeBron James having vacated the Eastern Conference, plenty of people see Antetokounmpo as next in line as the East’s best player. Already, teams have to account for the Bucks’ multi-dimensional marvel the way they did for Cleveland’s former catalyst.
“He’s very capable of dominating the game with his ability to handle,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “They’re playing him at the three and … a lot more at the four, a point forward. So he will be everywhere with the ball. He’ll be leading their fast break. He’ll be in the post, running the offense. Out front and out top, running pick-and-rolls with different combinations. So the versatility he has, you have to make sure you have the right matchup out there guarding.
“So it does pose a challenge similar to a LeBron because they’re everywhere with the ball.”
With Antetokounmpo everywhere and his teammates way out there, the Bucks have a chance to stretch not just defenses but their opening night fun deep into 2018-19.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.