Bucks make statement in 14th straight victory, dismantling Clippers

Rivers: 'We were awful ... I don't think we played with any zip'

MILWAUKEE — Nobody likes to show up to a party, least of all a birthday party, empty-handed. So with the LA Clippers playing at Fiserv Forum Friday on the night Giannis Antetokounmpo turned 25, coach Doc Rivers and his players faced a dicey choice: impolite or awkward.

They opted for awkward, falling behind by as much as 41 points in losing 119-91 to an Eastern Conference counterpart with the same championship aspirations they have.

“It was Giannis’ birthday and we searched all over the city to find a gift,” Rivers said afterward. “Couldn’t find one. So we gave him this one.”

Hello, is this mic on? The joke fell flat in the postgame media scrum.

“That’s all I can come up with. Best I’ve got,” Rivers said. “We were awful.”

The Clippers were that, particularly on offense (shooting 8-for-32 on 3-pointers and 21 turnovers, which led to 29 Milwaukee points). But that just made the Bucks by contrast shine so much more brightly in winning for the 14th consecutive time and 18th time in their past 19 games.

This game had all the makings of a potential Finals preview. Both coaches acknowledged that there was a bit more buzz, with two heavyweights meeting with essentially healthy rosters and all their All-Stars all on board.

The Clippers in particular were amped after practicing Thursday for the first time all season with both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in the starting unit. And yet:

“I didn’t think we played with any zip,” Rivers said. “You could see from the beginning of the game. Offensively, we were so slow, so easy to guard as a group. … Their entire team was more physical. I felt they really looked at this game as a big game, the way they played. I thought we showed up to play a basketball game.”

That could get twisted into something dismissive – Y’know, it was a bigger deal to Milwaukee – except that the Bucks just did, again, what they’ve been doing for a while now.

The last team to beat them was Utah back on Nov. 8, their lone misstep in a four-game Western trip. This streak of theirs is the franchise’s longest since 1973, surpassed only by the 20- and 16-gamers Milwaukee had in its 1970-71 championship season.

At 20-3, the Bucks have matched the best start through 23 games in team history, something they did both in 1970 and 1971 when they had another hoops freak of nature who needed only one name (Kareem).

And now Milwaukee has won its last four games by 137 points, treating the Clippers (28) no differently from Charlotte (41), New York (44) or Detroit (24) all in the past week. That’s the second-largest point differential over four games in NBA history (Sacramento outscored four foes by 150 in 1992-93).

“To do what we did defensively and offensively was great,” said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer. “We’re getting closer to 48 minutes of the kind of team we want to be.”

Antetokounmpo celebrated his birthday with 27 points and 11 rebounds, his 21st double-double and 20th 20-10 game. And he did it in 26:21, the very best kind of load management.

You know Kawhi and Paul George want to get into the passing lanes, want to get deflections. Their hands are always there.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Curiously, Rivers assigned forward Mo Harkless to Antetokounmpo. Never mind he has two of the best wing defenders at his disposal, with either Doberman capable of throwing the Bucks’ attack out of whack by choking off its leader.

“Well, that’s what we’ve been doing all year. We start out games with other guys guarding their [best] guy,” Rivers said. “Y’know, Giannis didn’t guard Kawhi either.”

OK, so the Bucks might want to keep their MVP from early foul trouble. But the Clippers have two.

“But they’re both coming off injuries, too,” Rivers said. “They’re not 100 percent yet. The second half of the year, they’ll do it more.”

Not against Milwaukee. These clubs are done this season, with the Bucks sweeping 2-0.

Most of the Clippers’ rotation guys got their turns in the tank against Antetokounmpo. And it worked all right, as he scored 10 points by halftime. In the third quarter, however, Antetkounmpo scored 13 points, including 10 straight early in which he blistered all comers with a layup, an alley-oop throwdown, a thunderous dunk and a 3-pointer from out front. Milwaukee’s 35-19 edge in the period made it 87-62 with 12 minutes left.

Surprisingly, Antetokounmpo said that not having Leonard or George locked in as his primary defender actually made his life tougher.

“You know Kawhi and Paul George want to get into the passing lanes, want to get deflections,” he said. “Their hands are always there. So now you’ve got to worry about three guys basically, and not just Harkless. I think it’s better when Kawhi is on me because you know, all right, he’s right here. He’s not helping. He’s not in the passing lanes. He’s not going to put his hands in when I’m dribbling.”

There was no comeback in the Clippers. Leonard (25.0 points), George (23.5), Lou Williams (21.1) and Montrezl Harrell (19.1) typically combine for 88.7 points nightly. But they had 47 with a quarter to go Friday. And with 9:25 left, Rivers went white flag, sitting them all down.

So Milwaukee, making a persuasive case as the NBA’s best team, didn’t have to gut out all 48 minutes after all.

The night unexpectedly wound up a lot like Antetokounmpo’s postgame menu.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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