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Mirotic makes a 'great' Bucks debut, re-adjusts quickly to East race

MILWAUKEE — As a game, this one never did launch, with the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks slogging through 48 minutes of attrition. It was an ugly contest played by two rusty teams, the absence of rhythm from a weeklong All-Star break masquerading as pesky defense — yeah, that’s it, defense — rather than off-kilter shooting.

The Bucks’ 98-97 victory at Fiserv Forum on Thursday was so unsightly, in fact, that Milwaukee’s new sniper, Nikola Mirotic, got his first field goal with his new club on a layup. Off an offensive rebound.

Not exactly Threekola.

“All I wanted to do was make the layup,” Mirotic said afterward, smiling. “Let me make the layup first, and then we go on.”

Milwaukee goes on with a 44-14 record, best in the NBA. The Bucks already have won as many games as they did in all of 2017-18, but let’s face it, that reference point largely has become irrelevant.

Last season is best remembered for its underachievement, a half-dozen games above .500 and a first-round ouster by these same Celtics. The designs are grander this time, and Mirotic’s arrival at the Feb. 7 trade deadline is the latest reason for that.

With the Philadelphia 76ers picking up Tobias Harris and Jonathon Simmons, with the Toronto Raptors adding Marc Gasol and with Boston still considered the deepest of the Eastern Conference’s contenders, it was important for the Bucks to keep pace in the arms race. Mirotic, 28, is a 6-foot-10 stretch 4 who had a 59.1 true shooting percentage for New Orleans before the trade to Milwaukee, and who hit 43.1 percent of his 3-pointers in two rounds of the playoffs last spring.

In his Bucks debut — and first appearance, period, since January 23, due to a right calf sprain — Mirotic scored eight points with three rebounds and 2-of-6 shooting from the arc.

“Niko was great,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “He just has a way of playing, has the confidence. He’s been a pro for a long time, so he was anxious to get back and contribute. I think he feels great about the opportunity, the team he’s joining. He just wants to help us, and I think he helped us tonight. On both ends.”

Mirotic did make his presence felt defensively, a must for any Milwaukee newcomer. The Bucks led the NBA in defensive rating (101.6) and opponents’ field-goal percentage (43 percent) heading into Thursday’s game, then held the Celtics to 97 points on 38.2 percent shooting.

“That’s what I do, I also play defense, that’s true,” Mirotic said. “A lot of guys think I just shoot the basketball, shoot 3s. I feel fresh. Seriously. I’ve been out for more than 10 days … I know I can guard. Last year in the playoffs was a huge step up for me, showing what I can do defensively and rebound the ball. With this team, I have to bring everything I can. They’ve put a lot of trust in me.”

Khris Middleton made Milwaukee’s biggest 3-pointer, hitting from out front to make it 98-95 with 32.5 seconds remaining. But Mirotic sandwiched a pair of them around a Boston timeout with about three minutes to go in the third quarter. Then he took to the floor for a loose ball, tussling with Celtics strongman Marcus Morris to force a jump ball.

Said Middleton: “For his first game with a new team and being out a month, he came in and made some big shots. You could see what he can bring to this team. His skill set, his versatility and his IQ. He’s a guy who should be able to fit right in with us.”

While Middleton, Bucks MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the entire coaching staff represented the team at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mirotic spent the break getting treatment, putting up shots and finding a house for himself, wife Nina and son Alexsej. They are settling in “about 3 minutes away” from the practice facility and arena.

Finally, on Wednesday, he was able to practice 5-on-5. And he had a conversation with Antetokounmpo that, they hope, fast-tracks Mirotic’s comfort level.

“I talked a little bit with him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He said, sometimes when I pass to him I caught him off guard. He doesn’t think I’m able to make those passes to the corner. So I told him, ‘You’ve always got to be ready. Whenever I’m coming down and I see a [defender], taking a step toward the paint, you’ve got to be ready. He was ready the second half. He knocked down some big shots for us. He’s going to keep playing great.”

Mirotic’s playing time looks like it will come at forward D.J. Wilson’s expense, at least based on one night. But that’s no issue at all for the chemistry-rich Bucks. He felt nervous initially when he subbed in, but Mirotic settled down swiftly, thanks to a rousing welcome by Bucks fans and some advice from Budenholzer.

“Just play simple,” Mirotic said. “The way the guys played, that’s exactly how I like it. Spread the floor, run the floor. Just beautiful basketball. With this team, it’s easy because all they want to do is space the floor. Create space for Giannis to get to the basket, so tonight they were talking to me a lot.”

The more Mirotic helps Milwaukee, the more beautiful things are going to get for all of them.

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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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