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Surging Bucks slip, and it only makes their rise more evident

The Bucks fall to the Heat, but have won 10 of 12 and are quickly regaining their championship form while putting the East on notice.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

 

After a rocky start, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are finally looking like champions again in their title defense.

MIAMI — You would think the Milwaukee Bucks, of all teams, would know better than to underestimate a stripped-down opponent that’s missing a few key pieces and has no choice but to scrap and sneer its way to a productive night.

That’s because the Miami Heat, taking the floor Wednesday without Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, were in a situation the Bucks found themselves mired in recently, plugging similarly-sized holes since the 2021-22 season began.

The Heat were desperate, so they out-hustled Milwaukee, with hungry reserves playing beyond their typical levels and claimed a 113-104 victory over the defending NBA champions. For the Bucks, it was a humbling experience, given how they had finally healed up and turned around their season over the last few weeks.

Most likely, this will be a temporary setback for the Bucks, who are trying — and now mostly succeeding — to regain that championship shine. They came to Miami winners of 10 of their last 11 games and upped their record to seven games over .500. This breezy turnaround stretch brought a sigh of relief to the Bucks, who struggled in their fractured state and watched other contenders pass them by in the standings and the pecking order.

Game Recap: Heat 113, Bucks 104

The season just reached the quarter-pole and there’s no reason for panic. But the Bucks likely wanted and perhaps needed to recapture the feeling of authority they had throughout last spring and summer, when they went scorched-earth on the league and won their first title in 50 years.

The common denominator, then and now, was and is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who apparently is slump-proof. The two-time former Kia MVP once again is on a dominant level, averaging 27.0 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Plus, unlike some of his teammates, he has been durable, missing only three games.

A patched-together rotation left the Bucks slogging along and they started 6-8. Only once — on opening night, when they received their rings — have the Bucks put the championship starting five on the floor.

Brook Lopez hasn’t been seen since: Back soreness was followed by back surgery last week and it’s anyone’s guess if the center can return this season. That would be an unfortunate absence, given the roles Lopez performed for the club the last two seasons.

“Brook was such an incredible rim protector, incredible defender, incredible communicator,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “I think he could clean up a lot of things for us. He could cover a lot of things that maybe weren’t exactly how they were supposed to be, and Brook would save the day. It’s just different [without him]. I think the whole group needs to be more active without him.”

Fortunately for the Bucks, help came from within, somewhat unexpectedly. It’s not that what Bobby Portis is doing rates as a surprise — he was an emotional and energizing figure and a fan-favorite in the title run. But Portis is doing work out of position, shifting from power forward to center, and from the bench to the starting lineup.

The Milwaukee Bucks' supporting cast has been stepping up recently to win games while Giannis was out.

Portis is 6-foot-10 and giving away a few inches and dinners to opposing centers, yet is having a career-best season (15.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) while not conflicting with Giannis at either rim.

“Everything you give to Bobby, he takes it and runs with it,” Budenholzer said. “His activity feels like he’s everywhere. But the defense is what counts. He takes it to another level.”

Portis is playing big and relishing the chance to tap into another source of production. The Bucks should be pinching themselves, because they re-signed Portis last summer even though Portis probably could’ve made a bit more elsewhere in free agency. But he fell in love with the club, the city and the reception he received from both and therefore believed the grass, if not the cash, was greener in Milwaukee.

And lately, that decision is looking better.

“I just think our team is getting better, game by game,” Portis said.

The season had to flip at some point for the Bucks. Khris Middleton, the club’s second-leading scorer and most dependable all-around shooter, missed eight games. Jrue Holiday, an ace defensive guard, missed six. Keep in mind that the Bucks are still waiting on Donte DiVincenzo to fully mend from the ankle injury that dates to last season.

The Bucks and Phoenix Suns — Milwaukee’s championship opponent — had less time to prepare for this season than other teams because The Finals stretched into late July. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that fatigue has been somewhat of a factor, although the Bucks haven’t used that as an excuse.

They discovered an unexpected bonus in Grayson Allen. The shooting specialist arrived from the Memphis Grizzlies and immediately became a solid fit, giving the Bucks another floor-spacer next to Pat Connaughton. Allen is shooting a career-high 42% on 3-pointers and has started every game this season.

The biggest factor is, once again, Giannis. He turned 27 a few days ago and everything indicates that he’s only in the early stages of his prime. The Bucks remain stingy with his playing time — at 32.4 minutes a night, Antetokounmpo doesn’t get as much burn as other A-list players. But it works for him and the Bucks, because his production remains high and his injury rate stays low.

On his 27th birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo returned to the Bucks' lineup and reminded everyone how far he's come.

Yet Wednesday marked the Bucks’ first loss with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton in the lineup. This was partly due to PJ Tucker’s defense on Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee traded for Tucker last season specifically to fill that role and he was everything the Bucks wanted in a stopper. The didn’t re-sign him over the summer — with the choice essentially down to Portis or Tucker — and he joined the Heat, who welcomed his tough-guy tendencies and believed, with justification, that he’d fit well next to fellow tough-guy Butler.

In the Wednesday meeting with old friends, Tucker seized the chance to chop down Giannis, holding him to 4-for-13 shooting and 15 mild points. In addition, Tucker supplied 15 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in an I’ll-show-them performance.

“We know what he can do on defense,” Holiday said.

Added Antetokounmpo: “When you see a lot of bodies in front of you, you’ve got to trust, you’ve got to move the ball, you’ve got to pass it. The only thing I think is maybe get downhill a little bit more. Be more aggressive. I think sometimes when you see me try to play the right way, I pass it too much. Probably just be more aggressive.”

At some point this season, hopefully for the sake of the two teams who met Wednesday, it’ll be full health, or close enough, for the Bucks and Heat. And then they’ll know their true worth and a better indication of how far they can go.

The Bucks can finally see the light, though. The defending champs want to make an honest defense of that title, and finally this season, the sprint doesn’t seem so uphill anymore.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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