MILWAUKEE– The Milwaukee Bucks believed their defense was improving, although they struggled to win games immediately after the arrival of new coach Doc Rivers.
Now they are producing results to back this up.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 36 points, 18 rebounds and five assists as the Bucks showed off their improved defense by beating the Denver Nuggets 112-95 on Monday night. For the first time this season, the Bucks have allowed fewer than 100 points in consecutive games.
“Right now we’re trying to help each other defensively and make things as difficult as possible,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s team defense. No one can do it alone. Right now, I feel like we’re embracing that philosophy as a team.
After losing five of their first six games under Rivers — including a 113-107 defeat at Denver in his debut with Milwaukee — the Bucks have won two in a row by a combined margin of 53 points.
This loss for the reigning NBA champions follows Milwaukee’s most lopsided victory of the season, a 120-84 rout of the Charlotte Hornets.
“Our entire staff does a great job announcing everything,” Damian Lillard said. “They challenge us in many different ways: our communication, our physicality, our behavior as a group. We are trying to find our identity. Who do we want to be?
Nikola Jokic had 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists for the Nuggets, but he didn’t get enough help on a night where two teammates left injured. Aaron Gordon scored 14 and Michael Porter Jr. scored 11.
Denver’s Jamal Murray scored three points in 18 minutes before sitting out the second half with shin splints. And Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played just nine minutes before leaving with right hamstring strain, a problem that caused him to miss the Nuggets’ last two games.
Lillard scored 18 points for the Bucks and Bobby Portis added 13 before being ejected with 4:54 remaining. Antetokounmpo’s 18 rebounds matched his season high.
The Nuggets lost their second straight game. They were playing three nights after a 135-106 loss at Sacramento that ended a three-game winning streak.
“I think as a head coach I have to make sure that I don’t overreact and panic, while respecting the delicate balance between holding them accountable and letting them know how we are playing in this moment the last two games. not good enough,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We have an opportunity to go home and right the ship before we go into the break.”
Denver fell behind 13-2 in the first 4½ minutes, but recovered and led 23-21 after Reggie Jackson’s layup with 1:50 left in the first quarter.
But the Nuggets got just one more basket during a nearly seven-minute stretch as the Bucks went on a 22-3 run to take a 43-26 advantage.
Milwaukee took the lead by scoring the final seven points of the first quarter while Antetokounmpo and Lillard were on the bench after committing two early fouls. The Bucks then scored the first seven points of the second half as Antetokounmpo opened the period with a one-handed slam off a pass from Pat Connaughton.
The Bucks capped the 22-3 surge with a one-handed dunk by Portis off a pass from Lillard. Milwaukee led by 22 points in the second quarter and entered halftime with a 60-44 lead.
Milwaukee extended the lead to 28 in the final minute of the third quarter on another Portis dunk. That dunk led to the first of Portis’ two technical fouls, which resulted in his ejection.
Bucks: Host the Miami Heat on Tuesday.
Nuggets: Host the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday.
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