The Milwaukee Bucks went into Saturday nights contest against the Atlanta Hawks hoping for a resounding response to a dreadful loss to the Orlando Magic. Instead, they fumbled their way to a five point victory, that took until the final two minutes to secure. It was indeed, a troubling night for the Bucks, who are in the middle of a hotly contested battle for playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference.
Giannis Antetokounmpo came out aggressive against the Hawks, knocking down two three-pointers in the first quarter, and attempting to attack the paint at every opportunity. Despite his best efforts, the Bucks fell behind by as many as nine points in the first period, as Atlanta appeared to grow in confidence. A pair of Jabari Parker posters, the first on Mike Muscala, the second on John Collins, sparked the sluggish Bucks in the second quarter as they regained the lead. Milwaukee eventually ground out a 122-117 victory, a much needed one, and now look ahead to a formidable foe.
Milwaukee will go from facing the East’s worst team, to the three time defending Eastern Conference Champion, Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bucks and Cavs will square off for the fourth time in the season. Cleveland have won two out of the three meetings so far, and will look secure what may become an important tie-breaker. The Cavs are three games ahead of the Bucks in the standings, thus a Milwaukee victory could make things interesting down the stretch.
It will however, be an overhauled Cleveland roster from the last time these two teams met, as Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr were acquired at the trade deadline. Despite the roster moves, it’s on the defensive end that the struggles continue for Cleveland. Ranked 28th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 109.5 points per 100 possessions, the Cavs have allowed teams to score at will all season. The Bucks suddenly floundering offense will look to get back on track against a team they have averaged 111.6 points against so far this season.
On the injury front, the Bucks will be hoping to regain Tyler Zeller, who missed the Atlanta game with back soreness. For Cleveland, the status of Nance Jr (hamstring), Kyle Korver (personal), and Hood (back), has not been confirmed at the time of publishing and remain game-day decisions. Big men Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love are already established as scratches for the night.
Giannis v LeBron has become must view TV, and with playoff positioning on the line, both superstars are set to unleash their vast array of talents upon a national audience. After heading into the All-Star break full of momentum, the Bucks have faulted, and now find themselves scrapping to get out of the bottom two playoff positions. With their backs against the wall, I couldn’t think of a better stage to bounce back.
Kane’s Keys To Victory:
- MVP Giannis: If there’s one team the Greek Freak likes facing, it’s Cleveland. Across 17 career games against the Cavs, Giannis averages 20.8 points per game. This is his highest scoring average against an Eastern Conference rival, and it comes as no surprise, given he appears to flourish with the challenge of facing LeBron. The last meeting between these two teams was a thriller, Giannis stealing the ball from in between Lebron’s legs to draw a foul and finish the lay-up, securing a huge 119-116 victory over the Cavs. History tells us Antetokounmpo is in for a monster night, the Bucks will certainly need it if they are to come away with the victory.
- Anyone but LeBron: Seems obvious, but the Bucks desperately need to make someone else beat them tonight. LeBron has destroyed the league for the best part of a decade and a half, and he’s certainly given the Bucks his far share of dominance. James averages 28.4 points per game against Milwaukee over 54 career contests. This is his third highest point average, only trailing his efforts against Boston and OKC, though he has played less games against those two. In the three battles against the Bucks this season, he is averaging 31 points per game, while shooting an absolutely ridiculous 53 percent from beyond the three-point arc. It’s easier said then done, but the Bucks simply have to make someone else beat them tonight. LeBron has done it enough over his career.
- Take advantage of missing bigs: Kevin Love has utterly destroyed the Bucks this season. Averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds, Milwaukee had no answer to him on either end of the floor. Tristan Thompson is also a terrific rebounder that will be missing. This is music to the struggling Bucks big men’s ears, as they find themselves a rare match-up where they could have an advantage. Whether it be through John Henson and Tyler Zeller, or stretching the floor with Thon Maker, Milwaukee should feel confident they will be able to handle what the Cavs throw at them. This will be even more relevant if the ridiculously athletic Nance Jr is deemed unfit to play. Oh yeah, I also highly recommend we are treated to a healthy dose of Giannis at the five. They have been routinely dominated, but tonight is a night the Bucks big men should look to take control.
Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus