Greek Freak gets Bucks past Spurs
MILWAUKEE — For 17 seasons as an assistant on the Spurs bench, Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer had a front-row seat to the fundamental greatness that was Tim Duncan.
In five seasons running his own team in Atlanta, Budenholzer guided playoff teams led by earthbound All-Stars Al Horford and Paul Millsap.
When Budenholzer arrived to coach the Bucks last summer, inheriting freak of nature forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Budenholzer finally got to cross a line off his career bucket list.
He now gets to coach a team that knows how to dunk.
“I tell Giannis, just go do that,” Budenholzer said.
Less than six minutes into Milwaukee’s 135-129 victory at Fiserv Forum on Saturday, Antetokounmpo — the spindly 7-footer known the world over as “The Greek Freak” — gave a demonstration.
Taking flight after a Bryn Forbes turnover, Antetokoumnpo soared for a fast-break windmill dunk that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the NBA’s All-Star weekend.
Antetokoumnpo posted 34 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists as Milwaukee (14-5) pushed past the Spurs in the fourth quarter.
This will be another in a growing list of games the Spurs believe they let get away.
They led by 11 points in the final frame, with the Bucks not taking their first lead of the quarter until Malcolm Brogdan’s left-handed layup with 3:14 remaining. That was part of a 13-2 run that gave Milwaukee the win.
The Spurs’ final gasp got them within 131-129 on a Forbes drive with 29.8 seconds left. Brogdan followed with the game’s final dagger, a 3-pointer with 8.4 seconds left to push Milwaukee’s lead to five.
“We scored enough points to win,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “You’ve got to be able to get stops in the fourth quarter.”
DeMar DeRozan scored 34 points to lead the Spurs (9-10), who again slipped below .500.
Given the way Saturday began — the Bucks led by 15 points before most of the sellout crowd at Milwaukee’s sparkling new arena had settled into its seats — that the Spurs had a chance to fritter away the game at the end was something of a minor miracle.
Before the game, Popovich debated about whether it was time to rest some of his high-usage regulars. The Spurs were on the second night of a back-to-back and in the midst of one of the most brutal stretches of the 2018-19 schedule.
Six and a half minutes into the first quarter, Popovich decided it might be time to sit his starters after all, pulling the lot of them in a mass substitution after a comatose start.
The Spurs were behind 26-11 at that point, having graciously allowed the Bucks to essentially continue their layup line from pregame in a 12 of 13 start from the floor.
The Spurs’ bench promptly brought them back into the game.
Consecutive 3-pointers from Davis Bertans -- who finished wth 17 points -- ignited a 25-8 run that gave the Spurs a 36-34 lead before the quarter was out.
Suddenly, it was game on.
“The second unit saved out butts,” Popovich said. “The first unit got creamed very quickly.”
The Spurs knew the Bucks would present a challenge to their oft-maligned defense.
Earlier this week, the Spurs allowed 140 points in a loss to the NBA’s second-leading scoring team, the New Orleans Pelicans.
Milwaukee came in as the NBA’s No. 1 scoring team at 121.8 points per game, and at times seemed capable of doubling that Saturday. The Bucks are the only team in the league to rank in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Throw in a disheartening last-second loss on the same floor a night earlier to a Phoenix team pulling up the rear in the Western Conference, and it’s not a surprise Milwaukee started Saturday with a chip on its shoulder.
“It’s either the beauty or the curse of this league that you’ve got a next game,” Budenholzer said. “Our group is incredibly professional and wants to be great.”
Brogdan ended with 23 points for the Bucks, who had four players with at least 20. That list also included Khris Middleton (21) and Eric Bledsoe (20).
It was Antetokounmpo, however, who brought the Bucks home. Instead of dunks, The Greek Freak got the job done with foul shots.
Relentlessly attacking the basket, Antetokounmpo made 10 of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter. He was 16 of 18 overall.
Afterward, Popovich lauded Antetokounmpo as “a great player” but said the Spurs could have done a better job keeping him off the foul line down the stretch.
“You just do the best job you can,” Popovich said. “I thought we made a lot of mental mistakes that allowed him to do more than he should have.”
This is a different type of finish than Budenholzer remembers from his Spurs days. Back then, the Spurs preached “Stops on Demand.” They even went so far as to emblazon practice shirts with the slogan.
The stops weren’t there for the Spurs when they mattered most on Saturday.
“We’ve got to be better,” DeRozan said. “We know a key guy like Giannis is going to be extremely aggressive. We’ve got to be disciplined and understand how we can help the guy who is guarding him and make things as difficult as possible. It’s not just a one-guy thing. It’s a team thing. We kind of slacked on that.”
The Spurs could choose to look on the bright side. They split a difficult back-to-back and will now head into games at Chicago and Minnesota to close this trip with a chance to inch over .500 again.
Popovich acknowledged the defensive errors that cost the Spurs on Saturday are to be expected from a new team still learning itself.
“Nevertheless, that has to be fixed in time,” Popovich said.
Day by day, the Spurs understand time is ticking away.
“We’ve been saying that a lot lately,” DeRozan said. “We’ve got to pull the games out. It’s going to come. It’s definitely going to come where we pull it together and play as close as we can to a perfect game and pull out these victories.”
Saturday, as much due to Antetokounmpo’s foul shots as his slam dunks, it wasn’t to be for the Spurs again.