PHOENIX – The Milwaukee Bucks opened their game against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night without all-star point guard Damian Lillard and center Brook Lopez and eight minutes into it they were without all-star forward Khris Middleton – but they kept the game close before ultimately surrendering in a 114-106 loss at the Footprint Center.
The Bucks concluded their five-game, nine-day road trip 1-4 and are 33-18 overall. The Suns improved to 30-21.
Milwaukee led 49-48 after the first half by forcing Suns stars Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal into isolation offensive sets, and funneling them into tough, contested shots over multiple defenders. While doing that, the Bucks limited Grayson Allen – one of the league’s top three-point shooters – to only one attempt.
And even when it appeared at times the Suns might break the game open in the third quarter – they led by nine at one point – the Bucks stayed solid defensively and eventually made enough shots to stay connected into the early minutes of the fourth quarter. Durant, Booker and Beal eventually won the tug of war in the final 12 minutes, as they created enough baskets to finally put some distance between them and the cold-shooting Bucks.
But even after falling behind by 14 points at 107-93, the Bucks starters kept fighting and eventually cut it to 107-99 to keep the pressure on.
Phoenix did its part to make life difficult on Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Milwaukee’s strong defense and patient ball movement helped the Bucks manufacture enough points to threaten the star-laden Suns. Antetokounmpo faced crowds all night but still scored 34 points on 13 of 24 shooting. He was just 7-for-13 from the free throw line, however, including a 2-for-7 mark in the fourth quarter.
Antetokounmpo added 10 rebounds and six assists. Malik Beasley scored 22 points on 7 of 17 shooting while Jae Crowder added 10 off the bench.
Booker led the Suns with 32 points while Durant had 28 points and 10 rebounds. Beal also had a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
Khris Middleton exits game with injury
The Bucks lost all-star forward Khris Middleton to a left ankle sprain less than nine minutes into the game with a sprained left ankle. He landed on Kevin Durant’s foot on a long jump shot and was in obvious pain, but remained in the game for a few possessions before ultimately heading to the locker room. Before he got hurt, Middleton had six points and helped the Bucks take a 23-22 first quarter lead.
Pat Connaughton starts at point guard
With Damian Lillard being ruled with an ankle sprain, it seemed natural that the Bucks would turn to Cameron Payne to start in that position in his return to Phoenix – but instead Doc Rivers elected to start Pat Connaughton.
Connaughton has started 62 previous times in his six years with the Bucks, but running point was a bit different for the 6-foot, 5-inch wing.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton available, Connaughton wasn’t going to be the primary ball handler on every offensive setup but he still was tasked with organizing the team at times.
In 32 minutes of action in his first start of the season, Connaughton scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting. He also had five assists and five rebounds.
Payne came off the bench and played 23 minutes, his most action since Nov. 11. The veteran scored 11 points and had three assists to go with two steals. He also forced Booker into a backcourt violation.
1-4 Bucks record after concluding their season-long five-game, nine-day road trip on Tuesday.
8 Person rotation for the Bucks after Middleton exited with his injury.
11.1% First half three-point shooting for the Suns (1-for-9). Their ineffectiveness from deep allowed the Bucks to take a 49-48 lead at the break despite shooting 28% on their own from behind the three-point line.
12 Games this season Bucks guard Malik Beasley has made at least 5 three-pointers, tying Ray Allen’s club record set in 2000-01. Beasley went 6-for-14 from behind the three-point line and matched Allen in his 49th game of the season. He will participate in the three-point contest during NBA all-star weekend on Feb. 17.
25 Times when an opposing guard has scored at least 30 points on the Bucks this season.
Damian Lillard ruled out for Bucks with ankle injury
Lillard began Tuesday as questionable to play with a left ankle sprain, as he was clearly limping heading into the fourth quarter against the Jazz on Sunday. But throughout that game, in which Lillard played 38 minutes, Rivers said he thought about pulling the all-star point guard at various points of the game.
So after shootaround in Phoenix, Rivers said the team decided it would be best for Lillard to rest his ankle. The Bucks don’t play again until Thursday night at Fiserv Forum.
“He wanted to go,” Rivers said pregame. “I just, to me, why? His foot’s sore. It’s game (50). If it was a playoff game he would play. With this group, I told you, my feeling is we want to get to the playoffs, we want to get right first as a team, which we have work to do. And we gotta be healthy.”
This is just the fourth game Lillard has missed this season and his first since a Jan. 8 loss to Utah. The Bucks also lost games against Indiana (Nov. 9) and Orlando (Nov. 11) without him.
In his 47 games, Lillard is averaging 24.9 points per game on 42.5% shooting, including a 34.7% clip from behind the three-point line. He’s also handing out 6.8 assists per game.
Rivers navigating a unique Bucks trade deadline
As his players took to the Footprint Center court for their usual pregame warmups Tuesday evening, Doc Rivers knew some of them might be dealing with the impending trade deadline in their own way. Rivers has played and coached through over three decades of trade deadlines, but his issue is that being less than two weeks into the job he wasn’t sure how guys were being affected by it in the run up to the 2 p.m. deadline on Thursday.
“Obviously with the deadline coming up, I hate the deadline as a coach because some players are nervous and some players aren’t,” he said. “And you gotta try to figure out, because everyone — it’s like when you come in a huddle and you ask a player which way you wanna go, 100% are going to say I can go either way. And we all know in this room half of them can’t go but one way, left or right, but they’re always going to say either way. It’s the same thing with that. I don’t know the guys, and so I’m trying to figure out who is it affecting? And, they all say ‘I’m good,’ but you know that’s not true.
“It’s a tough stretch. The whole league goes through it. I’m very happy the day after, ’cause now you know who you have.”