Basketball fans at Fiserv Forum didn’t get the two-time MVP vs. two-time MVP game that they hoped for on Wednesday night.
That’s because Nuggets star Nikola Jokic was scratched after playing in a win over the Pelicans in New Orleans on Tuesday. He missed Denver’s two games before that with a tight hamstring and was held out against the Bucks with the same issue.
BOX SCORE: Bucks 107, Nuggets 99
The Bucks had their MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who contributed 33 points and 14 rebounds in a 107-99 win. Milwaukee improved to 31-17, while Denver dropped to 34-15.
The Nuggets also sat three other starters: Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The Bucks played without Sixth Man of the Year candidate Bobby Portis, who will miss some time with a sprained knee.
“We play the game to play against the best,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “But they’re still an NBA team. Everybody on their roster is here for a reason.
“We know that, so we have to approach the game the same way.”
Khris Middleton returns to the Fiserv Forum
Bucks guard Khris Middleton hadn’t played in front of home fans since a Dec. 13 win over the Golden State Warriors. He returned from a knee injury on Monday in a road game at the Detroit Pistons.
Middleton had 10 points in the first half and was the focal point of a key 8-0 run in the second quarter. He knocked down a three-pointer and then found Pat Connaughton in the corner for a triple that gave the Bucks a 53-50 lead.
“I thought it was a really bright stretch for him,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Middleton. “I thought that play at both ends and finding PC for that corner three, we needed that. It was just a bit of a mudfest tonight. Slugfest.
“He’s had a couple of those, just where you see those flashes in every game he’s played. I thought, defensively, he accepted the challenge and the opportunities to push himself there and do well.”
Middleton did not score in the second half and played a total of 15 minutes.
“I think he looks good,” said Holiday, who scored 20 points. “It’s all rhythm and timing. He’s able to do what he can do in spurts. I know he has a certain amount of minutes he can play.”
Pat Connaughton thrives in a larger role
Middleton came off the bench for the second game in a row, with Pat Connaughton sticking to the starting line-up.
Without Portis delivering his goal from the bench, Connaughton was also counted on to play a bigger role in the attack.
The 6-foot-5 Connaughton even saw some minutes in Portis’ power forward role. Connaughton put up 19 points and 12 rebounds in 38 minutes.
“It’s really just about the work,” Connaughton said. “Being able to get back into things. It’s been, what, two months now (since returning from a calf injury).
“Getting into a rhythm on the days off. Getting back to the gym. Getting back to work. Doing the things I’ve done the last few years to make sure I feel good when I’m out there shooting the basketball many situations.
Antetokounmpo loved what Connaughton brought against the Nuggets.
“He was definitely more aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was really good tonight. Every night he’s always solid for the team. Makes the right play. Spaces the floor for us. Can catch and shoot. Gives us extra possessions. Always vocal.”
Antetokounmpo shoots 22 free throws – 21 in the second half
Antetokounmpo took very hard contact from the Nuggets and attempted 21 of his 22 free throws in the second half.
That’s the most trips to the free throw line in a half by an NBA player this season.
“Just try to get a rhythm,” Antetokounmpo said. “Try to be as aggressive as I can. Get downhill. Play to my strengths.”
Holiday loves Antetokounmpo’s ability to be unfazed by all the physical punishment.
“Going to the free throw line and knocking them down, that’s big,” Holiday said. “Because it takes a lot out of you.
“Just to be able to get hit, fall to the ground. You have big guys like Aaron Gordon and DeAndre Jordan just falling on you.”
9 First quarter turnovers for the Bucks, including five by Antetokounmpo
11 Even points scored by Nuggets super sub Bones Hyland in the second quarter
6 Consecutive shots to start the game for Connaughton, including 5 three-pointers before missing early in the fourth quarter
4 Blocking Bucks center Brook Lopez in 30 minutes
6 Foul at 11 minutes off the bench for Nuggets center DeAndre Jordan
Video of the play is Khris Middleton’s alley-oop to Giannis Antetokounmpo
It must be nice for Bucks fans at the Fiserv Forum to see that longtime teammates Middleton and Antetokounmpo haven’t lost their telepathic connection.
Near the end of the third quarter, Antetokounmpo sprinted past Nuggets guard Ish Smith, and Middleton hit Antetokounmpo with a perfectly timed alley-oop pass from the free throw line for a dunk.
The play of the game is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s smart layup in the fourth quarter
Antetokounmpo took very hard contact on Wednesday. But he summoned enough energy to drive the court and finish with a reverse layup late to get some distance from the Nuggets late in the fourth quarter.
Who will play the Bucks next?
Milwaukee makes a quick trip to Indiana to take on the Pacers on Friday. The Bucks pulled away for a 132-119 win over Indiana on Jan. 16 at the Fiserv Forum. Milwaukee dropped a season-high 39 points in the fourth quarter. Jrue Holiday finished with 35 points.