Bucks take care of business early again against Hornets: ‘Great professional win’

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Few opposing coaches know this year’s many editions of the Milwaukee Bucks better than Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford.

Heading into Thursday’s game, Clifford’s Hornets had played three distinct versions of the team. On Nov. 17, Adrian Griffin was Milwaukee’s head coach. On Feb. 9, Doc Rivers was in charge, but still trying to find his footing before the All-Star break. On Tuesday, Clifford and Rivers matched wits again.

“Watching them on film, the way they played the other night, I would say that they’re a veteran team with a ton of talent,” Clifford said before Thursday’s fourth meeting. “And they’re in a place right now where they’re starting to feel good about themselves, even without (Khris) Middleton, and they’re saying, ‘Let’s get this going.’ That’s what I see in a general sense.

“When you’re involved with one of those veteran teams and you know you’re good, it’s just a question of when do you want to get ready? To me, I watch them, well, they’re getting ready right now. And their confidence level is high.”

On Thursday, Milwaukee showed off the urgency and confidence that Clifford described in its 111-99 win over the Hornets, that after a 38-point drubbing of the Hornets on Tuesday. From the opening tip on leap day, the Bucks made it clear that they were not going to mess around.

On their first defensive possession, the Bucks executed well. The Hornets ran plenty of off-ball action to try to confuse the Bucks, but they executed their switches well and Damian Lillard made it tough enough on Miles Bridges to speed up the Hornets forward on his drive and give Brook Lopez a chance to swat a shot.

Following Lopez’s block, the Bucks showed off incredible patience. Giannis Antetokounmpo pushed the ball in transition looking for a shot for a teammate, but after four passes, the ball ended up back in his hands. And that’s when Lopez moved up the floor to set a screen for Antetokounmpo, which let the two-time MVP attack the basket, which set up another sequence of passes that resulted in the first of five 3-point buckets for Malik Beasley on the night.

During their four-game win streak since the All-Star break, the Bucks have moved the ball well and regularly found open shooters with extra passes. Sixth man Bobby Portis believes that the team’s recent selfless play stems from their new coach’s communication to start the final third of the season.

“First off, man, shout out Doc,” Bobby Portis (14 points, 10 rebounds) said after the game. “Just having a guy that can sit down with everybody and really just tell everybody what he expects from each player, I think that kind of just makes you own your role more, especially when a coach specifically just tells you what he wants from each player.

“So it’s easy to sacrifice in that. And I think you just get more out of it. The ball finds energy. We move the basketball, play free, drive and kick, I think the ball just finds the right man and everybody just lines it up and shoots it. Miss or make, that’s the shot for that possession.”

Throughout Thursday’s game, players up and down the roster executed their assigned roles, and that simple execution led to a win.

Before the game, Rivers spoke about the importance of the Bucks’ wing players sprinting down the floor and filling the corners for Antetokounmpo and Lillard bringing up the ball. In the second quarter, Beasley sprinted to the corner and still managed to get his feet set to convert a 3 off a pass from Antetokounmpo.

“He’s been unbelievable for the team,” Antetokounmpo said of Beasley. “He’s doing his job. But lately, it starts defensively for him. Usually when he gets his feet right, he gets into players, moves his feet, makes it tough, doesn’t get screened and then when he goes the other way, he spaces the floor so well. He had the one in the first half that he ran full speed to the corner, catch and shoot, and made that. (That was) one of the toughest ones today.”

Beasley’s job was a little easier to execute on the final bucket of the first half for the Bucks.

On that possession, his teammates did the selfless work throughout the possession while Beasley stayed in his spot in the right corner. First, Lillard made the simple pocket pass to Antetokounmpo. Then, Antetokounmpo dumped it off to Portis and finally Portis made the extra pass to Beasley in the corner.

While the hot 3-point shooting in the first half (9 of 18) put them in position to coast to a win in the second half, the entire roster still needed to execute their roles to close out a road victory. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Bucks looked somewhat listless and the Hornets looked primed to make a comeback, but then Patrick Beverley brought energy off the bench.

To start the fourth quarter, Beverley repeatedly pushed the pace and assisted on the Bucks’ first three baskets of the quarter, including this drive-and-kick look to Lopez that forced Clifford to take a timeout three and a half minutes into the final frame.

“Listen, we had a lead, but you knew they were going to play hard tonight after what happened (on Tuesday) night,” Rivers said of his team’s effort in the fourth quarter, “so I thought overall our focus was really good.”

On Friday, the Bucks will have an opportunity to do it all over again on the second night of a back-to-back, with a nationally televised contest in Chicago. A win against the Bulls won’t make anyone outside of Milwaukee take the Bucks more seriously as title contenders. That doesn’t matter, however, as the Bucks know they have a job to do. And post-All-Star break, they know they need to continue to get it done.

(Photo of Tre Mann and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

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