SALT LAKE CITY — With 8.7 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Sunday night’s game against the Utah Jazz, Damian Lillard caught an inbounds pass 90 feet from his hoop and raced up the floor.
Just above the 3-point line, Bobby Portis set a screen on Jazz guard Keyonte George to put Lillard in a one-on-one situation with Jazz center Walker Kessler, who had blocked a Lillard rim attempt one minute earlier. Lillard turned on the jets with Kessler backpedaling in drop coverage and exploded to the rim off his left foot for a one-hand slam to give the Bucks a 12-point lead.
After the play, Lillard, who started the day listed as questionable with a left ankle sprain, hopped three times on his right foot to avoid putting weight on his left foot. He eventually hobbled back on defense to finish the third quarter.
“We think he’s okay, but he was struggling the whole game with the ankle,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I swear there were times I was just going to take him out, even in the first half, but his presence was helpful. We didn’t have a lot of bodies”
Lillard played 38 minutes, scoring 12 points on 5-of-18 shooting and dishing out six assists. In eight fourth-quarter minutes, he managed just one point on two shots, his play mirroring the team’s in that final frame.
The Bucks made only four of the 17 shots they attempted in the quarter, including 2 of 12 from behind the 3-point line, and the Jazz outscored them 40-13 to cruise to a 123-108 victory.
Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 33 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists in 39 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back, but it wasn’t enough as the Jazz’s game plan against him paid off in the fourth quarter.
Like every other team, the Jazz built a wall of defenders against Antetokounmpo. On top of that, they continuously threw double teams at him whenever he posted up or decided to drive, hoping to get the ball out of his hands and force his teammates to make shots. Through the first three quarters, the strategy didn’t work for Utah as Antetokounmpo delivered 11 assists and the Bucks took that 12-point lead. But in the fourth quarter, the shooting went cold.
“He should have had 30 assists,” Rivers joked. “But really, he could have had a 20-assist night easy, if you go back and look at the shots that he got guys.
“I love the way he’s playing right now. He’s still aggressive. He’s taken … the stuff we’ve done with him on the post. There were three times where he just took his time, let them come, he actually dragged them back, the old (Charles) Barkley thing, which we were talking to him about, and then, you just pick guys apart. But you gotta make those shots, otherwise they’re going to keep doing it.”
After hitting his first three 3-point attempts, AJ Green (10 points in 22 minutes) missed two open looks from the 3-point line early in the fourth quarter.
Lillard missed a catch-and-shoot 3 from the right wing that could have tied the game with just over four minutes left. Instead, after his miss, the Jazz got a dunk from George to take a five-point lead.
Jae Crowder, who played 40 minutes in a regular season game for the first time since May 13, 2021, missed three catch-and-shoot looks in the fourth quarter, including this one out of the timeout following George’s dunk.
All three shots were good looks, Crowder just failed to knock them down. After the game, Antetokounmpo admitted that it can be difficult to keep making the right play when his teammates are missing shots.
“I think that’s one of the toughest things of being a leader,” Antetokounmpo said. “Like do you take it upon yourself or do you keep on trusting the process and trust the system and trust what we’ve been doing all game? And there’s some times that you have to do that and there’s some times that you just gotta trust.
“I feel like the whole game, guys were wide open. They were showing so much help. And guys, like the whole game, we had wide open shots, and early in the game, we made a few of them. And late in the game, we couldn’t make nothing. But the approach doesn’t change. You have to keep on playing the right way. And I think we played that way. We just missed a lot of shots in the last eight minutes.”
There were definitely things the Bucks could have executed better, but the overwhelming feeling from Rivers was the team didn’t quite have enough juice to finish their third game in four days with the energy needed to come away with a win. Part of that, though, comes down to the rotation that Rivers deployed Sunday.
Heading into the game, the Bucks had a lengthy injury list:
• Along with Lillard’s questionable designation, Antetokounmpo was listed as probable Sunday with right knee patella tendinitis.
• Khris Middleton missed the game as a part of the plan to keep him healthy following a cleanup procedure on his right knee last offseason. He played 38 minutes and 29 seconds against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, the most he’s played in a game since April 7, 2022.
• Brook Lopez missed a second straight game for personal reasons.
• Andre Jackson Jr. was probable with a right wrist sprain, but ultimately listed as active.
Even with a long injury list on the second night of a back-to-back, Rivers played only nine players before late mop-up duty, and that included a single three-and-a-half minute stretch for Robin Lopez at the end of the first quarter. When asked about potentially using one of the young players to help give the rotation players a longer rest, Rivers said there was only one change he would have made.
“The only guy, honestly, I thought I could have played Robin more,” Rivers said. “That was our game plan going in. That was the one thing I thought we could have did more just to get guys some rest, but can’t do it now.”
Given a bit more time to think about the team’s goals and what he is trying to do in the final three months of the regular season, Rivers appeared to realize he may need to give his players a bit more rest if he wants them to continue to play hard and continue to build the habits that he thinks will help them win games when it matters most.
“We are playing hard now defensively and you can see that visually,” Rivers said. “It also is taking stuff out of us. You can see the fatigue. And so, even after the game, we may have to add one more guy to the rotation if we want them to play hard, we want them to stay fresh. Because they’re not used to doing it yet.
“Our goal is to build up that type of intensity with a short rotation for 48 minutes of hard basketball because that’s what the playoffs are. But no one’s at that point yet. And we’re not either.”
(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kelly Olynyk: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)