Bucks' depth shines in win over Hornets without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday

CHARLOTTE – On the second night of a back-to-back (which also included an early 5 p.m. Central tip-off), the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Charlotte Hornets 105-96 in the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday on Saturday night at the Spectrum Center.

The Bucks have won four of their last five and are 16-6. The Hornets fell to 7-16.

"Every game is going to be different," Bucks forward Bobby Portis said. "We had three of our best players out – our three best players were out – and we still go the victory tonight. Just unselfishness, ball movement, communicating on defense. And the biggest thing is just competing and having fun. I think everybody had fun today."

Here are some takeaways from the game:

Box score: Bucks 105, Hornets 96

The Big Three sit out

A night after playing their first game together this season, the Bucks’ Big Three were spectators Saturday night.

Less than 24 hours after losing a hard-fought game to the Los Angeles Lakers at home, the Bucks ruled out MVP candidate Antetokounmpo (left knee soreness), Holiday (left knee contusion) and Middleton (return to play reconditioning).

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer acknowledged after the Lakers game that it was unlikely Middleton would play after making his regular-season debut. Saturday marked the fourth game Antetokounmpo has missed with left knee soreness. Holiday missed four games with an ankle sprain.

"Both Giannis and Jrue have small things that we have to kind of be mindful of," Budenholzer said before the game. "They play a lot and they're just a little bit banged up and with the quick turnaround, back-to-back, a little bit of an early game and just taking into account the big picture. They're probably not happy with me. But I think hopefully they know we're always trying to think about the big picture and trying to keep them as healthy and as kind of durable for the entirety of the season. All that goes into it."

MarJon Beauchamp and Serge Ibaka were also out with non-COVID illnesses. Joe Ingles remained out as he continues his rehab from knee surgery. This was the fifth game Ibaka missed with an illness and it was Beauchamp's third.

"Serge is, I would say, getting better," Budenholzer said. "He's gotta kind of recondition. It hit him pretty hard. But I think he's been trending in the right direction the last 48 hours. Kind of a close call to stay home, but I think to get him ready to be back with us it was probably the right thing."

Center Brook Lopez was listed as questionable to play in order to rest, but he started for the Bucks. Lopez is one of only four Bucks to have played in every game.

The Hornets were also managing the effects of a back-to-back on Saturday, as they played Washington Friday night. Terry Rozier (40), Kelly Oubre Jr. (38), P.J. Washington (38) and Mason Plumlee (35) logged big minutes in a one-point win over the Wizards.

Bucks forward Sandro Mamukelashvili drives against Hornets center Mason Plumlee on Saturday night. Mamukelashvili's 15 miutes and six point were season highs.
Bucks forward Sandro Mamukelashvili drives against Hornets center Mason Plumlee on Saturday night. Mamukelashvili's 15 miutes and six point were season highs.

Bucks depth shines again as they have stellar defensive effort

The all-stars garner the headlines, but the Big Three have missed their fair share of games already. The players have talked often about how deep the team is, and they’ve proven it several times already this season.

Saturday night was just another example.

Ten of the 11 available players saw court time (except Wesley Matthews) and the group shared the ball and attacked the glass as a group. The unique lineup combinations resulted in some sloppy ballhandling and uneven offensive spacing at times, but effort wasn’t going to be a question.

“Just our selflessness," Portis said. "Everybody gives themselves up for the betterment of the team. Everybody sacrifices, everybody works entirely, extremely hard on this team. There’s no egos. Everybody just wants to see everybody win. That’s rare on a team. I’ve been on four teams now in my career and it’s not always been like that. Its tough. It’s tough to get to this point in your career where everybody is for the betterment of the team and sacrificing shots and minutes."

The Bucks held the Hornets to just 45 first-half points on 33.3% shooting, including a 3-for-15 effort from behind the three-point line. The Bucks struggled with turnovers, which is what kept the Hornets in the game; 19 of their points came off 13 Bucks giveaways. But Milwaukee limited Charlotte to three offensive rebounds and six second-chance points in the first half.

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Bucks forward Bobby Portis had 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Bucks forward Bobby Portis had 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

And in the second half, when the offense came out of the break stagnant (four minutes without a score), the Bucks were able to turn to Grayson Allen, Lopez (14 points, six blocks), Pat Connaughton and George Hill for timely baskets to maintain some breathing room.

Portis was a dual threat, scoring 20 points while handing out a season-high seven assists. He also pulled down eight rebounds.

“The ball movement, 24 assists – Bobby with seven assists, the ball is in his hands a lot," Budenholzer said. "Impressive to see him both scoring and facilitate. So, I thought the execution overall was good. Brook made some threes. The big and-one with about three or four minutes to go was big. Some good execution, some good play by our players.”

More than that, the Bucks never let up defensively in holding the Hornets under 100 points. It is the sixth time the Bucks have prevented an opponent from reaching the century mark.

“I thought the defense, really, was very good tonight," Budenholzer said. "I think Brook had seven blocked shots. The way he controlled the paint, protected the paint. Everybody. Jevon. Jevon took on a big load. Rozier’s got the ball in his hands a ton. Ton of screens and a ton of shots and between Jevon and George, really just had to throw a couple different guys at him. I thought Jordan’s defense; everybody. They all helped us. It was a really good defensive night, which we needed.”

While few should be surprised at the solid play of the Bucks veterans, the performance of third-year wing Jordan Nwora, second-year big man Sandro Mamukelashvili and rookie AJ Green had to be highlights for the Bucks.

Green played confidently and scored eight points and pulled down three rebounds, both career-highs. Mamukelashvili logged his most minutes of the season and scored a season-high six points. Nwora played a season-high 33 minutes and scored 17 points.

5 numbers

2-7: Bucks record (including Holiday's 8-second contract game to end last regular season) the past three seasons when none of the Big Three plays. They won at Oklahoma City without them this year.

3: Back-to-backs to this point of the season for the Bucks. They had beaten Atlanta (Oct. 29) and Oklahoma City (Nov. 5) on the back end of those previous pairs. Antetokounmpo and Holiday played against the Hawks, while just Holiday went against the Thunder.

6: Games this season in which Lopez has swatted at least five shots, a league-best. He reached that number with 8:25 to go in the first half against the Hornets.

7: Blocks in the game for Lopez, a season-high and one off his career high (set three times). Lopez has 67 blocks in 21 games. Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton is second with 50 — in 23 games.

“We keep talking about how special Brook is defensively," Budenholzer said. "The blocked shots are just – it just changes the game. And especially, I feel like we recover as lot of ‘em. They turn into change of possessions and we’re playing, going the other way. I feel like he’s just having a defensive player of the year-type season. It is only a quarter of the way – we’ve got to keep doing it, he’s got to keep doing it. But he’s been fantastic.”

50: Percent shooting from behind the three-point line through three quarters for the Bucks (12-for-24), helping them take an 84-73 lead into the fourth.

Hornets without star point guard LaMelo Ball

The Hornets already were missing star point guard LaMelo Ball (ankle) and forward Gordon Hayward (shoulder) and additionally went without Dennis Smith Jr. (ankle), Mark Williams (ankle) and Cody Martin (knee surgery).

Play of the game is George Hill's first dunk of the season

The Bucks bench exploded to the court at the 10:03 mark of the second quarter when veteran guard George Hill (barely?) got a dunk over the rim on a fast break following a slick Jevon Carter pass. It was all smiles for the 36-year-old guard, as it was his first dunk of the season.

Video of the game is Thanasis Antetokounmpo scoring his first points

The energetic Bucks forward was the sixth man for the team against the Hornets, and this was a pretty finish for his first points in his 11th game of the season.

Who do the Bucks play next?

The Bucks will head to Florida to play the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center at 6 p.m. Monday. Former Bucks general manager Jon Hammond occupies that role for the Magic, and the team has assembled interesting young talent in the last few years. Unfortunately, Jalen Suggs (ankle), Gary Harris (hamstring), Wendell Carter Jr. (foot) and Mo Bamba (back) have dealt with injuries. No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero and third-year forward Franz Wagner are formidable, however.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bucks win without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday