Things haven’t been going super great for the Milwaukee Bucks of late. Since winning four straight after trading for dynamic point guard Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks have again dipped in form to drop three of their last four, capped by a Saturday night loss in which they allowed a Utah Jazz team that entered the contest ranked 24th among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency to put up 121 points, log 31 assists on 46 made field goals, knock down 18 3-pointers and shoot 56.8 percent from the floor as a team.
It was a frustrating night for the Bucks, another in a string during a month that’s seen lineup shuffling and continued defensive struggles scuttle much of the positive vibes that attended Giannis Antetokounmpo’s remarkable start to the season. That frustration boiled over on the bench, when the All-NBA forward engaged in a war of words with Bucks assistant coach Sean Sweeney that got awfully heated … and got captured on camera:
Already running hot after not getting a foul call he believed he deserved on a drive and putback on a previous possession, Antetokounmpo loped back on defense after committing a live-ball turnover, helping open the door to an uncontested Thabo Sefolosha layup in transition that tied the game at 81 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. That led Bucks coach Jason Kidd to call a timeout to try to get his team settled. Antetokounmpo, though, didn’t much seem interested in settling down, reaching down with his left hand and slapping over a chair on the Milwaukee bench.
After he did that and sat down, Sweeney confronted Antetokounmpo, likely about the lallygagging back on defense. They continued their dispute, prompting the Greek star to pop out of his seat and move toward the coach, shaking his head and appearing to say something along the lines of “I’ll f*** you up.” After a couple of his coaches and teammates got between them to try to tamp down the angst, Antetokounmpo said it again.
The exchange didn’t exactly spark the Bucks, who offered little resistance as Sefolosha and Rodney Hood led a 14-4 quarter-closing run that allowed Utah to enter the fourth with a double-digit lead it wouldn’t relinquish. After the game, Kidd attributed the loss to the fact that the Bucks “didn’t play any defense,” a failure he ascribed to a lack of “effort, energy and caring, and I think sprinkle in a little trying.” Many other Bucks observers, though, would attribute Utah’s hot shooting night to opponents having fully figured out how to beat the hyper-aggressive, trap-heavy defensive scheme that has Milwaukee sitting 22nd in the league in points allowed per possession:
It's so weird to see the Bucks send two players to trap Ricky Rubio on pick and rolls, unlike pretty much every other team which zero-teams him in that situation.
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) November 26, 2017
As @fmaddenNBA and I have said the entire season, giving up one thing can be allowed if you stop another.
This defense has not stopped anything. https://t.co/Fot3z0NSG0
— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) November 26, 2017
However you want to parcel out blame, Antetokounmpo clearly seemed incredibly frustrated by what was happening between the lines on Saturday night. Come Sunday, though, as the Bucks worked out on an off-day ahead of their Tuesday night meeting with the Sacramento Kings, Giannis — and the Bucks — tried to downplay the incident and quell any concerns that it’s indicative of a larger issue between the franchise cornerstone and the coach with whom he’s worked closely ever since Kidd and Sweeney arrived from the Brooklyn Nets in 2014:
“That’s what me and Sweeney do,” Antetokounmpo said, later pointing to Sweeney grinning across the gym and remarking that Sweeney is usually loath to crack a smile. “You always fight with your brothers. It’s something common. Me and Sweeney we’re so tight. He always speaks the truth to me and I always speak the truth to him. We’ve done this in the past, just this time it was caught on national TV.
“But me and Sweeney we’re OK, that’s what we do — we fight, we argue, but at the end of the day, we both want to win. I don’t think there’s anybody from this team who wants to win more than Sweeney and me and coach (Jason) Kidd, of course.” […]
“We want to win and he believes in me,” Antetokounmpo said. “We spent all this summer working on our game, working on our defense and just got ready for this season.
“When things don’t go our way we both get frustrated. Looking back at the clip and looking back at last night, I just understand that he wants to win and if sometimes he comes off wrong toward me or I come off wrong towards him, it’s for the good of the team because we both want to win.”
Yes, regrettable things can get said in the heat of the moment. No, “I’ll f*** you up” still isn’t something you’d like to see your superstar meal ticket saying to the coach with whom he works super closely and who’s responsible for overseeing the defense that’s been getting roasted near-nightly for the past six weeks.
Maybe things tilt back toward the sunny side of the street for the Bucks come the end of the month; after wrapping up a road trip against the Kings and Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis and company will play nine of their next 13 games in Wisconsin, giving them a chance to improve on a 9-9 record that has them sitting a half-game out of the East’s top eight at the moment. If they don’t, though — if the lineup shuffles that have seen former starters Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell and Thon Maker cycled to the bench in favor of units that haven’t worked nearly as well, if just trying harder isn’t the answer for that leaky defense, and if the Bucks continue looking less like a top-four seed led by an MVP candidate and more like a team that’ll have to scratch and claw for a postseason berth — then every comment, gesture, glare and sideline explosion from Milwaukee’s signature star will garner greater and greater attention.
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