Nuggets use big third quarter to topple weary Bucks 129-106

DENVER – The best team in the Western Conference held homecourt to topple the best team in the Eastern Conference on Saturday night at Ball Arena, with the Denver Nuggets beating the Milwaukee Bucks 129-106.

Milwaukee led by as many as 10 points in the first half, but trailed 97-85 by the end of the third quarter.

The Bucks dropped to 53-21, which remains the best record in the NBA. The Nuggets improved to 50-24 in winning their third in a row.

Third quarter does in Bucks

Over the first 24 minutes of action, in which the Bucks took a 66-63 lead, they played quickly (11 fast break points), they moved the ball (18 assists) and made shots (26 for 46, 56.5%). They hustled on the defensive glass, limiting the Nuggets to just four second-chance points. They took care of the ball, committing just two turnovers. They looked sharp and confident.

But the Nuggets hung around, making 51.1% of their shots behind the strength of 20 points from Jamal Murray and they never allowed the Bucks to push the lead further.

The game turned for good in the third quarter, as the Nuggets outscored the Bucks 34-19.

“They just came out prepared,” Khris Middleton said. “We got off to a great start I feel like. They just won the whole second half in so many ways that it happens, we just gotta learn from it and try not to let it happen again.”

The defining moments began at the 8-minute mark. Middleton scored out of the timeout to make it 76-74 Bucks, but the Nuggets went on a 10-0 run over the next three minutes. Nikola Jokić began it with a three-pointer – his first make in six attempts – and then Michael Porter Jr. scored.

BOX SCORE:Nuggets 129, Bucks 106

The Bucks missed four straight shots, the last of which was a Bobby Portis putback attempt rebounded by Jokić. The two made contact deep in the backcourt, and Jokić was awarded a transition take foul. Portis started clapping continuously in front of the Nuggets big man, earning a technical foul. The Nuggets made both free throws off those penalties, and then Bruce Brown hit a three-pointer off the free possession afterward.

Though down just 84-76, the momentum had clearly turned. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored to end the run, but Jokić came right back and drew a fourth foul on Brook Lopez. After he made the two free throws, Lopez was hit with a technical from the bench and the Bucks had come undone.

Milwaukee turned it over five times in the third quarter, made just seven shots (including 1 three-pointer) and saw the Nuggets go 10 for 19 from the field and 5 for 10 from behind the three-point line.

“I think always credit to their defense, credit to them, their activity I think was good,” Buck head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think we just felt like maybe we’ve gotta move it a little bit more, move people more, better spacing. And I think we had some shots that you gotta make.

"Credit to Denver. They played well in the third quarter, fourth quarter. They just had us in the second half. We can better.”

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic jostle for poition during the second half aturday night.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic jostle for poition during the second half aturday night.

MVP matchup: Giannis vs. Jokić

Before the game, Budenholzer said it was “impossible” to defend Jokić

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said taking away Antetokounmpo was the primary goal of his team, but acknowledged that is a difficult task.

The last two MVPs spanning the last four seasons are once again favorites to claim the league’s top individual honor, and it was the first and only time the pair went head-to-head in the regular season. It was also just the seventh time the two have been on the court together since Antetokounmpo ascended to an MVP level and Jokić became an all-star in 2018-19.

With the win, Denver improved to 4-3 in those games.

Antetokounmpo imposed his will as a scorer in the first half, scoring 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Eight of those points came on fast breaks and 20 were in the paint where he was 10 for 10. The Nuggets, naturally, set multiple defenders at him – encircling him at times – to try to cut down his angles of attack, but he still found ways to find openings – though he did have a few of his passes deflected.

“You always gotta give credit where credit is due – they’re a pretty big team,” Antetokounmpo said. “They have length. From Aaron Gordon, from Michael Porter Jr., from Jokić, they’re a pretty big team. Yeah and no. There were times they were getting in the passing lanes and there was times I was able to get the right pass.”

Jokić, however, was going essentially against the single coverage of Lopez and Portis. He scored 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting in the first half and drew three fouls on Lopez to go 5 for 5 from the free throw line. He also had five assists.

“You just want to make things tough for him,” Lopez said. “He’s obviously very talented offensively so you just want to make things as tough as possible and obviously be smart as well, too, because he’s great at drawing fouls and getting to the line.”

“I appreciate that trust (to guard him one-on-one). It’s a great challenge and I’m up to that challenge. I’m here for it. The Nuggets are obviously great when they get that ball moving, they have a lot of guys that can shoot, that can score and their whole offense starts with Jokić and he’s great at moving the ball, finding those guys, so you want to try to minimize that as much as possible.”

But in the decisive third quarter, Antetokounmpo was just 2 for 7 and had three turnovers while Jokić scored 12 points, handed out three assists and sent Lopez to the bench with four fouls. Jokić also coaxed transition take and technical fouls out of Portis for a key five-point possession.

Antetokounmpo finished with 31 points on 13-of-22 shooting in 32 minutes. He also had nine rebounds and four assists. He sat when the Bucks pulled their starters with just under six minutes left down 20.

Jokić exited a short time later with 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting, 11 assists and six rebounds. He was also 10 for 11 from the free throw line.

In the three games the Bucks beat the Nuggets in the head-to-head matchups they had limited Jokić to six or fewer assists.

Mile high factor

There is a sign that greets opposing teams as they enter Ball Arena from the loading dock, one that reads the altitude they will be playing at that evening: 5,280 feet above sea level.

It’s a real advantage for the Nuggets, who entered the game with the second-best home record in the league at 30-6.

The Nuggets though had been struggling with a 3-5 mark since March 8 but they had a scheduling advantage over the Bucks in that they had not played since Wednesday. Malone did note that his team hasn’t played at home since March 12, however, and hoped the readjustment to the altitude wouldn’t be too severe.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, played its third game in three different cities in the last four days and on the second night of a back-to-back. Grayson Allen and Jae Crowder, who had played for the Utah Jazz and spent enough time in the Western Conference to experience the Denver altitude said there is no real way to prepare for the thin air.

Wesley Matthews, who played one year in Utah and played nearly 11 full seasons in the Western Conference agreed, noting that the lungs feel it the most, and then it becomes a battle between mind and body.

But no player on the Bucks was willing to say it had anything to do with the loss.

“We love competing against the best, whether we’re fresh or not,” Middleton said. “Tonight it came off a back-to-back, we still played, still gotta be better. There’s no excuses about that. I’m sure for a lot of fans, a lot of people out there that would love to see healthy teams or not off back-to-backs play the top teams in each conference.”

The Bucks went nine deep in the first half, with eight players all playing at least 11 minutes and Jevon Carter checking in for just under seven. The combinations appeared to give the Bucks some life throughout the opening half, as they pushed the pace offensively and made 56.5% (26 for 46) of their shots and scoring 11 points on the break.

In the second half, however, the Bucks appeared to lose steam. They scored just 19 third quarter points on just 7-of-25 shooting (28%). It was enough of a slippage for the Nuggets to pounce and blow the game open.

“Forget just the three in four and back-to-back and altitude – they’re a great team,” Pat Connaughton said. “This is a really tough place to play and it’s not just altitude, it’s because they’ve got a great team.

"For us, our next level is the stuff with getting the good shots and making teams guard multiple actions even when we’re not hitting them. I thought tonight it’s human nature, things don’t start going the right way and I thought we lost a little bit of our composure for whatever the reason is. The fans were into it, the team was hitting shots, we weren’t, there was some chippiness out there.

"It was a fun game to be a part of. It wasn’t a fun game with the end result as the third and fourth quarter rolled on, but it’s one I think we’ll learn from.”

Five numbers

1 Three-pointers the Bucks hit in the decisive third-quarter against five made by the Nuggets.

3 Technical fouls for the Bucks (Portis, Lopez from the bench, Antetokounmpo while officials reviewed one of his personal fouls).

Budenholzer: “It was a night where we were grumpy. It happens. I think give credit to Denver. They played well. We weren’t our best. You always want some things to be a little bit different, but it didn’t happen. We’ll take it and we’ll get ready for our next game.”

Middleton: “Just emotions. Guys competing. Frustrated with how the game was going with the whistle and what not. I’s a crazy environment out there, a fun place to play. But it just shows that guys want it. We want to win. It doesn’t happen too often where our emotions translate to technical fouls, so I guess it was just one of those nights where guys got it out the way. But I don’t think those techs affected the game as much, fortunately.”

7 Magic number for the Bucks to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference (combination of Milwaukee wins and Boston losses).

9-2 Bucks record in the second game of back-to-backs.

18-5 Bucks record when the Big Three play.

Video of the game is Giannis' insane tip-in

Antetokounmpo was living at – and above – the rim through the entire first half against the Nuggets, but his most impressive basket was a remarkable feat of athleticism and touch as he somehow tapped a too-high Khris Middleton lob attempt into the basket while also not colliding with the backboard.

Plays of the game are Khris Middleton's steal and layup

While not the singular moment of the game, this is the play of the game for the Bucks more for what it means going forward. Middleton has been playing 30-plus minutes per game through March and averaging over 20 points and 7 assists, but this defense-to-offense sequence showed a burst of speed for the three-time all-star. First, he intercepted a pass through contact, then collected himself and maneuvered around a defender and exploded down the lane for a layup. It's a great sign for the Bucks if Middleton is feeling that good.

Bucks injury report

  • Jae Crowder (left calf soreness), out

  • Goran Dragić (left knee soreness), out

  • Meyers Leonard (left calf soreness), out

Who do the Bucks play next?

Milwaukee’s final regular season road trip continues at 6 p.m. Monday at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The Pistons are the worst team in the NBA and the Bucks have already beaten them three times. Detroit’s best players are injured, so they are using the end of the season to try and develop No. 5 pick Jaden Ivey, No. 13 pick Jalen Duren and 2020 No. 2 pick James Wiseman, who was acquired from Golden State in February.

More:Bucks' Bobby Portis wants to 'talk real talk' on new podcast, and show people who he is off the court

More:Grayson Allen and Brook Lopez propel Bucks to blowout win over Jazz

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Nuggets use big third quarter to topple weary Bucks 129-106