Bucks turn up the defense late to pull away from Kings 126-113

The Milwaukee Bucks had a brief stopover at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday night between road trips, and they beat the Sacramento Kings, 126-113, to improve to 18-6 on the season. It ended a three-game win streak for the Kings (13-10).

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and he made 9 of his 10 free throws. Jrue Holiday had 31 points and Brook Lopez added 17 and nine rebounds.

Here are some takeaways from the game:

Bucks turn up the defense to slow Kings

The Kings came into the game with the league’s No. 2 scoring offense (120 points per game) and No. 3 rated offense (116.3) while the Bucks were the league’s No. 2 rated defense (106.7) and No. 3 ranked scoring defense (107.8).

If there was a marked difference between the teams, it’s that the Bucks move relatively slowly on offense. They checked in at No. 16 in pace with 100.2 possessions per game. The Kings, however, entered the game No. 6 with 102.7. Within that speed comes ball movement, too, as the Kings were No. 4 in the league in assist percentage (65.2%). Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer highlighted that movement, noting that Sacramento’s halfcourt pace was just as problematic as its running game.

BOX SCORE: Bucks 126, Kings 113

The Kings were the one to set the pace for the game by knocking down early – and wide open – threes in taking an 8-0 lead to open the game. The Bucks then went on 15-6 and 10-2 runs in the first half in scoring their second-most points of the season in a first half with 68.

Sacramento hit the gas in the third quarter to pull within 97-94, but the Bucks then buckled down defensively in the fourth quarter.

"They were coming," Antetokounmpo said with as shake of his head. "Whenever they rebound the ball, they were kicking the ball ahead, they were playing fast, they were setting pick and rolls to get downhill in early offense, move the ball, get wide open threes."

The Kings scored just 11 points in the first eight minutes of the frame as the Bucks built a double-digit lead.

"We were able just to make it as tough as possible for them," Antetokounmpo said of the fourth quarter. "Keep making them make one extra pass, one extra drive and kick. And at the end of the day I think we were able to just make it as tough as possible for them and rebound the ball and go the other way."

Milwaukee also did a good job dulling the Sacramento passing attack and forcing tougher shot attempts, as the Kings had just a 42.8% assist percentage when the starters were still in the game.

"We had a few mistakes, we looked at a few things at halftime, but overall to limit them to 18 assists is a good sign," Budenholzer said. "I thought we got better in the second half just kind of understanding how they play. I think a little bit of good fortune too... I think they missed some good looks. They're very good creating shots and creating catch-and-shoot threes and we tried to make an emphasis of that coming into the game today."

Bucks keep the free throws down

Sacramento has made a living this season at the free throw line in their surprising start, having averaged just under 20 free throws made per game on just over 25 attempts – each good for No. 5 in the NBA. The Bucks meanwhile were No. 4 in the NBA in opponent free throws made (16.8) and attempted (21.4).

In taking a 68-61 lead at halftime the Bucks were called for four defensive personal fouls and limited the Kings to just five free throw attempts, one of which was on a defensive three seconds call. Milwaukee meanwhile pounded the paint and went 13 for 16 from the charity stripe in the opening 24 minutes.

"Every single time the ball goes through the hoop or it doesn't, whoever has the ball is looking up the court for someone on their team running out, so you have to get back and sprint back in transition and a lot of times foul situations happen in transition because you're in a one-on-one, you're backpedaling, guy's coming at you full speed – it's really hard not to foul somebody like that," Grayson Allen said. "We did a good job of getting back and slowing them down and then in the half-court trusting our verticality."

In a 33-point third quarter, however, the Kings got to the line six times as the Bucks fouled five times. It helped the Kings shave a 12-point deficit to 97-94 to start the fourth quarter.

The Bucks smoothed out their defense in the decisive fourth quarter as the Kings attempted just one time in the first eight minutes as the Bucks gradually built a 12-point lead. Sacramento ended up in the bonus in the final minutes, but only got two free throws out of the advantage when the starters were still on the floor.

"More of a conscious effort (to not foul)," Holiday said. "It was definitely something that we talked about this morning. Obviously De'Aaron (Fox) being a one man fast break, getting to the paint and being able to draw fouls and do what he does, so just showing bodies, being able to kind of slow that down. And then from there, even with (Domantas) Sabonis, just letting Brook play him one-on-one so that we don't give out any threes. Brook is our best defender, so I think in that way, just leaving Sabonis to him really worked for us."

Pat Connaughton struggling to find his form

Pat Connaughton played his seventh straight game on Wednesday since an illness temporarily delayed his return from a preseason calf injury.

With eight total games under his belt after missing the first 15, it’s been a slow restart for the player Antetokounmpo called one of the greatest shooters he’s ever played with. Connaughton is making just 25.6% (10-for-39) of his attempts from behind the three-point line and 30% overall.

In reviewing his chances, Connaughton said he felt he’s been off balance on some but also seen others just go in and out. He said his legs feel good, but acknowledged he’s still had his minutes managed and can’t get in the extra shooting work he normally does.

“It’s just about making sure you keep controlling your mindset,” he said Wednesday morning at shootaround. “At the end of the day, the one thing I’ve been happy with myself is being ablet to curse correct throughout the course of a game. I haven’t necessarily started off games hot but I’ve been able to find ways to make shots in the fourth quarter, in the second half.”

Against the Kings he followed a similar pattern, missing his first 3 three-pointers and four shots overall before knocking down his first triple in the third quarter. He hit another one under duress after that (but missed the four-point free throw).

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Five numbers

8 Straight games scoring at least 30 points for Antetokounmpo, extending a career-high streak but also matching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the second-longest such stretch in franchise history. Abdul-Jabbar also owns the top spot, with 16 straight games of 30 or more points from Feb. 2 through March 1, 1972. Only Dallas’ Luka Dončić has had a longer streak than Antetokounmpo this season (nine games).

"Just embracing, embracing the moment," he said of this stretch "Embracing when you're not playing well, embracing when you're playing well. Just enjoying the moment as much as possible embracing the stage, embracing being able to be one of those guys to lead the team to victory."

13 Straight wins over the Kings for the Bucks, dating back to the 2015-16 season. It is now the longest active win streak over an opponent for Milwaukee.

18 Assists in three games by Khris Middleton. Middleton was 5 for 11 for 14 points against the Kings, but his playmaking has shown no signs of rust after his long layoff.

"He has a great feel for the game and that obviously left him in his time out," Allen said.

34 Season-high assists for the Bucks, on 46 field goals.

46 Points created by Holiday, who had 31 of his own and assisted on 13 more with his six handouts to teammates.

Play of the game is a timely Khris Middleton three-pointer

The Bucks were of course going to be a better offensive team when three-time all-star Middleton got back on the court following offseason wrist surgery, but they didn't just miss the raw numbers he puts up. It's the clutch factor. The timeliness of certain baskets. Middleton came through in such a fashion at the 7:59 mark of the fourth quarter with a three-pointer off a George Hill assist to give the Bucks a 106-101 lead. The Kings were never going to fold their tents, but giving his team some breathing room in a tight fourth quarter was an example of what Middleton brings to the table.

Video of the game is Bango not destroying a rim

After causing some damage in Madison with his dunking, Bucks mascot Bango elected to to go deep on Wednesday against the Kings (and add some Connaughton/Wesley Matthews flavor at the end).

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Bucks injury report

Who do the Bucks play next?

The Bucks head to Dallas to take on Dončić and the Mavericks at 9 p.m. at the American Airlines Center. The national TV broadcast will no doubt highlight the Antetokounmpo-Dončić MVP and scoring-leader storyline. The Mavericks are 13-11 and have won four of five since losing 124-115 to the Bucks on Nov. 27 at Fiserv Forum.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Giannis and Jrue Holiday score over 30 as Bucks beat Kings 126-113