Without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are blown out 135-95 by the Cavaliers.

CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Cavaliers won their sixth game in a row by snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ three-game winning streak with a 135-95 victory Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The Bucks fell to 28-13 while the Cavaliers improved to 24-15.

Milwaukee will see Cleveland two more times in the next week, with games at Fiserv Forum on Jan. 24 and 26.

Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin, already without superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, pulled his starters about halfway through the third quarter. Damian Lillard led that group with 17 points on 7-of-20 shooting in 25 minutes. Khris Middleton was 1-for-10 and Malik Beasley 1-for-6. The Bucks starters combined to make just 17 shots on 47 attempts.

Bobby Portis had 16 points off the bench.

Box score: Cavaliers 135, Bucks 95

"I think sometimes in the league, man, you kind of have those dog days where it just ain't your night," Portis said. "Maybe we could've put more effort or sprinting back on defense or whatever it was, but offensive end it just wasn't our night shooting the ball. Defensive end, really couldn't get a stop. They made every shot they threw up. I feel like every time they shot it, it was going to go in.

"So, tip your hat to a good Cleveland team. They're a great defensive team, tip your hat to them. See them a couple times next week so it's kind of cool to have a fast turnaround like that, see the same opponent next week, especially twice at the crib."

Donovan Mitchell scored 31 points on 12 of 19 shooting in 26 minutes for the Cavaliers. Jarrett Allen had 21 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes and Isaac Okoro added 15 for the Cleveland starters. Georges Niang had a career-high 33 off the bench, going 13-for-14 from the field, including 5-for-6 from behind the three-point line.

More: Bucks at the halfway point: Giannis' MVP case, Dame's new role and an identity search

Cavaliers forward Georges Niang drives to the basket against Bucks forward Jae Crowder during the first half of their game Wednesday night in Cleveland.
Cavaliers forward Georges Niang drives to the basket against Bucks forward Jae Crowder during the first half of their game Wednesday night in Cleveland.

First quarter start dooms cold-shooting Bucks

The Bucks fell behind 6-0 in the opening minute and chased the Cavaliers the entire way after, falling behind 22-2 in less than six minutes. Cleveland made eight of its first nine shots while Milwaukee missed nine of its first 10.

Twenty-point deficits – especially those created so early in a game – doesn’t necessarily portend defeat, but the Bucks just could not make shots. Milwaukee cut the Cleveland lead to as few as eight, but Niang scored with four seconds left in the quarter to give the Cavaliers a 32-22 lead.

The Bucks went 2 1/2 minutes without a field goal to start the second quarter while Niang scored six points and suddenly the deficit was 16 again.

"We know that it's a long game, we know that you're going to have opportunities because of the pace that they play at, they shoot a lot of threes, you're going to have opportunities to get back in and at the end of the quarter we cut it to like (eight), we found our way back into the game, but when you come out of that type of hole and you're still down 10, then everything becomes more important," Lillard said.

"So you gotta start the second quarter much better and you gotta get right back into the game instead of letting them continue to feel good and we cut it to (eight) and then they jumped back out on us and they built a lead back up and it's not often that you see teams keep coming back from being down 20 in the same game. We didn't take advantage of that opportunity in that moment and it became an uphill battle."

Mitchell and Niang steepened that hill, scoring a combined 39 first-half points on 16 of 22 shooting, including 7-for-11 from behind the three-point line.

Meanwhile, Lillard and Middleton went a combined 3-for-14 in the first quarter and 4-for-21 in the first half. Middleton didn’t make a shot (0-for-7) while Niang didn’t miss one (8-for-8) as the Cavaliers took a 66-41 lead into the break.

"We didn't execute on the offensive end," Griffin said. "That's a very, very good defensive team and when you play a team like this on the road; I thought it was just a lot of one pass, shot. Or just breaking off plays and we would get into the paint, we'd leave our feet looking for fouls, just our continuity, the rhythm of our offense was just non-existent.

"That's what I was talking about before the game is that you come in here and you gotta execute. Very rarely did we play to the second side. Very rarely did we play did we go to our second, third option. We would just literally come down, shoot, or come down one shot, pass, shot, and it's not going to beat a team like Cleveland with the way they have their defense."

The Cavaliers pushed the lead to as many as 32 early in the third quarter, as such an ice-cold start by the Bucks gave a good defensive team in Cleveland a head start they wouldn’t cede. All the Bucks starters were then pulled as the deficit ballooned to 40. The Cavaliers came into the game as the No. 3 scoring defense in the league, allowing just 110.7 points per game.

"I just talked to the team after the game is we have to learn from this," Griffin said. "You have to. We can't continue to make these type of mental errors when, especially the start of the game. Start of the game was just; again, we dug ourselves a hole and this time we couldn't get out of it."

Giannis Antetokounmpo cheers the Bucks from the bench Wednesday night. He sat out the game against the Cavaliers because of a shoulder bruise.
Giannis Antetokounmpo cheers the Bucks from the bench Wednesday night. He sat out the game against the Cavaliers because of a shoulder bruise.

Giannis Antetokounmpo misses game with shoulder bruise

Antetokounmpo was not on the injury report as late as 3:30 p.m. CT, but as Middleton began warming up – which is also when Antetokounmpo does – the two-time MVP was not on the court. On the 4:30 p.m. CT injury report, Antetokounmpo was listed as out with a right shoulder contusion.

"He went through shootaround and then prior to the game tonight he just felt that he couldn't go," Griffin said. "So, we're just being smart. I don't believe it's gonna be multiple games. It could just be day-to-day for now."

Jae Crowder and Lillard acknowledged Antetokounmpo's absence affected the rhythm of the offense, particularly with how late of a scratch he was.

"But we have enough in the room to overcome it," Crowder said. "I think tonight we didn't, but I think we'll be better if that situation happens again."

Antetokounmpo was on the injury report prior to the Bucks’ victory over Sacramento on Sunday with the same injury, but played through it and recorded a triple-double. His absence marked the end of his 29-game consecutive games streak, his longest since playing 31 in a row in the 2020-21 season.

He is averaging a team-high 31.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while handing out 5.9 assists.

"It's more Dame Lillard, more Dame Lillard, more Dame Lillard and how you put your attention there to help kind of slow him down," Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said before the game regarding what he expected. "It's not a disrespect to the other guys. Those guys have won a championship. Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, those guys have contributed to winning a championship and when you have that type of mentality you're always scary because they believe that they can do great things.

"Obviously the usage rate for Dame will probably increase so you have to be solid there, but again, you can't let another guy come in and be an X-factor. You can't let Lopez have a huge night banging threes from deep or Bobby Portis bringing that energy and that fire that he does. You have to match that or exceed that and not allow him to be that kind of factor."

Lillard tried to get himself going, but he went to the free throw line just twice (2-for-3) in going 7-for-20 overall, including 1-for-6 from behind the three-point line. Cleveland did an excellent job of not letting Lopez (11 points) and Portis (14) make a huge difference.

"We felt like we were disrupted by not having Giannis out there," Lillard said. "I think how he pulls the defense and the attention that he gets from teams, it kind of just creates an advantage for a lot of things that we've done. Him not being out there, I think we just didn't execute well around that."

"It's not that we couldn't or that was the reason why, we just didn't have that side-to-side movement and when he's not on the floor it becomes even more important for us to do those things to make the defense guard the first action, then the second action and sometimes the third. You wear 'em down and you move 'em around a little bit. And we just didn't do that well enough.

"We seen them make shots and there was times where I was just like, I'm getting in the lane. I can get in the lane but probably leaned on my abilty and me doing that few times, maybe too many times, and that took away from side-to-side movement. And then we had the next, first pass it was like that person was doing the exact same thing so we just didn't have good ball movement and it kind of just made it worse."

The Bucks were not in violation of the league's new player participation policy with Antetokounmpo's absence in a nationally televised game, as fellow all-stars Middleton and Lillard played.

Andre Jackson Jr. rides rookie roller coaster for Bucks

A rookie is going to have his ups and downs, and Andre Jackson Jr. has ridden the roller coaster this past week. He had his first career double-double and heavily impacted the Bucks beating the Golden State Warriors on Saturday. He didn’t come out for nearly an entire quarter, his energy and athleticism buoying his team. Then on Sunday against Sacramento, he started in place of Middleton (right knee management) but was called for five fouls in 10 minutes.

On Wednesday he started in place of Antetokounmpo and was called for a foul 13 seconds into the game. It didn’t get much better, as he collected an offensive rebound but airballed his three-pointer from the corner which set up a Mitchell jumper. Another offensive rebound was stripped away by Mitchell, leading to a dunk the other way for Cleveland. Middleton then had to remind Jackson to get back in transition defense after the Cavaliers turned a missed shot into a layup.

He then finished the game and had some strong offensive moments, including a quick-burst driving layup and a 19-foot jumper. He finished with six points and eight rebounds.

"There's always going to be highs and lows, there's always going to be a learning curve. The biggest thing with young players is finding consistency. To do that you gotta put them out there. You gotta let them learn from their successes and some of their shortcomings. One of the things with 'Dre is he'll learn is defending without fouling so he can stay on the floor and I can keep him on the floor. But again, he has a great motor. He was making plays on the offensive end, he pushed the ball. He's going to be an extremely good player this league.

"But I do feel an obligation to get him minutes and get him ready for if we need him in the playoffs. I gotta get him some minutes out there, because I think he can help us."

Jae Crowder returns for Bucks

Crowder returned to the court for the Bucks for the first time since Nov. 11. The 33-year-old Marquette University alumnus suffered a torn left adductor forced him out of a loss in Orlando and required surgery on Nov. 14. Crowder began practicing in five-on-five settings last week and returned with a minute restriction.

"No. 1, Jae has worked extremely hard to get back 100% in all of his rehab and just poured it all out there," Griffin said. "We're just glad to have his veteran leadership, his presence on the floor, just gives us another veteran guy coming off the bench. Excited about (it)."

Crowder checked in for the first time with the Bucks down 28-11 at the 2-minute, 59-second mark of the first quarter. He then played out the end of the fourth quarter with the deep reserves to build his minutes total to just about 20.

"Just good for my mental, let me know that I could still play basketball, and do it without pain now," he said after the game. "That's the most I took from it. I'm able to make cuts and do stuff without any pain. We can only go up from here. I just think tonight was good for my mental. Obviously we got our ass kicked but we're going to regroup and get back to it."

He was 5-for-13 for 15 points, but perhaps more importantly was able to take contact, hit the court and spring up without perceptible issue. He also looked to be moving and lifting off well.

In his first nine games, Crowder made 51.6% of his three-pointers and averaged 8.1 points in 26.7 minutes per contest.

"We just got better a little bit," Crowder said of the Bucks team is he returning to. "I played nine games. I feel like you look at us now we're a totally different team. We understand each other more, we're reacting off each other a little more, so it's a different feel to the game because we are playing as a unit right now. The first nine games we were trying to feel each other out, new unit, new guys. But I think right now the team is going up. Obviously we had a setback tonight with this game. It was one of those games but I feel like we're in a much better place than we were when I got injured."

5 numbers

  • 1-1 Bucks' record without Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. His only other missed game was a victory in Toronto on Nov. 15.

  • 7:24 Time on the clock in the third quarter when Khris Middleton made his only basket of the game. He missed his first nine shots and finished with two points on 1 of 10 shooting. Middleton finished with three turnovers, two rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot in about 20 minutes of play.

  • 100 Georges Niang’s first-half shooting percentage as he scored 20 points. He came off the bench late in the first quarter after the Bucks cut a 20-point deficit to 28-19 and proceeded to score eight straight Cleveland points to build the lead back to 37-22.

  • 120 Players in NBA history who have scored at least 16,000 points. Milwaukee center Brook Lopez joined that club with his third point of the night vs. the Cavaliers. With his 11 points on Wednesday, Lopez has 16,008. Lopez joined teammates Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo among just 15 active players in that exclusive club.

  • 50,000 Dollar fine the NBA assessed Sacramento head coach Mike Brown for “aggressively pursuing a game official during live play, and for publicly criticizing the officiating” during the Bucks’ overtime victory over the Kings on Sunday. Opposing teams have had a rough go vs. Milwaukee, as Houston head coach Ime Udoka was fined $25,000 after being ejected and complaining about officials after the Rockets lost to the Bucks on Dec. 17 and then Brooklyn was fined $100,000 for violating the league’s player participation policy vs. the Bucks on Dec. 27.

More: Bucks' Jae Crowder ready to begin five-on-five practices: 'I’ll be much better off than I was before'

Bucks all-star voting: Giannis will be a starter while Damian Lillard still competing for a spot

Antetokounmpo will be heading to Indiana as an all-star starter for the Eastern Conference in Indianapolis on Feb. 18, and he hopes Lillard can join him. Lillard is in a battle with Atlanta’s Trae Young to win the fan vote, which accounts for 50% of the selection procees with current players (25%) and media (25%) making up the rest.

"He's definitely earned it," Griffin said of Lillard. "In my opinion, he's earned it. It's not even a question. We have the second-best record in the East and he's a big reason. Obviously Giannis is gonna be a starter but Dame definitely deserves it."

The next voting update will be released on Thursday and voting closes on Saturday.

As for a couple players who would have to make the team off the coach's vote, Griffin made his case for center Lopez, who finished second in the defensive player of the year voting last season and leads the NBA in total blocks. He only trails San Antonio rookie Victor Wembanyama in blocks per game and number of games with five or more blocks. Lopez is also averaging 12.8 points per game.

"Brook, with his defense, I think you have to put value on defense and he's strong on both sides of the ball," Griffin said. "He's very versatile. You see the three that he made vs. (Sacramento) and the way he protects the rim. I think he's having a stellar year."

Griffin also said Middleton deserves a look. A three-time all-star, Middleton has averaged 17.4 points on 51.6% field goal shooting, 40.9% three-point shooting and 81.9% free throw shooting since Dec. 7. He's also averaged 6.2 assists.

"I think we need three or four guys representing the Bucks in the (all-star game)," Griffin said. "But Dame is definitely, hands down, deserving of being an all-star."

Griffin and his staff is also in line to coach the East if the Bucks remain behind Boston as the No. 2 seed through Feb. 4. Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla coached in the all-star game a year ago and coaches cannot do it two seasons in a row.

Even if the Bucks only land Antetokounmpo and Lillard on the Eastern Conference team, guard Malik Beasley is making his case to be part of All-Star weekend as the league’s top three-point shooter. Heading into Wednesday, Beasley is leading the NBA by making 48.1% of his threes. He is just ahead of former Bucks guard and current Phoenix Sun Grayson Allen (48%). Beasley is two games away from breaking Ray Allen’s club record of 12 games with five or more made three-pointers, set in 2000-01 and challenging Dell Curry’s single-season Bucks record for three-point shooting (47.6% in 1998-99).

Assistant coaches pick the rookies and second-year players for the annual Rising Stars challenge. Bucks rookie Andre Jackson Jr. does not have some of the stats as his draft classmates, but his sharp and creative passing and high-flying dunks might be an attractive addition to the game. Greenfield’s Brandon Podziemski might have a good chance at making the game, as he’s averaging 9.2 points per game for Golden State.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks blown out 135-95 by Cavaliers.