Damian Lillard and Bobby Portis help Bucks stay hot since all-star break with destruction of Hornets

The Milwaukee Bucks look like a different team since the NBA all-star break.

The Bucks were especially stingy on defense and efficient on offense in a 123-85 destruction of the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday at Fiserv Forum.

Milwaukee (38-21) is 3-0 since the break. That ugly loss to the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 15 has been left in the rear-view mirror.

BOX SCORE: Bucks 123, Hornets 85

"I just think it was coming," Bucks head coach Doc Rivers said. "I think health is the biggest difference.

"Everybody's playing other than Khris (Middleton). I think that's one. I think our guys understand since the break we don't have a lot of time. And so we have to get to it and our guys are starting to do that."

Milwaukee has dominated the Hornets (15-43) this season. The Bucks’ previous largest margin of victory this season came on Feb. 9 when they beat Charlotte, 120-84. Milwaukee also won at Charlotte, 130-99, on Nov. 17.

The teams meet again in Charlotte on Thursday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo praises the Bucks' effort

Giannis Antetokounmpo was discouraged after that loss to the Grizzlies before the break, questioning his team's effort and saying "we have to want it."

Antetokounmpo was much more upbeat sitting at his locker after beating the Hornets.

"I think we had time, six or seven days, to kind of think," Antetokounmpo said. "What this coaching staff and what the team expects from us.

"Coming back from the break, we had the opportunity to talk about everybody's role. And what the team expects from us. So keeping everyone accountable. I got to play better defense. I got to attack more. I got to share the ball more.

"BP (Bobby Portis) got to be aggressive. You got to play better pick-and-role defense. You got to shoot the ball more. Everybody has their own role. So we got to keep everyone accountable throughout the 23 left games. Mentally, obviously, we were able to rest, take a break and also physically. It's been a hard season for all of us. But now we're back and we're got to keep better."

Antetokounmpo finished with 24 points and eight rebounds. He didn't have to play in the fourth quarter, another plus given the Bucks play three games in four days.

Bobby Portis has another strong effort

First, Damian Lillard was hot with 14 points in the first quarter. He finished with 23 and also didn't play in the fourth quarter.

Then, Portis scored 12 in the second as the Bucks opened up a 58-26 lead at the break.

Portis finished with 21 points. He has scored in double figures in eight straight games.

"I think guys on this team are starting to figure it out," Portis said. "It's not about how many points you score or how many shots you shoot.

"We're just trying to get wins and change the narrative for everybody talking. All the outside noise."

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo drives past Hornets forward Miles Bridges during the first half on Tuesday.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo drives past Hornets forward Miles Bridges during the first half on Tuesday.

Bucks' defense continues to look much improved

The biggest change in the narrative with the Bucks is on the defensive end. The Bucks have held back-to-back opponents under 100 points.

"I think it starts with our transition," Rivers said. "Just not giving up a lot of easy baskets.

"And once we take those away, playing against our set, half-court defense with our length has worked out really well for us."

The Hornets went scoreless for almost eight minutes in the second quarter.

"I thought we were very physical," Rivers said. "I thought our hands were active.

"Our deflections over the last four or five games have just skyrocketed. We talked about it, like, how don't we have a lot of deflections? We're fast, we're long, we should get our fingertips on a lot of balls."

The 26 points were the second-fewest allowed by the Bucks in the first half in team history. Milwaukee gave up 25 to Philadelphia on March 3, 1972.

"This is who we are," Antetokounmpo said. "This is who we're trying to be.

"In the second half, I think in the late third quarter or maybe early fourth quarter, there was a play that somebody drove all the way right and everybody on the bench was up, we were up 45 points and we were upset. Like, that's not what we do.

"That means as a team we're building those good habits. We got to make everything tough. It doesn't matter who we are playing, they got to get tough buckets against us."

Five numbers

2 Brook Lopez’s rank in Bucks history for blocked shots. With his first swat of the night against the Hornets, Lopez passed Alton Lister for No. 2 behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. Lopez now has 806career blocks as a member of the Bucks. Antetokounmpo broke Lister’s record in 2021. Lister had set the record in 1985-86 and recorded 804 blocks in 471 games.

26 Points scored by the Hornets in the first half, the lowest scored by a team in the NBA this season

5 Games the Bucks have held an opponent under 110 points since Doc Rivers took over as coach on Jan. 29. The team did it just five times before then.

8 Straight games scoring in double figures for Portis. He had nine straight games with double figures from Nov. 6-20.

121.8 Points the Bucks are averaging this season, a franchise high

When will Khris Middleton play?

Middleton sat out his eighth straight game with a sprained left ankle.

Rivers didn't know if Middleton would make the Bucks' two-game road trip to Charlotte and Chicago.

"If he goes, we think he may play," Rivers said. "I think it's that close. We got to be very careful with it."

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Damian Lillard and Bobby Portis help Bucks dominate Hornets at Fiserv Forum