MILWAUKEE — The Bucks are starting to get whole again.
Behind a season-high 47 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo, pestering defense from Jrue Holiday and a pair of clutch 3s in the fourth quarter from Khris Middleton — in his first game back after missing the previous eight after testing positive for COVID-19 — the Bucks picked up a 109-102 victory against the Los Angeles Lakers at home on Wednesday night.
It was the first time since Oct. 23 that Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday all played together in the same game, and even though the Bucks have gotten off to a slow start with a record of 7-8, they are 3-0 this season when their three stars play together.
“It’s the three-headed monster,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said. “It’s the three guys that make us go.”
The contributions of Milwaukee’s big three add up to a winning formula that led the Bucks to a championship, but a combination of injuries and illness has led to an uneven start this season. The Bucks are still without projected starting center Brook Lopez (back) and shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo (ankle), but having their three best players back in the lineup paid off for Milwaukee on Wednesday night.
“I think this is a good opportunity now that Khris is back for us to start getting back on track,” Antetokounmpo said. “Start building some games right here. And we’ll see. I can’t predict the future, but we’re in a good place right now.”
Antetokounmpo put together a dominant performance Wednesday night. He made 18 of his 23 shots, including 3 of 4 3-pointers while knocking down 8 of his 11 free throws. In recent games, Antetokounmpo said he felt he had not been aggressive enough, so he came out against the Lakers looking to score.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles didn’t have much of an answer to stop Antetokounmpo from getting to the basket. Antetokounmpo finished with 30 points in the paint, tied for the most by any player in a game this season (Ja Morant against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 20), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He went 9-of-13 from the floor with Anthony Davis as the primary defender matched up against him and 6-of-8 on drives to the basket.
“He made it look easy tonight,” Middleton said. “Got to his spots, was patient. Didn’t necessarily try to force his way through too many guys. If he saw an extra body, he tried to find the open man. It was just great as far as picking his spots and getting to his spots and being comfortable and being just him. His best version of himself.”
Sharing the floor with Middleton again helped alleviate some of the pressure Antetokounmpo had been seeing from opposing defenses in recent weeks.
Middleton played 30 minutes in his first game back, finishing only 4-of-12 shooting with 16 points. However, he scored eight points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of 3s to help Milwaukee seal the victory — and to tie Ray Allen for the most 3s in franchise history at 1,051.
“I always complain to him, ‘I see you too much. I’m tired of you. We got to get some space from one another.’ Now, I kind of missed him,” Antetokounmpo said with a laugh. “Just having him out there, it definitely helped the team. He hit two back-to-back 3s for us, gave us momentum, made great plays down the stretch, so it’s good to have him back. Definitely good to have him back.”
And even though Holiday is still rounding into form offensively (3-of-13 shooting Wednesday) after missing six games earlier this season with an ankle injury, he stepped up defensively in the fourth quarter. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, when Holiday was the primary defender, the Lakers shot 5-of-17 from the floor and missed all six shots he guarded in the fourth quarter.
“He played a really smart defensive game,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Offensively I think he’s still finding his rhythm a little bit, but I think defensively he was a lot of places, made a lot of plays that were big for us.”
Despite being a game under .500, Bucks players haven’t shown any signs of worry. Their starting unit Wednesday marked their ninth different starting combination in 15 games this season. But as long as that lineup includes Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday, the Bucks showed Wednesday what heights they are capable of.
“We definitely started way slower than I think we all wanted to,” Middleton said. “But it happens, it has happened. So we’ve just got to find a way to get ourself out of this rut. Tonight was a nice start, so hopefully we can string along a couple games if we need to.”