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Bucks hit the road seeking answers on defense vs. Knicks

Jan 6, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Martin (11) and Milwaukee Bucks guard AJ Green (20) scramble for a loose ball in the first half at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are beginning a road trip Monday night in search for some consistency and a defensive identity.

The New York Knicks’ brief homestand starts with another chance to maintain those elusive traits.

The Bucks will look to bounce back from a lopsided loss when they visit the Knicks in the final regular-season game between the clubs this season.

Both teams last played Friday, when the Bucks suffered another lopsided loss as they fell to the visiting Charlotte Hornets 138-109 and the host Knicks continued their latest surge with a 112-108 victory over the Toronto Raptors.

Any hope the Bucks had of winning their third straight game Friday disappeared when the Hornets — who have the third-worst record in the NBA and will likely be in the thick of the Victor Wembanyama lottery — raced out to a 51-28 lead after the first quarter. The 51 points tied the NBA record for the highest-scoring first quarter and were the most the Hornets have ever scored in a period.

The early outburst by the Hornets was historic, but the poor defense and one-sided nature of the defeat continued a worrisome trend for the Bucks, who gave up at least 130 points for the fifth time this season and lost by at least 20 points for the fourth time. All four of those losses have happened since Dec. 1; Milwaukee has gone 10-8 since then.

While the Bucks suffered 16 losses by 20 points or more over the previous two seasons — 11 in the regular season and five in the playoffs — a perennially leaky defense is something new. Milwaukee gave up at least 130 points just 14 times the last two years, including eight times during the 2020-21 campaign, when it won the NBA title for the first time since 1971.

“Defensively, we have not been able to get stops in those games,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday night. “We dug ourselves a big hole in those games. We haven’t matched what it takes to be competitive in an NBA game on multiple occasions now and it’s concerning.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo was also held to a season-low nine points on 2-of-7 shooting against Charlotte.

New York isn’t far removed from similar defensive concerns. The Knicks opened the season by losing 13 of their first 23 games, a stretch in which they gave up at least 120 points seven times. They then won seven straight from Dec. 4-20, a span in which they allowed more than 106 points just once.

The Knicks followed that with a five-game losing streak, during which they allowed Dallas star Luka Doncic to produce the first 60/20/10 triple-double in NBA history (60 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists). The Mavericks overcame a nine-point deficit in the final 33 seconds of regulation to win that game 126-121 in overtime.

The current four-game winning streak began with double-digit victories over the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns before the Knicks withstood fourth-quarter surges by the San Antonio Spurs last Wednesday and the Raptors on Friday. The Spurs overcame a nine-point deficit to take a brief lead with a little more than four minutes, and the Raptors whittled a 16-point deficit in the final four minutes to two.

Jalen Brunson iced the win Friday for the Knicks by converting an old-fashioned three-point play with 22 seconds left.

“Really, it’s a learning experience — we know what to do, what not to do,” said Knicks center Mitchell Robinson, who had 10 points and 18 rebounds. “Got to keep learning and get better at it.”

–Field Level Media