A national television audience and an expectant Fiserv Forum crowd were denied one of the NBA’s premier front court matchups Saturday night as two-time league Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo and all-stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were ruled out with injuries in the Milwaukee Bucks’ 124-102 victory over the Miami Heat.
Milwaukee has now won nine of its last 10 to improve to 15-9 while Miami dropped to 14-10 in losing three of four (all without Butler).
Antetokounmpo missed his second straight game with right calf soreness after being a late scratch against Toronto on Thursday. Listed as probable to play on the off day, the 26-year-old was downgraded to doubtful following the Bucks’ shootaround Saturday morning. Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer reiterated pre-game that the hope is it a short-term injury.
Starting guard Grayson Allen (illness) also was ruled out for the Bucks while Adebayo had thumb surgery and Butler suffered a tailbone contusion to take them out of action for the Heat.
All those significant absences left the stage open for Milwaukee all-stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday and the Heat backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Whitnall High School alumnus Tyler Herro.
And it was Middleton and Holiday who very quickly stole the spotlight, as the duo made plays all over the court from the opening tip to allow the Bucks to ease into a victory. Middleton broke out of an extended shooting slump and made 9 of his 18 shots to score 22 points.
“I think I’ve been getting great looks throughout this season, even when I came back (from the NBA health and safety protocol),” Middleton said. “Now it’s just about making ‘em, be able to have a good base, be able to shoot with confidence, not hesitate too much. I feel like I’m heading in the right direction as far as makes and being aggressive. Just keeping my foot on the pedal with it.”
He also handed out nine assists while pulling down six rebounds.
BOX SCORE: Bucks 124, Heat 102
Holiday was dominant early and steady throughout, scoring 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting. He also got his teammates involved with seven assists.
“I thought he was great,” Budenholzer said. “Some of the shots he made, we needed that burst out of the gate I think. We got a little bit of separation in the first quarter, which tonight I thought was important. Played him a lot in the first quarter and he had a great run there. We needed it.”
Pat Connaughton tied a season-high with 23 points and Bobby Portis recorded his eighth double-double of the season with 19 points and a season-high 16 rebounds.
The Bucks improved to 5-9 when at least one of their “big three” of Antetokounmpo, Middleton or Holiday do not play.
“I think it’s different each game because obviously when Giannis isn’t out there you don’t have a freak, right?” Connaughton said. “When Khris isn’t out there you don’t have a guy that can make really difficult shots. When Jrue isn’t out there you don’t have somebody that can really compose everybody and get everyone into their spots.
"So you would think you could get comfortable knowing what’s missing, but then defenses change and they throw different stuff at you. I think it’s about getting acclimated during the game and then understanding, at the end of the day, our foundation is playing together, right?
"So moving the ball, trying to get open looks, fire it when you’re open, try and get into the paint, doing those type of little things. When we flow like that, we can play well and score points with anybody regardless of who’s on the floor I believe. I thought we did a lot better of a job tonight of that than we did in Toronto.”
Lowry and Herro were physically harangued all night as the Bucks made sure to not let the pair get their team in the game. Lowry’s night was done with 2 minutes, 44 seconds to go in the third quarter after scoring 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting. He was just 1 fo -7 from behind the three-point line, but he did have seven assists.
Herro played 33 minutes but he also made just four shots on 17 attempts, including just 1 for 6 from three-point range. He made six of his eight free throws to score 15 points on the night to go with nine rebounds and six assists.
“Tried to keep them in front of us as much as possible,” Middleton said of the defensive effort on the Heat backcourt. “They’re great players who know how to get downhill, create fouls and that creates their rhythm for their jumpshots and what not. It’s just trying to stay in front on the pick and rolls.
"I think our bigs did a great job not necessarily trapping but making them a little bit uncomfortable and going backwards instead of forwards into their spots.”
Max Strus led the Heat with 25 points off the bench.
The outcome was also a bit of rebuttal to the Heat’s 42-point victory in Miami back on Oct. 21, as the Bucks led by as many as 31 when the starters were on the floor. The Bucks scored 26 points off 19 offensive rebounds and out-scored the Heat 48-26 in the paint.
The two teams will play again in Miami on Dec. 9.
Milwaukee was up 105-76 to start the fourth quarter, but despite a four-turnover start by the Bucks the Heat were not able to string together enough points quick enough to truly challenge the large lead.
The Bucks used a flurry of offensive rebounds and three-points to key a 16-6 run early in the third quarter that allowed them to stretch their advantage to 85-62 halfway through the period. From there, they gradually worked the lead to 30 on late threes by Javonte Smart and Wesley Matthews.
Holiday and Middleton combined for 31 points and eight assists in the first half to stake the Bucks a 69-52 lead at the break. Middleton put a punctuation mark on the effort with a three-pointer with 28.8 seconds left, giving the Bucks their largest lead of the opening half.
Holiday set the table for such an advantage by scoring 12 points in the first nine minutes of the game, and then DeMarcus Cousins scored six points and had an assist in the final three to help the Bucks to a 34-23 lead after one.
The Heat cut the lead to 43-37 on Lowry’s first basket of the game at the 8:33 mark of the second quarter, but then Connaughton scored eight straight points to put the Bucks up 51-37. From there, the Bucks led anywhere from 11 to 17 points the rest of the half.
Connaughton had 11 in the half and made three, three-pointers. Portis pulled down 10 rebounds.
Lowry went 1 for 7 in the half while Herro was 3 for 11, though he did help get Cousins off the court (four fouls in seven minutes) by driving on the Bucks’ big man.
Even without Antetokounmpo and Cousins in foul trouble, Milwaukee outscored Miami 30-14 in the paint.
Rookie Sandro Mamukelashvili (20 minutes, five points, seven rebounds) made his first career start for the Bucks while Matthews (three points) played 12 minutes in his debut a day after signing.
In his first game back in Milwaukee since helping the Bucks win the NBA championship, Heat forward P.J. Tucker had three fouls, two points and one rebound in 17 minutes. He received his championship ring before the game following a video tribute and thanked the crowd in a short speech.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday power Bucks to big win without Giannis