CLEVELAND – Just under two hours before his upstart Cleveland team took the court against Milwaukee on Wednesday night, Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff compared his young team to a little brother trying to get over on an older one. It was an applicable analogy, for a few reasons:
The Bucks are the defending NBA champions.
Since Mike Budenholzer took over at the start of the 2018 season, the Bucks were 9-1 against the Cavaliers heading into this season.
From 2018-21 the Bucks were 38-4 in the Central.
In two games this year Milwaukee edged Cleveland, 112-104, on Dec. 6 – which left Khris Middleton shaking his head at how improved the Cavaliers were – and Cleveland got a victory at Fiserv Forum on Dec. 18 when no Bucks starters played.
BOX SCORE: Cavaliers 115, Bucks 99
Bickerstaff said his team was believing in itself, but at some point the younger brother had to throw the first punch to get out from under his thumb.
And they delivered it in a 115-99 victory, using strong defense, hustle on the offensive glass and an accurate three-point shot to topple the Bucks.
“This is not the Cleveland of the past years – they’re a good team,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I think they have a better record than us right now. So, it’s a team that we’ve got to be careful (of). We’ve got to scout better, we’ve got to make sure we respect them a bit more, now, because they’re a playoff team. They’re fighting for a title themselves.”
Lamar Stevens, all of 6 feet-6 inches, gave the Cavaliers a physical representation of Bickerstaff’s analogy with 36.4 seconds left in the third quarter when he challenged Antetokounmpo at the rim and blocked away a dunk attempt, sending the two-time MVP to the floor. The officials deemed it a foul, but the point was clear – the game mattered to the Cavaliers. The Cleveland bench stood for most of the game, huddled together on the baseline to celebrate baskets, rebounds and defensive stops.
“They played good defense," Antetokounmpo said. "They have shot blockers out there. That makes it tough around the rim. They’re double teaming me in the post. In my opinion, you kind of know what to expect from this team now. You know they’re not going to play one-on-one. You’ve got to be able to move the ball, you know you’ve got to be able to move your body because they’re big. They have to move. So, not to make any excuse but I think going on forward hopefully we can be even more ready for this team because they were physical, you know?
"They were double-teaming, they were loading, they were all over the place. Obviously every team have a history of the way they play defense like Toronto, Miami, Memphis, like, there’s teams that have history of how they’re going to defend you. I think pretty much me and Jrue and Khris have seen it all but, you know, I don’t think we thought they were going to be that physical against us, pushing us out of our spots.
"We gotta be ready. We can watch the tape, go back home, we play the Knicks (Friday) and we’ve got to be ready for that team and hopefully we’ll be ready for Cleveland again. We can be better and more ready.”
It was a rare defeat for the Bucks when their Big Three of Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday play together. Milwaukee is now 18-4 when the trio lace them up in the same game and the Bucks dropped to 30-20 overall while the Cavaliers sidestepped them into the No. 3 position in the East at 30-19.
It is the third Central Division loss for the Bucks this season, and it snapped a three-game winning streak.
“I think it’s fair to say it meant a lot to both sides,” Middleton said. “We knew what this game was. Coming into it we see that they were a half a game behind us in the fifth spot (in the East) and knowing that if they win it was going to flip, and I’m pretty sure it did. But they came out with more.
“But at the end of the day, it’s one game. It’s an important one that we lost; move on from it.”
And while the Cavaliers were not whole in Wednesday’s game due to injuries to Lauri Markkanen (ankle) and Ricky Rubio (torn anterior cruciate ligament), they remained one of the hottest teams in basketball. They have now 10 of their last 12 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and eight of nine overall. The Cavaliers are now 10-3 in January and moved percentage points behind the Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings.
Bickerstaff also said before the game the outcome would come down to the three-point line, saying how they shot it versus how they defended it would determine the outcome. That proved to be the case, as the Cavaliers withstood an early hot streak from the Bucks but eventually saw them cool off to the tune of 28.1% for the game.
Cleveland, on the other hand, started coolly (2-for-6) from deep but then caught fire to the tune of making nearly 55% of them (12-for-22) by halftime. Cleveland was making 50% of its threes deep into the fourth quarter and made 19 in total, 10 more than Milwaukee.
Cedi Osman (23 points) tied a career-high with 6 threes and Kevin Love (25 points) hit five to help the Cavaliers reserves outscore the Bucks bench 53-11.
They also scored 31 points off 19 Bucks turnovers and 19 second-chance points off 12 offensive rebounds.
Milwaukee was led by Antetokounmpo’s 26 points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes of action. He subbed out with 7 minutes left in the game and the Bucks down 104-85 and did not return. Middleton scored 21 points and Bobby Portis had 22 points and seven rebounds. Holiday couldn’t find a groove offensively, scoring four points on 2 of 9 shooting. He had seven assists, six rebounds. Pat Connaughton scored 11 points in a starting role.
Darius Garland had 19 points and eight assists for the Cavaliers while Jarrett Allen had 10 points. Evan Mobley had 16 points.
The Cavaliers outscored the Bucks 30-20 in the third quarter to stretch an eight-point lead to as many as 21 late in the frame on a Love basket. Milwaukee has struggled in the month of January in third quarters and this was no different, as Cleveland went on an 11-0 run early in the quarter to take a 76-59 lead and blow the game open. The Bucks turned it over once in that stretch but just couldn’t make a shot while the Cavaliers hit 3 threes. The Bucks never got closer than a dozen after that, even as they kept the starters in the game for the start of the fourth quarter.
The starters were eventually pulled with about three minutes left.
Cleveland flipped a 12-point deficit first quarter deficit to a 65-57 lead at the half thanks to a 38-point second quarter and 15 total second-chance points. Milwaukee shot 60% from the field in the first half and made six of its first nine three-point attempts but Cleveland gradually chipped away by forcing turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds. The Cavaliers took 10 more shots in the half than the Bucks thanks to 10 offensive rebounds and scored 22 points off 13 Bucks turnovers.
“I thought we started well,” Budenholzer said. “Couldn’t maintain it. They played lights out tonight. I don’t know what the analogy is or whatever it is, but they played really, really well. They shot it at a really, really high rate especially Love and Osman off the bench. The three ball just changed the second quarter and those two change the game, along with great defense. So they played great on both ends off the court and beat us pretty good.”
The bench unit for the Cavaliers, which had given the Bucks problems in their first two meetings of the year, outscored the Bucks 32-7 as well thanks to 18 from Osman and 14 from Love. Garland had 14 points and six assists in the first half as well for the Cavaliers. The Bucks were led by Portis’ 16 points while Middleton and Connaughton had 11 apiece. Antetokounmpo had eight points on 4 of 6 shooting while Holiday had four points and four assists.
The Bucks were used runs of 11-3 and 11-1 in the first quarter to go up 33-21 with 2:29 to go, and at that point they had missed just three shots and only one three. But two turnovers helped the Cavaliers cut the lead to 35-26 going into the second quarter. Cleveland continued to cause havoc defensively in the new quarter, using two Bucks turnovers to spur an 11-2 run that cut the lead to 39-37. A Connaughton three kept the Cavaliers at bay, but then the a barrage of turnovers and second-chance points helped Cleveland to an 11-3 run that gave them the lead at 48-45. They gradually built that up to as much as 11 points with 1:13 to go in the half before Portis and Antetokounmpo closed with six points in the final minute.
After a 6-for-7 start from behind the three-point line, the Bucks missed nine of their next 11 shots from deep in the first half.
Grayson Allen did not play for the Bucks as he served a one-game suspension for a flagrant 2 foul against Chicago on Friday.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Cleveland Cavaliers scrap and hustle to win over Milwaukee Bucks