The Milwaukee Bucks kicked off a five-game road swing and the first contest of the Doc Rivers era against the defending NBA Champion Denver Nuggets.
Though no one expected Rivers to immediately right the ship in his first game at the helm, many were curious to see how the team would play under him and if the Bucks would show any added fire. On top of that, this would be a good test against one of the best teams in the association. Unfortunately, the game just did not go Milwaukee's way.
The Nuggets were victorious on their home floor in what was an incredibly close contest throughout, winning 113-107. The Bucks had their opportunities but failed to capitalize again and again, while the opposite was true for the Nuggets. Milwaukee has been among the best clutch teams this season, but they let this one slip away.
Doc Rivers' first game with the Bucks features encouraging, discouraging returns
As Rivers talked about postgame, he was pleased with the team's defensive effort, applauding how the team fought. Rivers said, "The cat's out of the bag" when talking about Milwaukee's defense and how capable this unit is, but they now have to do it every night.
The Bucks did a quality job against the reigning Finals MVP Nikola Jokic, holding him to 25 points on 25 shot attempts. On the flip side, they allowed Jamal Murray to score 35 points and take over late in the game, with the wing defenders providing very little resistance.
The defense wasn't perfect, but this team did show fight on that side of things. There were still plenty of lapses, one in particular being a breakdown that led to a wide-open Michael Porter Jr. dunk in the fourth quarter, but the Bucks showed effort on that end that hasn't always been there this season.
A major reason why the Bucks exited the court in defeat was a recurring theme that has hindered them throughout the season, and that's their bench not being able to produce.
When Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard both checked out with 5:15 left in the first quarter, the Bucks were up 24-11. From that point on, Denver went on a 14-2 run to end the period, making it a one-point game at the end of the first quarter. The Nuggets just got far more production out of the bench than Milwaukee did.
Bobby Portis, who is the team's sixth man, had one of his worst games in a long time, as he struggled to get anything going for much of the night. Before and after hitting two triples amid a comeback try by the Bucks, Portis could not throw a rock into the ocean. Not only was he missing threes, but he missed several shots right at the rim that would typically be his bread and butter.
In an all-around ugly shooting performance, Portis has just nine points on 2-of-13 field goal shooting. Portis had just as many shot attempts as Damian Lillard, which should never happen unless he is on a heater beyond belief; he wasn't. Outside of a few good looks, it felt like Portis was forcing shots again and again. This simply cannot happen, especially when those shots are not falling.
In what has been a common theme this season, every single Bucks' reserve had a negative +/- rating, while all but one Nuggets bench player had a positive rating. Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun, and Peyton Watson all had double-digit positive ratings. Again and again, opposing reserves find ways to be more impactful than Milwaukee's second unit.
Back to Lillard. It was a quiet night for the guard, who had 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting. It felt as if he was being far too passive throughout this one. The team needs him to be more aggressive, even if the shot is not falling with regularity. Denver played tough defense, but still, it felt like he was passing up decent shots here and there.
It also hurt that Lillard and Khris Middleton had four turnovers apiece. Several of the eight giveaways were due to flat-out bad decision-making. It was one of those games where the Bucks were beyond careless with their passing, which led to more opportunities for Denver. Eight turnovers and eight assists combined is not going to cut it.
Giannis Antetokounmpo - 29 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists - and Brook Lopez - 19 points on five 3-point makes - did all they could to try and will Milwaukee to victory, but it just was not enough.
Ultimately, it was an interesting first game under Doc Rivers. There's still plenty of work to be done for the Bucks, mainly with maximizing Lillard, playing better defense consistently, and simply hoping to get more from the reserves. On top of that, the 2024 NBA Trade Deadline is coming up, so perhaps a move could help them in any of these categories.
Stay tuned for more Milwaukee Bucks analysis.