When the Milwaukee Bucks put together the duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, they envisioned their team would have the kind of offensive firepower it displayed Tuesday night.
The Bucks put up their highest point total of the season in a 146-122 triumph over the New York Knicks to advance to the semifinals of the NBA’s in-season tournament Thursday in Las Vegas, where they’ll face the Indiana Pacers.
“I thought this was probably our best offensive game,” said Lillard, who scored 28 points on 8-of-13 shooting. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to turn into a team that does that every night, but I do think we have that type of explosiveness. We can’t depend on having these types of nights every time, but it’s definitely a look at the kind of nights we can have offensively.”
Antetokounmpo paced the Bucks with 35 points and 10 assists, and Milwaukee improved to 12-1 this season when Lillard scores at least 25 points, but the Bucks rode an avalanche of 3-pointers to victory. Milwaukee made 23 of its 38 3-point attempts while shooting 60.5% from the field, just the second time in franchise history the team has shot at least 60% while taking 35 3-pointers.
And the Bucks did so versus one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses in New York, which led the league in opponent points per game entering Tuesday before giving up the most points the franchise has allowed since 1979.
“They’re a terrific offensive team,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We gave them confidence early, and then the start of the third was a big problem for us.”
The Bucks improved to 5-0 during this in-season tournament, defeating the Knicks for the second time in tournament play.
Milwaukee began the season with championship aspirations, but as Bucks players started to participate in this tournament, they also have become focused on winning it.
“We want to win two championships this year,” said Bucks guard Malik Beasley, who knocked down six 3-pointers Tuesday and finished with 18 points.
“You come out of this thing on top, the last team standing, I think it’s a pretty strong statement,” Lillard said. “It’s something that everybody around the league has to respect.”
Milwaukee’s victory set up a showdown with Indiana and its top-ranked offense. The Bucks are ranked third in the league in offensive efficiency.
“Tonight was a huge step. We wanted to get to Vegas,” Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said. “But when we get to Vegas, we’ve got to take care of business. We still got two games to win there.”
Through the first few months of the season, the Bucks have acknowledged they are a work in progress, still figuring out the best way to use Lillard and Antetokounmpo on the court together. Despite the learning curve, the Bucks have begun the season 15-6 and won 10 of their past 12 matches, which was encouraging to Lillard as they head to Las Vegas while playing their best basketball of the season.
“It’s been some bumps in that process where we don’t play so great some nights but we’re still able to win those games,” Lillard said. “I think now is just starting to get a little more smooth — knowing where we should be on the floor, knowing how to give each other outlets, knowing how to help each other be who we are. It’s not perfect, but I just like that we’re showing improvement and it’s carrying over and you can see it on the floor.”