The Milwaukee Bucks were greeted by a playoff-like atmosphere at the United Center and responded like the reigning NBA champions that they are.
Jrue Holiday scored 16 of his 26 points in the final quarter to lift Milwaukee past the Chicago Bulls, 118-112, in a thrilling match between two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The 31-year-old veteran hit several crucial baskets down the stretch that helped them gradually pull away from what was still a tie game with slightly over five minutes remaining in the fourth period.
It was the latest outstanding performance from Holiday in a campaign where he has been as consistent as they come and was the most notable player left off this year’s All-Star team.
With Holiday taking over, their usual closer, Khris Middleton, was successfully deployed as a decoy late in the contest. He still managed to finish with 22 points, six rebounds, and seven assists–highlighted by a full court pass to Javon Carter for a lay-up that helped seal the win with less than 20 seconds left to play.
That basket from Carter was the only Bucks field goal in the last nine minutes of the game not scored by their Big Three of Holiday, Middleton, and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo who was once again dominant with 34 points, 16 rebounds, and five assists. While their scoring concentration is a sign of how dominant these three are, it could also hint at their lack of depth.
Though they managed to pull off their third straight win, it will be interesting to monitor how much Milwaukee leans on its stars moving forward given the tight race in the Eastern Conference standings. They need to find a balance between securing a favorable seed with the playoffs still over a month away and keeping their stars fresh come what is expected to be another lengthy postseason run.
Holiday, Middleton, and Antetokounmpo have had to carry a heavier workload this year given the extended absence of starting center Brook Lopez, who has been out with a back injury since their season opener. Bobby Portis has filled in admirably and responded with the best season of his career, but his skill set is best suited in the sixth man role that he starred in for last year’s championship team.
The recent injuries to key reserves George Hill and Pat Connaughton have further compounded matters and the fickle contributions that they have received from their remaining bench players has not helped.
On the bright side, this win, together with their prior victory over the East-leading Miami Heat, reinforced that the Bucks remain a serious title contender even with a supporting cast that is inferior to last year’s squad.
This victory over the Bulls allowed the Bucks to tie them at third place in the Eastern Conference standings. Both teams now sport a 39-25 record with only 18 games remaining in the regular season. Milwaukee currently leads the crucial season series with Chicago with two wins, which will serve as a tiebreaker if they do end up with identical records. However, they still have another pair of games left to play which gives the Bulls a chance to tie it up.
The Bucks are now just three games behind the Heat for the top spot though the new-look Philadelphia 76ers are gaining steam and are a formidable threat. This Eastern Conference race is one of the most exciting ones in recent history and it has brought a postseason intensity to these regular season match-ups.
With playoff-level basketball coming much earlier than usual, whoever tops the East in May could come down to which of these teams still has gas left in the tank. While this poses a conundrum to the teams involved, it will be a treat for the fans of the game as these next few months are certain to further build the lore of what has already been one of the most entertaining seasons over these past few years.