Bucks ‘don’t bring the necessary professionalism’ in deflating road loss to Wizards

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WASHINGTON — It happened again.

Like their loss to a grossly undermanned Memphis Grizzlies in their final game before the All-Star break, the Milwaukee Bucks failed to bring the necessary effort and focus to a road game on Tuesday in Washington D.C., losing a contest they should have won. Even without starting point guard Damian Lillard, who missed his second consecutive game, this time with a groin strain, the Bucks should still beat the Washington Wizards. Instead, the team with the second-worst record in the NBA led the entire second half en route to a 117-113 win.

Giannis Antetokounmpo put up an efficient triple-double — 35 points (15-21 field goals), 15 rebounds and 10 assists — and Khris Middleton added 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists, but the Bucks still lost to the lowly Wizards in the first game of a road-home back-to-back.

“I don’t know. I think focus. I don’t know what it is,” Bucks coach Doc Rivers said when asked about the Bucks’ continued road struggles. “You know, it’s funny, I’ve actually been sitting back and watching everything. Not just our players, but our travel crew, everything and I’ve made a lot of notes. I will say that. I won’t share that.

“But we don’t bring the necessary professionalism, seriousness on the road. And that’s something that we can fix. And that’s something we’re going to have to fix.”

The Bucks are 18-20 away from Fiserv Forum,  the league’s 16th-best road record. Conversely, they are the NBA’s third-best home team with a 29-8 record. On the road, the Bucks have compiled an offensive rating of 116.7 points per 100 possessions (eighth in the NBA) and a defensive rating of 117.0 (20th). At home, the Bucks’ offensive rating bumps up to 119.9 (fifth) and their defensive rating is 112.9 (11th).

On Tuesday, the Wizards played better than the Bucks in nearly every way. They shot the ball better from the field, from behind the 3-point line and from the free-throw line. They committed one fewer turnover. They scored more fast-break points than the Bucks. They outscored the Bucks in the paint, 70-56, on the night.

“I just think they outplayed us,” Rivers said. “Give ‘em credit. I thought they were faster, quicker. They attacked. We took two days off for a reason — to get our legs. And I felt like we were very sloppy. That may have had something to do with it, I don’t know. I don’t know if we took them light or not, to be honest. I just thought they outplayed us.”

The Bucks managed to put together a 30-13 record in the first 43 games of the season with Adrian Griffin at the helm, but ultimately, Bucks general manager Jon Horst decided Griffin was not right for the job because of some of the ways in which the team was performing, especially on defense. The Bucks have been a better defensive team under Rivers. They went from 22nd in defensive rating under Griffin to 11th under Rivers.

One of the team’s biggest defensive changes has been their focus in transition. According to stats from Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks allowed teams to start 17.3 percent of their possessions with a transition play under Griffin, the league’s highest percentage. Rivers put an early focus on transition defense and the Bucks improved markedly in the category. Teams now start just 13.5 percent of their possessions with a transition play under Rivers, the league’s seventh lowest mark.

That focus on getting back in transition and making teams work for their points was non-existent on Tuesday.

“It just wasn’t there,” Middleton said. “I don’t know what else to say, it just wasn’t there.”

On multiple occasions in the first half, the Wizards scored within 10 seconds of a made basket from the Bucks, including this instance in which the Bucks gave up a bucket six seconds after scoring on the other end.

Antetokounmpo missed two free throws with 5.1 seconds left in the second quarter and the Wizards managed to go end-to-end on the final play of the half.


“We didn’t get any stops all night,” Rivers said. “They crushed us in transition. This is what they do. We talked about it before the game. We had like, inexcusable transition D plays to start the third quarter. Three or four times they snuck from behind us, they drove us. Yeah, it’s a disappointing loss. Not much more to say about it.”

And while effort in transition might seem like the type of thing a team could clean up at halftime with improved focus in the second half, that never happened for the Bucks.

The same thing happened in the first few minutes of the third quarter.

And after an offensive rebound and pu tback from Middleton brought the Bucks to within two points with 11.4 seconds remaining, the Bucks got beat over the top as they scrambled to try to get a quick foul. And after Pat Connaughton showed the necessary desperation in the moment and sprinted down the floor to force a miss, none of his teammates hustled  with him.

“You know that they’re a team that’s going to play faster, they’re a team that’s going to thrive in transition,” Antetokounmpo said. “We didn’t do a good enough job to get back, even at the end. I think it was one of the most clear plays. I think we made the basket, and they just threw the ball the other way, missed the lay-up, got the rebound, made a lay-up. We weren’t getting back for some reason, I don’t know why, but they’re a team that plays fast.”

There were a lot of things that went poorly for the Bucks on Tuesday. The post-game focus could have been on the open shots they created and subsequently missed, the turnovers that helped keep the Wizards in the game or the poor defense that let the Wizards slice up the Bucks with cuts. But transition defense is the best place to look because it is the simplest thing to control.

Transition defense takes effort and focus. And the Bucks did not have nearly enough of either on Tuesday night.

After the game, Antetokounmpo cited the last five seasons to limit his concerns about the team’s bad habits carrying over to the postseason. The Bucks star reasoned that regular-season success might not be indicative of future postseason results, considering the Bucks were the NBA’s best road team last regular season and then lost both of their road games when the eight-seeded Heat upset the Bucks in the first round.

But that didn’t mean Antetokounmpo thought the Bucks should take nothing from their no-show in Washington.

“What I think we have to take from this game is that our transition defense was horrible,” Antetokounmpo said. “Our running habits were better. We moved the ball better in the second half. Guys were knocking down shots. A lot of open looks. We gotta knock down shots, gotta rebound the ball better, get back better. Take that, try to apply it in the playoffs and try to be better.”

There are only seven games remaining on the Bucks’ regular-season schedule. The playoffs begin in two-and-a-half weeks. And the Bucks still need to show they’re ready for a deep postseason run.

(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Tristan Vukčević: Jess Rapfogel / Getty Images)

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