The Milwaukee Bucks boarded their private plane to take them to San Antonio sporting a 32-5 record, the best in the NBA this season. Their .865 win percentage had them on pace to win 71 games, putting them on par with the 1996-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10) and the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9). Their reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, was already looking like a threat to repeat.
Milwaukee embarked on a four-game road trip, matching its longest stint away from home this season. For the first and only time all year, the Bucks were set to play three consecutive games in the Pacific Time Zone.
Buckle up as we take you inside the chronicles of Milwaukee’s Western expedition through Texas, California, and Oregon.
Jan. 6: San Antonio Spurs 126, Milwaukee Bucks 104
All-Star small forward Khris Middleton sat silent, glued to his cell phone game, with his legs buried in NormaTech recovery boots. But he perked up when asked about his experience with legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich through Team USA at the FIBA World Cup this summer.
“He helped me tremendously,” Middleton paused the game to tell ESPN prior to tipoff. “He’s one of the best coaches that’s been around the game ever, so a lot of what he had to say was something I wanted to listen to, whether it was to me or somebody else.
“He definitely tried to push me defensively and just wanted me to become a better, more complete player, especially on that side of the ball.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t translate on this night.
Middleton and the Bucks allowed the Spurs to score 126 points en route to a 22-point defeat, their largest regular season loss in two seasons. The Spurs, who’d lost in Milwaukee two nights earlier, made a season-high 19 3-pointers. The Bucks made multiple runs, but Popovich — the same coach Middleton had grown to respect over the summer — would kill Milwaukee’s momentum with a key timeout each time, irking Antetokounmpo.
“It drives me crazy,” Antetokounmpo said after finishing with a team-high 24 points. “Whenever you try to get the momentum and you knock down a three, you get a steal, get a dunk or something, he just calls a timeout and the momentum goes away but it’s smart. That’s how they do in Europe, that’s what he does and he definitely helps his team.”
Coach Mike Budeholzer shouldered the blame for the loss, saying he “could’ve done a better job at coaching,” but the team didn’t get too caught up in one night’s struggles. A long trip still awaited them, and they were still well ahead of their competition in the Eastern Conference.
“At the end of the day, we’re sitting in a good place right now,” Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe said.
Jan. 8: Bucks 107, Warriors 98
The Bucks’ first game in San Francisco in 50 years also — likely by no coincidence — came as the Golden State Warriors celebrated Greek Heritage Night.
That didn’t go unnoticed by Antetokounmpo, who was more excited about the shortened commute from the team hotel to the Chase Center prior to the Bucks’ 107-98 win.
“It was 15 minutes,” Antetokounmpo explained. “Usually, it’s like an hour and 15 minutes.”
After the game, the chatter on social media was about something that had taken less than 15 seconds. Injured Warriors star Stephen Curry chatted with Antetokounmpo as the two teams walked off the floor, and lip-reading led to all sorts of speculation that Budenholzer was happy to ignore.
“I think the team has been incredibly focused, he’s been incredibly focused just on each day, getting better, competing with his group and being respectful with what we’re doing now,” Budenholzer said when asked if Antetokounmpo’s free agency wears on the team. “Maybe there’s more than I realize, but he seems in a great place, the group’s in a great place and we’ll hopefully keep it rolling.”
Antetokounmpo himself has tried to shut down free agent talk throughout the season, calling it “disrespectful” to teammates on Media Day. But the chatter has lingered, with the Warriors rumored to target him.
Curry appeared to tell Antetokounmpo, “let’s do it, c’mon man,” though the context of the reference is unclear. And while the reigning MVP wasn’t about to shed any light on that, he did point out how weird it was to face a Warriors team without Curry and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson.
“I’ve been in the league for seven years now, I’ve never seen a team go from being in the NBA Finals and now being not as good, but at the end of the day, once they come back they’re going to be right back up there,” Antetokounmpo said. “The up and down is going to be crazy, but I talked to Steph, Klay wasn’t out there, but I wish him a fast recovery and he’s going to be back and he’s going to be helping his team win and doing what he did last year and the previous years.”
Jan. 10: Milwaukee Bucks 127, Sacramento Kings 106
Robin Lopez didn’t get enough of Slamson the Lion during the pregame and after the game they wrestle a second time.
“Not today guys,” Antetokounmpo told a scrum of reporters as they entered his direction in the visitor’s locker room.
After posting a season-low 13 points during Milwaukee’s 21-point victory over the Kings, the reigning MVP strolled out of the locker room for the first time this season without doing media.
Back soreness hampered him ahead of Wednesday’s Warriors game, but Budenholzer didn’t express any concern with it after the Kings win.
“Not much. It’s kind of a normal routine,” Budenholzer said. “He does so much for us every night but it was great to finish off the game the last four, five, six minutes without him. He’s just kind of in the normal early January state.”
His teammates Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe had his back on this night, combining for 51 points. Donte DiVincenzo also posted a career-best 18 points while Sterling Brown finished with his first double double with 11 points and 12 boards.
The Bucks entered the Sacramento contest shooting 40.1 percent over the previous two games – well below their 47.9 percent average. They connected at 49.5 percent from the field against the Kings.
“It’s huge. This is a long season, an 82-game season,” Bledsoe said of stepping up for Antetokounmpo. “We’re almost at the halfway mark and to have his back when he’s not playing well. He have our back all the time. Damn near all 30-something games so just to have his back this one time says a lot about this team.”
“We always gotta do that. We’ve got each other’s back,” Brown added. “Whenever somebody is down, it’s just the next man up. Whenever somebody isn’t feeling their best, we know we’ve just got to bring another component to the game. If he’s struggling a little bit, we just keep encouraging him but at the same time we feed off each other.”
For Bucks power forward DJ Wilson, it was homecoming. He returned to his old stomping grounds where he played high school at Sacramento’s Capital Christian. The former University of Michigan star chatted with old coaches and relatives ahead of the tipoff left then his game-used jersey and sneakers with his close ones in the area. Wilson even got a signature from Antetokounmpo on the sneakers, despite the latter not speaking to reporters.
“That’s everything,” Wilson said. “It was like I was in high school. Seeing my old coaches sitting courtside, a bunch of my boys. I think I had more family out in the Bay but I’ve got a lot of friends and coaches out here that helped me get to this point.”
Milwaukee is also off to its best 40-game start in franchise history with a 34-6 record.
Jan. 10: Milwaukee Bucks 122, Portland Trail Blazers 101
Drenched in sweat, more than an hour ahead of the tip-off, even before most fans were allowed to enter the Moda Center, Antetokounmpo erased any doubt that his previous back soreness was of any concern.
His teammate Kyle Korver was a different story, who sat out on the night (back soreness).
Antetokounmpo went through his normal pre-game routine with no problem, all about business, without being listed on the injury report. That ferocity also carried over into the game.
On the second night of a road back-to-back, The Greek Freak matched his season-low from the Sacramento game with 13 points and seven rebounds in the first 6:21 in Portland.
“Usually when I’m not aggressive the previous game, the next game usually I’m a little bit more aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve been doing that since I could remember, since I started playing basketball and that’s what I did tonight.”
He would end with 32 points, 17 rebounds and six assists, joining Eric Bledsoe (29 points) and Khris Middleton (30 points) to combine for 91 points.
Bledsoe even left with an autographed, game-used Carmelo Anthony jersey – who ended with 19 on the night.
“It’s unbelievable, a dream come true,” Bledsoe told ESPN. “I’m fortunate to be able to play against him. The story behind this jersey is he fought to get back in the league. It’s special.”
Bledsoe, Antetokounmpo and Middleton are making their own history as well, becoming the first Bucks trio since Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and Ray Allen to post 25 or more points in the same game on multiple occasions.
“We wanted to finish strong,” Middleton said.
Despite arriving at their five-star Portland hotel in the wee hours after taking off from Sacramento late Friday night, they came out sharp. For Wesley Matthews, Pat Connaughton and Robin Lopez, they were able to return to a familiar setting after previously experiencing stints within the Blazers franchise.
Fans showed their appreciation as Matthews received the largest ovation of Bucks players during player introductions and Connaughton caught up with Damian Lillard and Blazers assistants on the bench prior to the game.
Milwaukee’s win wrapped up their second four-game road trip of the season, with this one stretching along for a full week.
Exactly halfway through the season, Milwaukee is now 35-6 – on pace to win a historic 70 wins. Overall, the West Coast trip brought highs and lows, but they were able to block out the lip-reading and speculation by staying tight-knight.
“I really try not to think about it. Sometimes you’ve got to take yourself out of the media and try not to pay as much attention because it can mess with you,” Antetokounmpo said of the outside noise. “But, I think I’m doing a great job, the team is doing a great job of just focusing on what we’ve got to do and focusing on us and what our goal is which is to play good basketball and play the long season.”