Bucks’ ‘steady progress’ on defense shines in rout of Nuggets

MILWAUKEE — When Doc Rivers made his Milwaukee Bucks coaching debut on Jan. 29, he came away from the game encouraged by the team’s defensive effort despite a loss on the road in Denver.

Fast forward two weeks later and the Bucks put together one of their most complete wins of the season, a 112-95 rout of the defending champions on Monday night. It was the second consecutive win for Milwaukee and second consecutive game holding an opponent under 100 points, the first time the Bucks have pulled that off in the regular season since November 2021.

“Guys are just being on the same page,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said after the game. “Coach Doc is holding us to a high standard. He wants us to defend. He doesn’t take lack of effort as an excuse. If you’re on the floor, you’ve got to do your best.”

Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic collected 29 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists, scoring or assisting on 48 of the Nuggets’ 95 points, but his effort wasn’t enough to overcome a few key injuries. Both Jamal Murray (shin injury) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (right hamstring tightness) did not play in the second half.

Antetokounmpo paced the Bucks with 36 points and 18 rebounds. He now has nine career games with 30 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists while shooting 70%, tied with Charles Barkley for third most in NBA history, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. They trail only Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

While Rivers praised the team’s pace offensively, he was mostly encouraged to see the defense improve in some of the principles he has aimed to install since taking the job late last month.

Milwaukee started 1-5 under Rivers, giving up 119.2 points per game in those six contests. But in these back-to-back wins, the Bucks have held opponents to 89.5 points per game.

“Just steady progress,” Rivers said after Monday’s game. “Believing in your D, trusting it, clarifying it — what we want to do … The more we can get our guys to know exactly what we’re doing, they can play at full speed. That’s what we’re trying to do. Simplify, so we can play with fire.”

Rivers estimated the coaching staff has spent about 70% of its available time working with the team on defense. And that focus has been about making sure the team is on the right page.

“I just think it’s the accountability,” Bucks guard Damian Lillard said. “When we’re watching film, we’re in our meetings, in practice, I think Doc and our entire staff, they’re doing a great job of just calling everything out. They’re challenging us in a lot of different ways. Our communication, how physical we are, how we carry ourselves as a group.

“Trying to find our identity. Who do we want to be. Who are we going to step like when we get on the floor. And I think we’re just having a lot of carryover because there’s so much conversation around it.”

First appeared on www.espn.com

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