BOSTON — Mike Budenholzer greeted Ime Udoka with a hug and a smile in a TD Garden corridor after the former San Antonio Spurs assistants met for the first time as head coaches. The latter’s Boston Celtics just handed the former’s defending champion Milwaukee Bucks an overtime loss. Budenholzer retreated to his coaches’ locker room, where he was met by a handful of guests carrying Celtics gear from the pro shop.
“I just forgot about the loss,” he said, his friends instantly removing the sting of a sub-.500 start.
Budenholzer is comfortable, maybe for the first time in his 25-year NBA career. His Bucks are 6-8, 11th in the East, but the hot seat that nearly burned his behind in Game 7 of the conference semifinals has cooled in his fourth season on Milwaukee’s bench. It takes a glance at the injury report to explain the slow start, and Budenholzer’s charges reflect the confidence of a coach who knows they will be there again in the end.
“Adversity’s always going to hit at some point,” said Bucks big man Bobby Portis. “Teams are thriving right now. Adversity’s going to hit them, too. The biggest test is how you deal with that adversity and how you fight through it. We’re going through it right now. We’ve been going through it since training camp, but it’s going to make us stronger at the end of the day. Once we have full force again, we’ll be a load for the league, and the league will be on notice. They’re going to hear about the Bucks again. We ain’t done, man.”
Playing their third game in four nights on Friday, the Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo (ankle), Khris Middleton (COVID-19) and Brook Lopez (back), the core of a team that has won better than 70% of its games since 2018, winning seven playoff series, including last season’s championship. And they still gave the Celtics all they could handle, rallying from a six-point deficit in the final 90 seconds to force overtime.
“I’d love to learn from a win, but if there are any positives from losing, we’re learning to play with each other,” said Bucks wing Grayson Allen, who they acquired in August for cash and Sam Merrill, the final draft pick of 2020. “We’re showing a lot of fight. A lot of guys are stepping up at a time when we’ve consistently missed two or three starters for the whole season. It feels good to be competitive in these games.”
Allen is one of several new bright spots for the reigning champions. He is shooting 43.8% on 8.6 3-point attempts per game, among the league leaders in both categories. The Bucks plucked an elite shooter from nothing to bolster the spacing around a generational superstar who thrives in it. Jordan Nwora is showing considerable promise in his sophomore season, flashing some shot creation in addition to his shot-making.
“It’s easy to work with Grayson,” said Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, who also missed six games. “Honestly, you just have to give him the ball. You either give it to him where he likes it, and if not, he’s going to make a play for himself or somebody else. I love playing with Grayson — just how much of a threat he is from the 3-point line. You have to respect it. And he finishes very, very well around the basket, a very nice touch.”
Holiday called Nwora his “favorite player” at the start of the season. “He’s going to be really good in this league,” he said. “He’s like a younger Khris.” Asked by the Milwaukee media contingent on Friday if Allen had replaced Nwora in that regard, Holiday joked, “It’s still Jordan. I’m trying to get Jordan a couple more touches. I’d like to see the ball in his hands a little bit more.” In the absence of wins is at least chemistry.
Allen has barely played with Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday since opening night, when they outscored the Brooklyn Nets by 16 points in their nine minutes together. Holiday returned from a sprained ankle 10 days ago. Antetokounmpo missed just the one game with his ankle injury. Middleton is expected back from health and safety protocols on Wednesday. The Bucks are very much a juggernaut lying in wait.
They will wait longer for the returns of Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo. Until then, Budenholzer and Bucks general manager Jon Horst are getting a long look at who might fill out their playoff rotation. Allen is not shying from the spotlight of a team circled on everyone’s schedules. Nwora could get there by season’s end. Pat Connaughton is enjoying a career year. Bobby Portis is carrying too heavy a burden as the lone center option behind Lopez. Semi Ojeleye may not be the replacement for P.J. Tucker that they had hoped.
It is far better to sort this out now, when most everyone is still finding their footing after a second straight shortened offseason, than to be scrambling for answers at the trade deadline. The Bucks will be just fine, and in the meantime they have found out more about themselves — a luxury for a defending champion.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities for younger guys or guys who aren’t playing as much to get some really good minutes,” Holiday said after the Bucks played their fifth nationally televised game in 13 outings. “That’s why we play the game. All these young guys are itching for it, and they’re ready to come out here and show what they can do. I just think, in the long run, having this advantage now prepares them for later.”
That might sound like lip service, if the Bucks were not so convincing in believing it.
“We have to play better, and we will play better,” Antetokounmpo told reporters after Sunday’s 20-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the end of a five-game road trip. “Once everybody comes back, once Khris comes back, we start playing well and everybody goes to his role … we’re going to beat a lot of people.”
There is a calm that comes with reaching the NBA mountaintop. Losses hit different when you know wins will come, and there is a palpable sense around the struggling Bucks that an ascent is around the corner.
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