For a moment, it seemed like Milwaukee was about to pull off a miracle. Down 13 with just 1:31 remaining, and with an 18-game win streak on the line, the Bucks cut a seemingly insurmountable Dallas lead to three with 5.2 seconds left on the clock, and the reigning MVP at the line, looking to complete an and-1. The Bucks trailed for most of the evening, but, as had been true for the entirety of their win streak, remained competitive thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who more than once drove the length of the floor, weaving through traffic to punctuate a dunk. The Greek forward scored 48 on the night but couldn’t convert, and a would-be saving-grace layup by Sterling Brown was swatted by Kristaps Porzingis. Dallas, playing without Luka Doncic, hit one of two from the line after being fouled on the ensuing inbound play, and sealed their stunning victory, 120-116.
Milwaukee’s streak of 18 consecutive wins, snapped by Dallas, was tied for the 11th longest in NBA history, and propelled Milwaukee to a league-best 24-3 record heading into Monday. Typically, long win streaks captivate basketball fans. Miami’s 27 consecutive victories during the 2012-13 campaign had some comparing them to the best teams in league history. The same was true of Golden State, who notched 28 straight wins across the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. Milwaukee’s win streak, while objectively impressive, was relatively quiet. They still beat good teams (including a 28-point thrashing of the similarly contending Los Angeles Clippers), but they had yet to muster the same widespread enthusiasm past streaks had until this week, with Doncic and the 24-3 Lakers on the schedule. The only spotlight directed toward Cream City shone on the one person it always had: Antetokounmpo.
One year after redefining what a big man could be, Antetokounmpo is even better. He’s scoring more (27.7 points per game last season to 31.7 this season), rebounding more (12.5 to 12.8), and most crucially, shooting better from beyond the arc (25.6 percent to 32.1 percent). The result is a juggernaut the Eastern Conference is nowhere near prepared to handle, even if the Bucks’ dominance has taken a back seat to uprisings this season by the likes of LeBron and Luka.
Monday’s matchup of two MVP candidates—the first of two Antetokounmpo was to play this week—was neutered when Doncic suffered a moderate ankle sprain against the Miami Heat on Saturday. Instead, Porzingis, once the wunderkind purported to rival Giannis in both present talent and potential, looked the part once more on Monday. Freed from the shackles of being Doncic’s second banana, he exploded, dropping 26 points on 9-of-19 shooting, and went 4-for-8 from beyond the arc, including two deep bombs to quiet a Milwaukee run midway through the fourth quarter.
The Latvian giant was one of six Mavericks in double figures on Monday, the highlight of which was Seth Curry, who added 26 points and four assists. Earlier this season, when talking about Dallas’s depth, I remarked that the Mavericks’ reserves had shown they were capable of carrying the team to a win if one of their two Euro stars were unable to shoulder the load. Almost two months later, Rick Carlisle’s squad continues to prove that sentiment true. At 18-8, Dallas holds sole possession of third place in the West, and despite upcoming cage matches against three more Eastern Conference contenders (Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto), it’s shown its ability to weather tough competition—and with Monday’s win, the ability to weather the loss of Doncic.
Dallas didn’t wait to show what it could do without Luka: It jumped out to a 16-point lead in the second quarter, thanks to strong play by Porzingis, before an Antetokounmpo flurry cut the gap to 3 at the half.
Giannis then scored Milwaukee’s first 11 points of the third quarter, momentarily giving the Bucks the lead before Dallas pulled away while he grabbed the pine. The Bucks forward finished the game with 48 on 18-of-31 shooting and 14 rebounds, but couldn’t muster the help from his teammates needed to overcome the Mavericks.
Other than Giannis, the only Bucks to break double figures were Kyle Korver (who finished the contest with 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from 3), Ersan Illyasova (who reached 11 points on a late layup), and George Hill, (who hit 10 on a layup that cut the lead to four). Usual collaborators Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Wesley Matthews went quiet, combining for just 18 points on 7-of-26 shooting. Without Eric Bledsoe (who will miss two weeks with a leg injury) attacking defenders off the dribble, Giannis was the only Buck capable of consistently creating his own offense, and the team faltered as a result. Dallas’s support, on the other hand, thrived, as Curry and Jalen Brunson (13 points and 11 assists in the start) each helped Dallas maintain its lead with key 3s and efficient scoring.
There was some concern coming into this season that Milwaukee might take a step back. Starting guard Malcolm Brogdon bolted for the Pacers over the summer, Bledsoe looked listless in the postseason, and questions arose last season’s breakout Buck, Brook Lopez, and whether or not he could sustain his impressive outside shooting. With Antetokounmpo playing as he has, though, for the most part, his contemporaries’ play hasn’t mattered.
During the duration of the win streak, which began with a two-point victory in Oklahoma City on November 10, Antetokounmpo was as good as ever. His 32.1 points per game was second only to last season’s MVP runner-up James Harden; he was sixth in the league in rebounds per game among players with at least 10 games played in that stretch, and he did so in fewer shots per night than Harden and fewer minutes per game than those grabbing more boards.
Antetokounmpo was the reason Milwaukee had a chance down the stretch; his 14 fourth-quarter points would’ve been second highest on the team over the course of the game. And though Hill and Illyasova made key buckets in the game’s final moments, their contributions were too little, too late. Milwaukee’s win streak ended quietly, like it started. The Bucks were 6-3 at the start of their run, in fourth place in the East. Now, despite the low volume at which they’ve expressed their dominance, they’re back on top yet again.