Surging Bucks looking for more ‘discipline’

Khris Middleton says the Bucks have to close teams out sooner.

MILWAUKEE — For three quarters Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks played stifling defense against the Detroit Pistons and looked primed to come away with an easy victory at home over their Central Division foe.

The Bucks’ length and ability to switch everything on pick-and-rolls was giving the Pistons problems, as Detroit only had 62 points entering the fourth quarter and couldn’t establish any positive rhythm whatsoever.

Milwaukee took a 75-62 lead heading into the final period and Bucks head coach Jason Kidd was looking forward to giving his main guys some much-needed rest.

But as we have seen countless times in the NBA, a team with a big margin can sometimes take their foot off the gas and allow the opponent back into the game.

It’s exactly what the Bucks did, as they saw their 13-point advantage vanish quickly after the Pistons went on a scoring rampage in the fourth quarter.

Detroit scored 33 points while holding Milwaukee to only 24, and with 1:23 left in the game, the Bucks’ lead was suddenly only one (93-92).

The Pistons weren’t going to allow superstar swingman Giannis Antetokounmpo — who had another stellar performance with 21 points and six rebounds on 8-of-16 shooting — beat them in the final seconds as he has done to other teams this season. Detroit’s defense loaded to his side, prohibiting Antetokounmpo from driving to the basket.

Luckily for the Bucks, their new dynamic point guard didn’t shy away from the challenge of being the guy who had to take the clutch shots, as Eric Bledsoe put up seven huge points late in the contest to preserve Milwaukee’s win.

Bledsoe drew praise from everyone postgame for his resiliency and mental toughness. The explosive guard was only 2-of-10 with seven points entering the fourth quarter, but didn’t let his poor shooting affect his confidence and overall engagement.

Finishing with 14 points, eight assists, six rebounds and three steals, Bledsoe continues to show he’s not just a scorer and can do all the little things it takes to win. Antetokounmpo says it’s a great luxury having a guy like Bledsoe who can create and hit a shot when defenses stick to him tightly in crunch time.

“It’s a bonus,” Antetokounmpo said of Bledsoe. “Having a guy like Eric, that you know is going to make the right play, is a huge bonus for us. I think he’s doing a great job down the stretch for us and like tonight you saw he gave us the win, hit another big shot. We’re going to keep trusting him.”

The Bucks have won four in a row and are undefeated since acquiring Bledsoe. Still, the players are upset with the fact they aren’t holding their big leads and closing teams out when the opportunity is there.

Sharpshooter Khris Middleton, who was phenomenal with 27 points, eight assists and six rebounds, says the team is getting better at finishing games now but that there is much more room for improvement.

“[Our maturity] is getting better,” Middleton said. “We just have to do a better job. I mean we had a double-digit lead in the second half. We have to do a better job of holding that. We can’t give up threes late in the game like we did tonight. But we still found a way to pull it out and that’s the most important thing we’ve been doing, finding ways to win ball games in different ways.”

The Bucks were two blocks away from tying a franchise record for blocks in a game, swatting 16 Detroit shots. It was quite the show put on by Milwaukee’s rim protectors.

Antetokounmpo, who had four blocks himself, says blocking shots is what the Bucks do best.

“That’s what we do, man,” Antetokounmpo said. “As a team, that’s who we want to be. I think day by day, game by game, we are getting better defensively and it’s showing.”

The Bucks will look to make it five straight wins when they take on the Dallas Mavericks on the road Saturday.