Bucks have regained peak form now that they're healthier

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo is scoring at an unprecedented rate in his extraordinary career, and he also has most of his top teammates playing alongside him again.

That combination has helped the Milwaukee Bucks regain their title-contending form.

The Bucks have won six straight and will try to complete a four-game homestand unbeaten Saturday against the Miami Heat. Antetokounmpo has scored at least 50 points in two of his last three games, including a 54-point performance Thursday as the Bucks rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 106-105.

“Have I ever had 50 and lost the game? Yeah, I have,” said Antetokounmpo, indirectly referring to a 2019 game in which he scored 52 points, but the Bucks lost to Philadelphia. “You can have 50 and still lose the game. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to win the game. I’d rather have 22 and win the game. It’s all about winning.”

The Bucks are doing plenty of that.

Milwaukee has gone 6-0 since Khris Middleton came back from a sore right knee, though the Bucks remain two games behind the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Bucks’ three biggest stars – Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday – played together in just five of Milwaukee’s first 45 games. Middleton missed the Bucks’ first 20 games while recovering from offseason wrist surgery, returned to play in seven games, then missed 18 more due to his knee issue.

That resulted in some disjointed play from the Bucks earlier this season. They won their first nine games, but went 20-17 over their next 37 contests.

Middleton has been coming off the bench since his return, so he hasn’t spent much time on the floor with Antetokounmpo and Holiday. Even so, the difference has been apparent.

The Bucks hadn’t scored as many as 135 points in any non-overtime game this season before Middleton came back on Jan. 23. Their winning streak includes a 150-130 victory at Detroit, a 141-131 triumph at Indiana and a 135-110 win over New Orleans.

“We opened things up a bit more offensively for us in transition, just to play quicker and things like that,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “It’s been good for us.”

The Bucks still aren’t at full strength. Bobby Portis, who is averaging 14.4 points and 10.1 rebounds, sprained his right ankle and the medial collateral ligament in his right knee at Detroit on Jan. 23.

In their first game without Portis, the Bucks beat the Denver Nuggets 107-99 despite getting outrebounded 51-49. But they have outrebounded their last four opponents by an average margin of 9.8 boards.

The Bucks already had been playing quality defense for much of the season.

They rank second in the league in defensive rating, third in field goal percentage defense and fifth in scoring defense. The Bucks beat the Clippers, in part, because Holiday and Wesley Matthews led a perimeter defense that caused Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to shoot a combined 2 of 13 in the fourth quarter.

Holiday’s an elite defender who also emerged as a go-to scorer when Antetokounmpo missed five games last month with a sore left knee. He’s heading to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2013, which represents the longest gap between All-Star selections by an individual in league history.

“While both Khris and Giannis were out, he carried us there for a while,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Now, it’s Antetokounmpo once again filling that role.

Antetokounmpo’s three 50-point performances over his last 11 games matched his previous regular-season career total. He has averaged 40.2 points and 14 rebounds and has shot 59.5% during the Bucks’ current winning streak.

“It’s been impressive, his kind of competitive fire, his attack mode, getting to the free-throw line, mixing in some made jumpers, mixing in some made 3’s,” Budenholzer said. “He’s just doing a little bit of everything.”

With Antetokounmpo at the peak of his powers, Holiday performing at an All-Star level and Middleton working his way back into peak form, the Bucks once again are showing they can play as well as anyone in the league.

“They’re getting their guys back and they’re getting healthier and you can tell they have an urgency to get going,” Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford said after his team’s 124-115 loss at Milwaukee on Tuesday. “I saw that in the Indiana game and the New Orleans game. Obviously they’ll be right there.”

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Steve Megargee, The Associated Press