Injuries cause reigning champion Bucks to struggle early

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been quite themselves as they’ve opened their NBA title defense.

Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has played in each of the Bucks’ first seven games, but many of his usual running mates have been missing. The impact of their absences was evident as the Bucks (3-4) dropped below .500 with a three-game homestand that included losses to Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah.

“We are banged up, we’re injured, but you’ve got to go out and compete,” coach Mike Budenholzer said after a 107-95 loss to the Jazz on Sunday. “Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody’s going to worry about you. We’ve got to keep playing, keep competing, keep growing and keep developing and hopefully get some of our guys back healthy.”

Jrue Holiday has played in just two games and is dealing with a sprained left ankle. Brook Lopez hasn’t played since a season-opening victory over the Brooklyn Nets due to a sore back. Donte DiVincenzo still hasn’t made his season debut as he continues his recovery after tearing a ligament in his left ankle in a first-round playoff series.

The Bucks also were missing two-time All-Star Khris Middleton on Sunday because of an illness unrelated to COVID-19. Reserve forward Rodney Hood left the game with a bruised right hand. Budenholzer said afterward that Holiday was trending in a good direction but he couldn’t say whether the veteran guard would play Tuesday at Detroit.

Holiday was a first-team selection on the NBA All-Defensive Team last season. Lopez was a second-team selection in 2020. Without them on the floor, the Bucks’ defense hasn’t been nearly as stifling as usual.

“I know how good of a defender Jrue is,” teammate Grayson Allen said after the Jazz game. “As a guard, though, I kind of feel, or at least miss, Brook’s presence most. Especially with him usually kind of holding down that back line underneath the basket, cleaning up any mistakes. A lot of the stuff on the pick-and-roll, he can drop back and defend, too. He takes a lot of pressure off of us guards. He’s definitely missed.”

Defense hasn’t been the only issue. The Bucks have shot just 27.5% (36 of 131) from 3-point range during this three-game skid.

Although Milwaukee kept most of its core together after winning its first title since 1971, many of the other players on the roster are new.

The Bucks brought back George Hill, who last played for Milwaukee from 2018-20. They added Hood, Allen and forward Semi Ojeleye. They’re expecting 2020 second-round draft pick Jordan Nwora to have a bigger role.

Those changes could cause Milwaukee to need time to develop chemistry, particularly since some of the newcomers are playing more minutes than expected because of injuries elsewhere on the roster.

It’s worth noting that while the Bucks posted the NBA’s best regular-season record in 2018-19 and 2019-20, last year’s squad had an up-and-down regular season and was just 16-13 after a five-game skid in February.

Perhaps this year’s team also will need time to reach peak form.

“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us,” said forward Bobby Portis, who played in only his second game Sunday after dealing with a strained left hamstring. “We’re the defending champions. Everyone’s going to try and give us their best shot.”

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Steve Megargee, The Associated Press

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