Bucks Overcome Jitters to Beat Knicks in Return to a Big Stage
BUCKS 109, KNICKS 95
Giannis Antetokounmpo was so eager to make a rim-rocking Christmas debut that he overshot the basket on his first attempt, a dunk from one side that ended with the ball all the way in the opposite corner.
“I was so excited that I went a little bit too high and I thought the rim was a foot taller,” Antetokounmpo said.
He and the Milwaukee Bucks eventually settled down and showed they belonged on the holiday stage.
Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 14 rebounds, and Milwaukee celebrated its return to the Christmas schedule by beating the Knicks, 109-95, on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
“This is one of the highest stages,” Antetokounmpo said. “Special teams play Christmas Day, and just it’s an opportunity for us and we’re really happy.”
Brook Lopez scored 20 points for the Bucks, who played on Christmas for the first time since 1977. They were selected for the showcase slate of games largely because of Antetokounmpo, but the timing also was perfect to show an emerging team, which improved the N.B.A’.s second-best record to 23-10.
Malcolm Brogdon finished with 17 points for the Bucks, the N.B.A. scoring leaders, who bounced back from a season-low 87 points in a loss to Miami on Saturday to win for the fifth time in six games.
“People come to see Giannis play, but they’ve got to watch all of us,” Brogdon said, “so it’s definitely a great opportunity for the rest of us to showcase as a team what we can do.”
The rookie Kevin Knox scored 21 points for the Knicks, who have lost six straight Christmas Day games and fell to 22-31 in their N.B.A.-record 53 appearances on the holiday.
“It’s on me to stay even in this whole thing, not be up and down emotionally,” Knicks Coach David Fizdale said, adding: “They feel it. They’re human.”
The Knicks have lost five in a row and 10 of 11 since rallying to stun the Bucks, 136-134, in overtime on Dec. 1 at the Garden.
Antetokounmpo was angry that night with Knicks forward Mario Hezonja, who had dunked over him in the first quarter, then stared and stepped over him. Antetokounmpo said it was disrespectful, vowing to punch Hezonja in the groin next time.
He was perhaps a little too pumped for the rematch (Hezonja did not play) — Brogdon grabbed the rebound of his errant dunk in the corner and fired in a 3-pointer — but he quickly got untracked.
It was only a seven-point game midway through the third quarter when Antetokounmpo began to seize control. His jumper, followed by a layup, pushed the lead to double digits, and he scored 11 in the Bucks’ 36-point period that ended with them leading, 84-68.
The Knicks “felt pretty good” at halftime, said Knox, who had his third consecutive 20-point outing. “But that third quarter, defensively, offensively, just something slips with us.”
Noah Vonleh had 14 points and 15 rebounds for the Knicks, and Tim Hardaway Jr. had 14 points and 10 boards but shot just 4 for 18 from the field.
Both coaches were asked before the game about the idea that a Christmas Day matchup favored the visiting team, which could treat it as a regular road game while the hosts were at home, perhaps surrounded by family celebrating the holiday.
Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer dismissed the notion, saying the Bucks brought plenty of family members and had a big team dinner on Christmas Eve so they could mix basketball and the holiday.
“Well, I look at this team, Milwaukee’s coming in with an advantage anyway,” he said with a laugh. “They’re a better team than us right now.”
And the Bucks left a big stage having proved just that.