MILWAUKEE – A fairly long time after the Bucks won 116-101 on Friday night at the Bradley Center, Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell came around the corner, walked into the spotlight.
“This is going to be quick,” he said.
And it was. Mitchell’s terse postgame remarks spanned 30 seconds and included no questions.
“I thought the guys who played in the second half played hard,” he began. “Played together, played with a type of intensity and energy we needed to. I thought some of the guys in the first group didn’t play that way. And they have to understand, every single night you have to earn it. You don’t get to sleepwalk your way through 20, 25 minutes of the game and then decide you gotta play. … So the guys that didn’t play in the second half, after we pulled ’em out, hopefully they understand that there’s two sides on the court. You have to play both sides.”
Apparently at wits’ end over the lack of defense he was seeing, with the Bucks forcing turnovers, scoring on the break and with Khris Middleton hitting nearly every shot he took, Mitchell benched his starters early in the third quarter. Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns did not play again.
The Bucks, down 10 points with 5:27 left in the second quarter after Wiggins hit a 13-foot baseline jumper to put the Wolves up 49-39, outscored the Wolves 49-14 over the next 12:31, with Middleton’s three-pointer with 4:56 left in the third quarter giving Milwaukee a 88-63 lead.
Middleton — who hit on eight of nine three-pointers and scored 32 points, hit a 16-foot jumper with 1:58 left in the third quarter to put the Bucks up 27. A collection of mostly Wolves reserves — starters Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng played significant second-half minutes — responded with a 25-5 run over the next 8:48 to pull within 102-95 on Damjan Rudez’s three-pointer with 5:10 left in the game.
But, out of a timeout, Giannis Antetokounmpo — the Bucks’ lightning-quick 6-11 point-forward who caused the Wolves trouble all night — scored and the Bucks were back in control.
Antetokounmpo finished with 27 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds.
Towns scored 21 points, getting 15 of them in an amazing first quarter. But he only played 3:51 of the second half, was a minus-12 in that time, and watched the rest of the game. Ditto for Wiggins, subbed out along with Towns. He finished with 10. Rubio, sat 4:54 into the third quarter, finished with six points and seven assists.
Rubio said Mitchell’s decision was justified. “We played terrible,” he said. “You can’t make that many mistakes on defense, and we can’t let anybody outwork us. And that’s what happened. … We couldn’t find our pride out there. We can have a lot of talent. But if we don’t play hard, it doesn’t matter.”
Down 17 entering the fourth, a lineup mainly of LaVine, Tyus Jones, Rudez, Shabazz Muhammad and Dieng played hard and well. Muhammad scored 17, 10 in the second half. LaVine had 20, 16 in the second half.
But the hole they were trying to climb out of was too deep.
The Bucks turned the Wolves’ season-high 26 turnovers into a whopping 41 points, scoring 29 on the break.
“When a dude gets hot like Middleton, you can’t let him get the wide-open shots,” LaVine said. “I felt seven of his threes were catch-and-shoot.”
Asked about Mitchell’s decision, Towns merely praised the second unit. Wiggins, one of the last players out of the locker room, said: “If that’s his plan, that’s his plan. … I played hard.’’