Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 54 points lead Bucks over fading Clippers

The Buck didn’t stop at the three-point line. He didn’t stop at the free-throw line.

Again and again, Giannis Antetokounmpo bulldozed into the paint, his size and 54 points overcoming every obstacle Thursday – including what had once been a 21-point Clippers lead.

Instead of a statement win, the Clippers left Milwaukee wondering where their offensive prowess had gone in the fourth quarter of a 106-105 loss.

The Clippers shot just eight-for-25 in the fourth quarter, with Kawhi Leonard missing two shots in the game’s final two possessions with a chance to win.

Leonard tried working on Jrue Holiday, but his fadeaway jumper misfired. Before the Clippers could foul, Antetokounmpo threw the ball out of bounds.

Given another chance, Leonard again controlled the ball one on one. He tried isolating against Wesley Matthews, but was cornered and his jump shot again missed as four teammates watched on the court’s other side as time expired.

Leonard made seven of his 26 shots for 17 points. George had 16 points on six-of-16 shooting.

Outscored in the first quarter in each of their three previous games and facing a Bucks team owning the NBA’s third-best scoring differential in first quarters, the Clippers led by 15 within minutes, their defense of Giannis Antetokounmpo quieting an atmosphere already deadened by the 9 p.m. local tipoff.

The All-Star captain made one of his first seven shots, either baited into midrange shots that aren’t his specialty or stonewalled on the rim attacks — by center Ivica Zubac, and a strip steal by Leonard — that have fueled his growth into a most valuable player of both the regular season and NBA Finals.

But slowing Antetokounmpo’s drives all night is nearly impossible task, to the level of walking this city without seeing references to beers or brats. And when missed Clippers shots late in the first quarter allowed the Bucks to grab rebounds and run, he finally found room in transition to ignite an 11-0 run to forge a 25-all tie and send Zubac to the bench in foul trouble. That foiled the Clippers’ apparent plans to mirror the minutes of Zubac, their only rotation option with serious size, with those played by Antetokounmpo.

In his place the Clippers inserted forward and small-ball center Robert Covington, hoping a lineup of three long-armed wings and guards Norman Powell and Reggie Jackson and their double teams could keep the 7-foot, 240-pound Antetokounmpo and fellow All-Star Holiday out of the paint and away from the lead.

Instead, the Bucks outscored the Clippers 12-7 over the next five minutes before Antetokounmpo checked out to grab the lead and start, in earnest, the back-and-forth bout that was expected between teams that began the season with title ambitions. By halftime, even as Antetokounmpo had scored 16 of his 20 points in the paint by taking advantage of the Clippers’ lack of a backup big man, the Clippers still led by seven, powered by Powell’s 15 points in the quarter. And by the third quarter’s end, what had once been a 21-point Clippers had been trimmed to nine as uncharacteristically poor shooting nights by George and Leonard kept the Clippers from landing a knockout blow.

Zubac was given the night’s most thankless job of being the first line of defense against Antetokounmpo. He played all but two minutes of the second half until he fouled out with 1:47 remaining after Milwaukee’s MVP was given the ball, and the runway, to drive into the paint once again. His free throws after Zubac’s last foul erased the 21-point deficit for good with a 106-105 Bucks lead.

But this game revealed as much about the chess match between two title contenders as it did about the way the Clippers view their rotation one week before the trade deadline.

Lue has said he prefers a nine-man rotation. With Marcus Morris Sr. returning to the starting lineup after a four-game absence because of a bruised rib, guard Luke Kennard went back to the bench and did not play at all in a coach’s decision connected to Lue’s avoidance of three-guard lineups he once used to feature off the bench. In recent weeks, he has acknowledged the defensive shortcomings of playing three small reserve guards together is untenable, and so while Powell and Jackson saw time against the Bucks, Kennard watched as Lue’s nine-man rotation went as deep as Covington, the 6-foot-8 forward. But even Covington played only six minutes, including none in the second half.

Still unanswered is John Wall’s role moving forward, upon his return to action. Wall has missed the last 11 games with an abdominal injury and said Thursday morning’s shootaround was the first time he’d played full-court since the Jan. 13 injury; Wall said he doesn’t have a target return date. In his absence Jackson has reestablished his value as a guard Lue trusts in closing games, which he did Thursday as well as two days before in Chicago.

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