MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t pleased with their first showing in front of the home fans and set out to do something about it Wednesday night against Cleveland.
Disappointed with their energy and effort and the missed opportunities in Saturday night’s loss to Toronto, the shorthanded Bucks put together a strong offensive performance and got the defensive stops they needed in a 109-104 victory over the Cavaliers.
“Our energy and effort, which is what we are built on, wasn’t there,” Bucks guard O.J. Mayo said of Saturday. “For that to be the home opener, we were pretty disappointed in how we came out and how we finished the game.
“We just wanted to come out tonight on an apologetic mission to our fans to show how hard we are capable of playing.”
The Bucks again found themselves in a close game late, their fourth in as many contests. Milwaukee has won the two games it has made the plays down the stretch in and lost the two in which it didn’t.
Pretty simple, right? Well, Caron Butler feels it’s something the Bucks are going to have to do all season long.
“I’m here to send a memo out,” Butler said. “All season long this is how it’s going to be. We’re going have to grind every game out like this. I thought we did a great job of collectively staying together and everyone having their fingerprints on this ballgame.”
The Bucks were again shorthanded, as point guards Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour were out again, starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova was a late scratch with a sprained right ankle and starting center Larry Sanders sat out with a sprained right thumb.
Milwaukee’s fill-in starters all contributed, while Mayo led the way offensively with 28 points. Without Sanders, who is being investigated by Milwaukee police for an off-the-court incident, Zaza Pachulia played 41 minutes at center and scored 14 points with nine rebounds and seven assists.
John Henson started for Ilyasova at power forward and had 14 points and nine rebounds. Rookie Nate Wolters was solid again in place of Knight, finishing with nine points, eight rebounds, six assists and no turnovers in 33 minutes.
“Let me just start off by saying how proud I am of our group,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “Being shorthanded with no Larry Sanders, no Ersan, no Luke Ridnour, no Brandon Knight and for these guys to come out at the level they played at, I’m a very proud coach of my group.
“We’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity since the very beginning of training camp, dealing with injuries, dealing with guys being out. We beat a very good basketball team tonight in Cleveland.”
The Bucks built a 103-91 lead with 3:02 to play, but Kyrie Irving scored 10 points in a 13-0 run by Cleveland to put the Cavaliers up 104-103 with 1:00 left.
Mayo missed a jumper in traffic on the ensuing possession, but Butler went up and tipped in the rebound to put the Bucks up 105-104 with 24.8 seconds on the clock.
“Big, big play,” Drew said. “You just wouldn’t expect Caron to sneak in there and soar over everybody to get a tip-in. That was probably the play of the game because we did miss the shot. Had they got the rebound, we would have been in an entirely different situation.”
Butler saw a clean lane to sneak behind the defense and was able to get enough of the ball to direct it into the hoop.
“It’s just a matter of will,” Butler said. “I think coach said it best at halftime. We both were shooting a high percentage and he said ‘It’s just going to be a battle of wills in this game. Who wants it more.’ I felt like we wanted this a little more and we needed it more.”
That showed down the stretch, as Milwaukee got a pair of big defensive stops and hit all its free throws to seal the win. Irving fumbled the ball out of bounds with 14.3 seconds left, and Mayo hit both free throws on the other end to make it a three-point game.
Irving got a chance at redemption on the next possession but came up short on a tying 3-point attempt. Mayo closely defended the Cavaliers star, forced a tough shot, grabbed the rebound and sunk both free throws to end the game.
“O.J. is definitely a competitor,” Bucks guard Gary Neal said. “We knew they were going to have to take a three, so he just stayed in Kyrie’s chest and made him shoot over the top of him. It was great defense. It was a tough shot.”
Milwaukee was able to build its lead thanks to the 3-point shot. Mayo hit his first six 3-pointers and finished 6-of-7, while Neal hit four of his five 3-point attempts to finish with 23 points.
The Bucks shot 50.0 percent from the field, 56.5 percent on 3-pointers and made 24-of-26 free throws. It was the seventh time Milwaukee has achieved those numbers since 2000 and the 16th time in franchise history.
“It was huge,” Neal said. “The way our team is made up, especially with the injuries, for us to have a chance to win games, me and O.J. are going to have to make shots.”
Team efforts like Wednesday’s are why Butler feels the Bucks can surprise some people this season when they get healthy.
“I’ve been on some great teams and have been in some turnaround-franchise situations,” Butler said. “I think the guys we have out are huge pieces to what we are trying to do. That gives them a little more incentive to rush back with rehab because we have something special we can accomplish.”