Bucks big man John Henson drives for a shot during the first quarter against the Cavaliers on Friday night.
Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
For the entire fourth quarter Friday night, an infighting and recently playoff-eliminated squad from Cleveland and a depleted Milwaukee team with the league’s worst record played a surprisingly compelling, spellbindingly close and seesawingly back-and-forth basketball game that, as it ended, stirred a sagging fanbase that seemed genuinely glad to finally see a victory — whether or not anyone in the crowd would admit it.
After Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving airballed a deep 3-pointer and Giannis Antetokounmpo grabbed the rebound and was fouled with three seconds remaining and the Bucks leading 118-114, fans all around the BMO Bradley Center rose from their seats — not to leave prematurely this time — and applauded the victory their prized "Greek Freak" was headed to the line to seal.
Never mind that for months the most popular topic of conversation among Bucks fans and media has been tanking so the team can achieve the NBA’s worst record and thus the best odds at securing the first choice in a much-ballyhooed draft. Never mind that, just moments earlier, the arena jumbotron had shown a fan wearing a customized No. 22 Bucks jersey with the name "Wiggins" (of Kansas star and possible top pick Andrew Wiggins) emblazoned on the back and received a loud cheer. Never mind that, with a Philadelphia 76ers’ loss Friday night, Milwaukee still wasn’t assured the league’s last place.
None of that mattered, for a little while anyway.
Antetokounmpo made the second free throw and, following a meaningless Cleveland basket, the Bucks triumphed 119-116, winning their 15th game out of 79 and — though it wasn’t quite the 13th of the month and the moon outside was far from full — their first home victory of the season on a Friday.
"A win’s a win, man," a beleaguered but happy John Henson said afterward in the locker room. "At this point it’s good just to get wins. For me, personally, I love when we win. It’s kind of a weight off your shoulders a little bit and it lets you know that you’re progressing the right way. That’s all you can ask for."
For nearly 10 minutes in the final quarter, the score between the two teams was never more than three points apart. The Bucks entered the quarter with a 92-87 lead but, after a Dion Waiters layup cut the lead to three, the margin between the two teams stayed at one possession until there was just 1:44 left to play.
It was then, shortly after a resounding "Go Bucks Go" chant had reverberated around the half-full but still-rollicking Bradley Center, that center Zaza Pachulia grabbed an offensive rebound, drew a foul and went to the line with the Bucks leading 113-110. Pachulia, an 85.7 percent free throw shooter, was serenaded with the usual "Auto-matic" cheer and calmly sank both attempts to give the Bucks a five-point cushion that would hold up the rest of the way.
Bookended between two tightly played quarters of slim leads, the midsection of the game was a high-scoring, defense-optional affair filled with big runs and a plethora of paint points. When the second quarter began, the Bucks — fueled by several explosive dunks from recently signed, high-flying forward Chris Wright and a few trademark, lefty hooks by John Henson — led 37-32.
That advantage would be neutralized almost immediately, as the Cavaliers went on a 23-4 run to go up 55-41 midway through the quarter. During that stretch, Cleveland was driven by Waiters, who led the Cavs with 23 points but is reported to be feuding with Irving, the former No. 1 overall pick and current face of the franchise who struggled on Friday night and finished with just 12 points.
Eventually, Bucks forward Khris Middleton hit a 3 to stem the bleeding — he’d finish with 17 points — and Milwaukee ultimately climbed back to end the half down just 69-62.
When the Bucks were losing by 14, Henson said the team’s mindset was to scratch and claw to get back.
"We just fought back, and that’s all you can do with a young team like this is fight back," Henson said.
Strong interior defending was a rare commodity throughout the game, as evidenced by the Cavaliers’ 60 points in the paint and the Bucks’ 58. Drew said he delivered a defensive message to his team in the locker room.
"It was really turning into a non-defensive game, and I just wanted to remind our guys at halftime that we weren’t playing these final games to just make it an offensive game," Drew said.
"We had to put together a string of stops," Drew said. "I thought we played with a little bit more urgency, particularly on the defensive end in the second half, and it enabled us to get out and get some easy baskets.
"It looked like at the start that it was turning into a really high-scoring game, and I just felt whichever team from a defensive standpoint would make some sort of stand, they’d have a pretty good chance of winning the game."
As the fourth quarter tilted back and forth, neither team was able to get ahead by more than a possession, Knight made two key shots that each put the Bucks up one point after they’d fallen behind. The first was a 3-pointer from the wing with six Cavaliers hands in his face just before the shot clock expired; the second was a 20-foot jumper that gave the Bucks a 107-106 lead, a lead they’d never surrender.
Knight finished with a game-high 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting, which included making half of his six 3-point attempts. Backcourtmate Ramon Sessions chipped in 20 points and seven assists.
"I thought both guys really played well," Drew said. "I thought Brandon made some really big shots for us in the second half, and Ramon does what he does as far as penetration, drawing fouls and getting to the basket. Both guys I thought really set the tone for us."
The Bucks’ thin bench — they once again were able to use only four reserves — contributed 33 points, 29 of which came from Henson (15) and Wright (14), both of whom made 7-of-9 shots. Wright scored five of his baskets on thunderous dunks and played with zeal, afterwards saying his positive performance was due to preparation.
"Just staying ready and knowing when your number is called you’ve got to be ready. That’s what Coach always tells me: ‘When I put you in there, you go out there and bring energy, you play defense, you run the floor.’ Now with me being here, that’s my role on this team, to go out there and bring energy. That’s what I try to do."
One of Wright’s first-half dunks came on an alley-oop from Henson, who was standing at the free throw line and noticed the young player making a backdoor cut to the basket.
"It was really helpful for us to talk a little bit before the game on the side, because when we got out there we were able to click and get everything on the right page," Wright said of playing with Henson.
Jeff Adrien, who’d been averaging 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in his previous five contests, hit just 3-of-10 shots and finished with nine points and nine rebounds.
Antetokounmpo, adored by fans and seen as the Bucks’ savior by some, didn’t make a field goal and scored just three points in 20 minutes. Of course, one of those points was the free throw that had Milwaukee fans giving a standing ovation to their enigmatic franchise at the end of the game. Some in the crowd surely walked out of the arena afterward lamenting the win for draft-position reasons, but most seemed to appreciate a rare Bucks win Friday night that was hard-fought and wildly entertaining.