MILWAUKEE — There was a common theme around the NBA on Friday night: Even the league’s most talented teams struggled in their first game back after the extended All-Star break.
Atlanta lost by 25 points at home, Chicago fell to a shorthanded Detroit team, while Portland scored just 76 points in an ugly loss to Utah.
It was also a struggle for the Milwaukee Bucks in their first game back from the break. Add in the blockbuster trade made Thursday and Friday’s game had all the makings of an ugly affair.
The Bucks were able to survive to pull out an 89-81 victory over the Denver Nuggets at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, extending their home winning streak to seven games.
"The big thing is the guys found a way to get a win," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "That’s what good teams do with the change and also with the long layoff. The effort was great."
Playing just their second game this season without leading scorer Brandon Knight and his 17.8 points per game, the Bucks struggled to find much of a rhythm offensively.
While Knight is now in Phoenix, his replacement, Michael Carter-Williams, sat out Friday with a sprained right big toe.
"I wouldn’t say it was too big of an adjustment," Bucks guard Khris Middleton said. "(Brandon) was a big part of what we did, but he is only one piece. We’re a team here. Everyone pulled together, did their job and we pulled out a win."
The All-Star break was extended from four days to eight days for most teams this season. It just so happened that the trade deadline also fell during the break, leaving some teams to be even more out of sync.
Denver lost six of its last seven games before the break and traded second-leading scorer Aaron Afflalo to Portland at the deadline. The Nuggets were also without Ty Lawson on Friday as coach Brian Shaw benched his leading scorer after he missed Wednesday’s practice.
An already below average offensive team was playing without 31.4 points per game. Despite that, the Nuggets were able to hold a 44-42 lead at halftime.
"There was a little bit of rust," Bucks center Zaza Pachulia said. "We were missing a lot of easy shots, but that’s what happens when you take eight days off.
"The good thing is we won the game tonight. Moving forward we will get back into playing mode and get back to playing the way we were before the All-Star break. We’ll make those shots and make it easier for ourselves."
Denver made five of its first six shot attempts to start the second half, extending its lead to 58-50. The Bucks were able to turn up their defense and found enough of an offensive burst to end the third quarter on a 20-7 run to take a 70-65 lead to the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets went 7 of 31 from the field after hitting five of their first six attempts to start the third quarter, as Milwaukee began forcing Denver to take bad shot attempts late in the shot clock.
"We had to focus on defense," Bucks guard O.J. Mayo said. "Offensively we weren’t flowing as we would like to, but hey, that happens. I was happy that we stayed positive. We just wanted to get that win."
The Bucks were fortunate to face a lowly Denver team, as Milwaukee wouldn’t have beat many teams Friday night. There’s going to be a natural adjustment period after the trade, especially when Carter-Williams returns in the near future.
Despite not having even practiced with the Bucks, rookie point guard Tyler Ennis played a career-high 18 minutes. Ennis, who played a total of 58 minutes in eight games with Phoenix, scored all four of his points in nine fourth-quarter minutes.
Ennis was one of nine available players for Milwaukee, as Ersan Ilyasova was out due to an illness. Kidd opted to use eight players with the newly acquired Miles Plumlee not seeing the floor.
The Bucks were able to survive for their first victory over the Nuggets in nine tries, which was their longest active losing streak against any opponent.
"There are a lot of things going on," Kidd said. "We’re a young team. So to be able to handle a trade, to handle the All-Star (break) to come back to play a meaningful game, there’s a lot to digest."