The Bucks once again dominate the Hornets winning their fourth

The Bucks once again dominate the Hornets, winning their fourth straight, 111-99

Giannis and Lillard combined for 54 points as the Bucksplay

Discussion of Damian Lillard and the Bucks in the second half

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Milwaukee Bucks won their fourth straight game by defeating the Charlotte Hornets 111-99 on Thursday night at the Spectrum Center. It is the first time they have achieved so many consecutive wins since winning seven in a row from December 11th to 23rd.

The Bucks (39-21) won the four-game season series against the Hornets (15-44) and evened their record under Doc Rivers to 7-7.

Before the game, Rivers said facing a team for the second time in three days is always a challenge, especially considering the Bucks beat the Hornets by 38 on Tuesday. But Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford had noticed something about the Bucks at that point.

“I would say they're an experienced team with a lot of talent and they're just at a point where they're starting to feel good,” Clifford said before the game. “Even without (Khris) Middleton. And they say, let's get this going. That's what I see in general, from the way they played in Minnesota, to the way they played against Philadelphia, to the way they played the other night (against us).

BOX score: Bucks 111, Hornets 99

“Then it’s fun to lead a team like that. When you play on one of these veteran teams and you know you're good, the question is, when do you want to be ready? For me, for me.” Watch them, well, they're getting ready. Just now. And their confidence is high.”

Rivers agreed with that assessment.

“An experienced team that knows: Listen, we either make it or we don’t,” he said. “As I said when I took the job, it doesn't mean you win straight away, otherwise it could all just be a win and you're still not ready. It's more about being ready. And that’s what you see: the urgency.”

They showed that urgency in the first few minutes of the game, taking an 8-0 lead and never really looking back. Milwaukee led by 20 points in the first half and 23 points early in the third quarter.

Charlotte never really challenged in the game, even though they came within two possessions at times in the second quarter.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 33 minutes. He finally broke through and the Bucks led 104-84 with 5 minutes, 17 seconds to play. Malik Beasley (19), Damian Lillard (17) and Brook Lopez (11) were also double-digit starters.

The Hornets were led by rookie Brandon Miller, who scored 21 points. Grant Williams (17) and Seth Curry (13) scored double figures off the bench.

The Bucks finished the evening percentage points behind Cleveland and are number 2 in the Eastern Conference.

“I just think after the break, man, every game counts, you feel me?” Bobby Portis said after the game. “You go into these season games that you absolutely have to win, quite unobtrusively, in the overall standings in which you look at it. I have a look at it.

“I'm a fan of basketball, so you look at the opponents, you look at the Clevelands, you look at the Celtics, you look at the Knicks, you look at the Indiana Pacers, the guys right behind you or standing right in front of you and just wanting to win as many as possible. Every game is important. Every possession is important.

“I think we just sacrifice more and concentrate more, are more focused and more detail-oriented. We have great coaches, guys who tell you exactly what they want, and it's easier to go out and play when you know what's expected of you.”

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Damian Lillard's quick hands spark the Bucks' decisive run

The Hornets stayed tied with the Bucks into the second quarter, trailing 50-43 after a Miles Bridges basket with just over five minutes left in the first half. Antetokounmpo followed with a dunk and it appeared Bridges was trying to keep the momentum going. It came off a screen that dropped Jae Crowder, but Lillard flashed to take on the taller Hornets wing and his quick hands knocked the ball loose. The ball ended up bouncing into the backfield where Dāvis Bertāns eventually lost it out of bounds.

“Tonight he got caught by bigger players, but when you put the ball in front of him, Dame has incredible hands and he gets it done,” Rivers said. “He’s also playing the right spots in our rotations defensively, and that’s been great too.”

That led to two Lillard free throws on the other end, sparking a 15-4 run that gave Milwaukee its largest lead of the half at 67-47.

In the period, Antetokounmpo scored five points and assisted on three points from Beasley and Lillard.

“They have to, they have to,” Antetokounmpo said of Lillard and Beasley as effective offensive defenders. “We will do our best if we have to.” They cannot be examined. In previous years, when we were a good defensive team, we had guys who were really hard to test.

“But that was a secret. We had guys who had a really hard time shielding and putting pressure on the ball. Whenever Beas and Dame are out there pressuring the ball, fighting through screens, using their hands, they get it. Blocking deflections and not allowing a pocket pass because when they do their job it's easier for the defense behind them . We need them to continue to do this. Then we are at our best.”

Ball movement goes from good to great for Bucks.

In their four wins at the All-Star break, the Bucks have assisted on 106 of their 169 field goals, or 62% of the baskets made. It's been one of several talking points for Rivers since he took over, and while none of the Bucks players had an excessive number of individual assists against the Hornets, the team turned the ball over consistently and effectively on Thursday night.

The “Hockey Assist” was also in full swing, especially early on as the Bucks built a commanding lead and players sacrificed their own good looks for a teammate’s better.

“It’s definitely nice,” Rivers said. “Your stars have to be the guys who make the right plays, and they did that. Giannis and Dame started and Brook added extra passes tonight. Bobby extra passes. Pat Connaughton walked past me in the third quarter and said, “Is this what you mean by good to great?” For him to think that is just good for our team. It helps everyone. It’s easy to play hard on defense when you know the ball is going straight to offense.”

Although the team's three-point percentage eventually fell to its game average, it was 9 for 18 in the decisive first half.

“It’s starting to become contagious,” Beasley said. “I think people look forward to being next to their man because you'll get the swing swing. Bobby had four assists tonight, and he's not normally double-teamed. The fact that he was able to show it to us was a good feeling.”

Beasley, who often benefits most from crisp ball movement, made five three-pointers for the 15th time this season. The Bucks are 11-4 in those games. Pat Connaughton also benefited: He scored 11 points, shot two three-pointers and made three free throws after being fouled on a corner attempt.

It was the first time since February 6 that Connaughton had reached double figures. Bobby Portis scored 14 points and 10 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said players get to the right spots on the court quicker and in their current rhythm, no player wants to be the one stopping the ball when there is a bigger option.

“The ball finds energy,” Portis said. “You move the basketball, play freely, shoot and kick, I think the ball just finds the right man and everyone just lines it up and shoots it. Miss or make, that’s the shot for that possession.”

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Five numbers

4 Games the Bucks kept the Hornets under 100 points this season.

5 Technical fouls this season on Thanasis Antetokounmpo after he picked one up on the Bucks' bench in the first quarter against Charlotte. Antetokounmpo didn't seem to like the lack of a call from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had to fight through a couple of Hornets to get an offensive rebound.

8th Straight points for the Bucks to open the game and also three consecutive misses by the Hornets in the first quarter. Those streaks helped give Milwaukee a 35-25 lead after the first quarter. Charlotte was just 2 for 11 from behind the three-point line, while the Bucks started the game 3 for 4 from the field.

30-3 Bucks record for scoring 30 or more points in the first quarter.

20,717 Career points for Lillard after scoring 17 points against Charlotte. He passed George Gervin and came in at number 45 all-time. After joining the 20,000-point club on December 19, Lillard quickly rose up the scoring charts. At his current pace, Lillard has a chance to move up to No. 41 by the end of this regular season. Only seven active players have more points than Lillard.

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When will Khris Middleton play?

The three-time All-Star sprained his left ankle in the first quarter of Milwaukee's loss to Phoenix on Feb. 6 and has missed the last nine games. He didn't travel with the team to Thursday's game in Charlotte and Bucks head coach Doc Rivers wasn't sure if Middleton would join the team Friday in Chicago, but if he did, he probably wouldn't play.

It was a bit of a turnaround from Tuesday, when Rivers said: “If he goes, we think he can play. I think it's so close. We have to be very careful with it.”

The 32-year-old played in 43 of the Bucks' first 51 games, missing a game in consecutive sets seven times. He missed the November 26 game against Portland due to Achilles tendon soreness.

Middleton, who re-signed with the Bucks in the offseason, must play in 19 of the remaining 22 regular-season games to receive a $1.5 million bonus.

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