Bucks display increased defensive focus in easy win vs. Hornets: ‘Tonight was a good start’

After playing in his first game with the Milwaukee Bucks, veteran guard Patrick Beverley asked for a stat sheet as he sat down at the podium in the Jim Paschke Interview Room at Fiserv Forum.

As he started to examine the stat sheet, Beverley cracked open a can of Miller Lite and took a drink, a move that could have only endeared him to fans in Wisconsin more if Paschke, the team’s (now retired) longtime television broadcaster, called the action himself.

On Beverley’s first night in Milwaukee though, there was reason to raise a glass and celebrate as the Bucks blew out the Hornets 120-84 to move to 34-19 on the season. While the Bucks were happy to pick up Doc River’s first home win as Bucks head coach and snap a three-game losing streak, Beverley made it clear he has just one goal in mind this season in Milwaukee.

“It’s the only thing for me, the only thing left for me,” Beverley said of what it means to him to chase a championship in Milwaukee. “Obviously, when it comes to IQ and knowing the game, I know it in and out, better than a lot of coaches. But what would seal it for me is a championship.

“I’ve earned a ton of money in this league. I’ve played with a ton of players, a ton of superstars. And right there, come up short. Injury here, come up short; 3-1 lead, come up short. To end this legacy, it’s a championship, the only thing.”

And while an early February win over the short-handed Charlotte Hornets (10-41) still trying to get their players into town after Thursday’s trade deadline doesn’t mean much, the Bucks brought a level of focus they have rarely shown throughout this season against bad teams.

Near the end of Adrian Griffin’s tenure as head coach, the Bucks eked out a road win in San Antonio against the Spurs and then snuck out two close victories in Detroit against the Pistons. On Friday against the Hornets, the Bucks were locked in from the first possession, especially on the defensive end.

Watch Damian Lillard navigate screens defensively on the first possession of the game.

It wasn’t perfect, but the effort level was high. As Lillard fought over the first screen from Leaky Black, Giannis Antetokounmpo was waiting for Cody Martin. As Martin turned back the other direction and made his way toward Nick Richards, Lillard was tight against Martin and largely avoided the screen to remain in front of Martin and force him into a tough shot. Lillard is not as big as Martin, so he was still able to get a shot off, but he worked hard to fight over screens to open the game.

“Our attention to detail, how we helped each other, we were just more physical,” Lillard said of the defensive focus on Friday. “Before the game, it was just a lot of conversation with our staff. We were watching a film, and Doc just challenged us. He just checked us on what we say we want to do versus what we’ve been doing.

“And it was just like, to be a team that’s considered a contender and saying what we want to accomplish, we gotta start acting like it. And I think that starts with us and it has nothing to do with anybody else, so it didn’t matter who we (were) playing tonight, it was important for us to go out there and set the tone and start taking the steps of being who we see ourselves as and who we want to be. And I thought that tonight was a good start.

Throughout the first quarter, that starting group’s effort was apparent.

The Hornets were without All-Star point guard Lamelo Ball, but Brandon Miller, the No. 2 pick in last year’s NBA Draft, is averaging 27.7 points per game in the last six games entering Friday, and Miles Bridges had put up back-to-back 40-point performances in the last week. If the Bucks did not come into the game with the proper focus, both players were capable of putting together big nights.

For Malik Beasley, that meant focusing on the right things.

On Friday, Beasley made 7 of 9 from behind the 3-point line and set a new franchise record for most games in a season (13) with five or more 3-point baskets. Beasley could have had that record one day earlier, but after the game, he admitted that knowledge had him focusing on the wrong things in Thursday’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Last night I knew going in, that I had a chance to break the record and I kind of put too much pressure on myself, thinking about my shot,” Beasley said on Friday. “And then tonight, I did the opposite. I focused on defense, not getting screened. Shoutout to Coach Opp (Josh Oppenheimer), he made sure to challenge me to see how many times I could not get screened and I don’t think I did many times. And then, I think, like Doc said, the basketball gods will find a way.

Knocking down a high percentage of his 3-point shots makes Beasley valuable to the Bucks offensively, but those offensive contributions matter more when Beasley plays at a high defensive level. His ability to avoid screens and execute switches in the first quarter with Lillard helped the Bucks run out to an early lead.

The Bucks brought all of that defensive effort before Beverley made his Bucks debut. By the time Beverley got on the floor with 2 minutes, 28 seconds left in the first quarter, the Bucks already led 25-17. That didn’t keep the Bucks’ new defensive spark plug from immediately bringing his trademark tenacity to the defensive end.

By the end of the first quarter, the Bucks had a double-digit lead. By halftime, they led by 28 and after the first basket of the second half, they led by 30 or more points the rest of the way, cruising to an easy win. That cushion didn’t keep Beverley from being the pest, irritant and instigator Rivers and his new teammates described in the aftermath of the trade.

With the Bucks up 37 points late in the third quarter, watch this possession of transition defense.

Without Brook Lopez on the floor, Beverley became the quarterback of the defense getting everyone set. He pointed where everyone needed to go and, in turn, his teammates got into possession and solidified themselves defensively. The possession ended in a foul, but even with the game in hand, Beverley worked hard to get back on defense and get his teammates set.

After the play, Beverley made his way over to rookie forward Andre Jackson Jr. and talked to him about what he could have done better on the possession in transition. The Bucks were up big and the game was in hand, but Beverley was still out there talking.

“He’s competitive. That word can’t be used enough,” Rivers said of Beverley before Friday’s game. “He talks a lot. Talks a lot on defense. Talks a lot to the opponent. Talks a lot on his podcast. He talks a lot. And a lot of that is good for us.”

On the next possession, Beverley hit his second 3-pointer of the game on a Pat Connaughton pass. After backpedaling down the floor on defense, a stoppage by the officials allowed Beverley to show off why he is not only described as a competitor but also referred to as an instigator.

Beverley sprinted up the floor and bumped into Hornets rookie guard Nick Smith Jr., causing the officials to stop play and speak with Beverley about his antics. But they did not call a foul. Inspired by Beverley’s intensity, Jackson joined the fun and the rookie managed to get a steal on the inbounds play to grab an extra possession for the Bucks.

In those three consecutive possessions, Beverley showed exactly how he can help make a difference in Milwaukee.

At the point of attack, he gives the Bucks physicality and tenacity that they didn’t have on the roster previously. On the floor, during timeouts and stoppages in play, he brings extra communication to a team that described itself as a low-level talking team a week ago in Dallas.

On offense, he provides the ability to make the right play and knock down shots. Overall, he adds an edge that the Bucks just didn’t have previously, even if he teeters on the brink of getting called for a technical foul for pushing the rules to their legal limits.

“The way I go about things, I’m not going to make everyone happy,” Beverley said. “I’m going to upset some people the way I hold myself at a high standard, and I accept everyone else to do the same. So, my approach is very strong until you really get to know me, but once you get to know me, you understand that, ‘Man, only thing he does is want to win.’”

With the up-and-down start to the season and an uneven first 50 games, the Bucks have a long way to go to realize their full championship potential. But if Beverley’s edge and toughness can inspire his teammates and help the Bucks play high-level defense more consistently, he will have accomplished exactly what Bucks general manager Jon Horst and Rivers hoped when they acquired him at the trade deadline.

“When Doc got the job, I was excited for him,” Beverley told reporters. “He told me I was one of the first people who texted him when he got it. And I look at it like, a coach who’s come here, his first move, trade deadline, was to come get me, I look at it like that. So, obviously, I tip my hat to Doc.

“Me and Doc, it’s like pops. I mean, I’ll tell y’all some crazy stories, man. Me and Doc have been in the trenches together for many, many years. So, you got your pops calling you back and it’s all love here.”

If the Bucks do realize their championship aspirations this season, it will be because Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Khris Middleton played like All-Stars. But if Beverley can help the Bucks get better prepared for postseason play by providing grit and energy, as local folk heroes Bobby Portis and P.J. Tucker did in 2021, Milwaukee will be ready to take a page out of Beverley’s book by cracking open a cold one to toast postseason victories.

(Photo of Nick Smith Jr. and Patrick Beverley: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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