Proof positive

Bucks’ intensity rewarded with victory

Bucks’ intensity rewarded with victory

Most would consider the Milwaukee Bucks reaching the 2014 National Basketball Association Playoffs a pipe dream. … or something even beyond that.

That doesn’t mean that the Bucks don’t have what it takes to play – and win – a game with a playoff vibe and intensity against a defending division champion.

The proof came Feb. 4 as the Bucks knocked off the New York Knicks 101-98 on a 3-pointer by Brandon Knight with 1.4 seconds to play.

Word circulated before the game that Giannis Antetokounmpo’s parents and younger brothers would be in attendance at the BMO Harris Bradley Center to see him play in the NBA for the first time. Their presence added to the buzz surrounding the rematch of the Bucks’ Dec. 18 home game against New York, which the Knicks won 107-101 in overtime.

Forward Khris Middleton, who accompanied Knight in the deal that sent Brandon Jennings to the Detroit Pistons last summer, wasn’t surprised to see his teammate step up and hit the big shot.

“That’s his shot,” Middleton said. “He loves that little step-back ‘3.’ He works on that all the time. We all have confidence that he’s going to make the shot in that kind of situation.

“Everyone was in the right spots and Brandon made sure of that so we could run the play.”

Knight, who scored a team-high 25 points, rewound the play that unfolded into his game-winner.

“They’d been switching on pick-and-rolls all night,” he said. “The shot clock was running down. I just didn’t want to get in a situation where they could trap me or switch. It’s happened a couple of times where I’ve gotten a screen and teams have switched or trapped and put us in a bad situation. I remembered that.

“It was better just to go one-on-one at that point. So I came down, got into a rhythm and was able to knock down the shot.”

The humble hero was more interested in talking about his teammates and the significance of the victory to his team, which overcame a combined 66 points by Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.

“My teammates did a great job tonight just persevering,” Knight said. “They made a lot of big shots toward the end.

“Our past habits have been to drop our heads and start thinking, ‘Here we go again.’ But our team did a great job tonight of fighting and seeing it through to the end. That’s why I’m happy for our team. We haven’t seen that much, but if we can see it at this point of the season against a team that’s playing pretty well, we’re taking a step in the right direction.”

Veteran center Zaza Pachulia, who missed 28 games while recovering from a fractured right foot, was playing in just his second game since returing to the lineup, but he delivered a critical 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists and a steal in an 18-minute, 25-second stint.

Pachulia embraced his long-awaited opportunity.

“It felt great,” Pachulia said. “It was a special game. Having been out for some time and coming back and getting a feel for things has been hard, especially when you love the game a lot. I was with the team the whole time, but I was still missing being out there.

“I’m glad I’m able to help the team somehow. I’m just doing what I know. I’m not trying to do anything extra. This is a team. It’s all about helping each other, whatever that takes. You bring anything you can to the table.”

Pachulia’s impact did not go unnoticed by his teammates.

“We kept fighting, and Zaza was a big part of that,” Knight said. “He played a lot tonight. He was in our ears continuously, saying, ‘Keep going, guys.’

“We got to a point where we believed we could win the game. In our first two games with the Knicks, we felt we gave away wins. Tonight we wanted to make sure we finished the game strong.”

Middleton, who knocked down a season-high five 3-pointers and contributed 19 points to the victory, appreciated Pachulia’s presence, too.

“He’s a leader,” Middleton said. “He’s another coach on the floor for us. He was really important for us tonight. He did a lot of work on the defensive and offensive glass, and he was finding guys out there.”

Pachulia sensed a different brand of intensity from his team, too.

“I have to give credit to Coach (Bob) Bender,” Pachulia said. “He was our scout today. He wrote the words, ‘playoff intensity’ on the board in big letters. That meant something, and I think that’s how we played it.

“Some of our guys don’t have that experience, but they played hard. That’s got to be every night. Once we start bringing this kind of intensity every night, we’re going to start winning games.”

There will never be another night quite like the one of Feb. 4 for Antetokounmpo, who staged a 15-point, three-rebound, two assist performance with his family looking on. He said afterward that it had been five months since he had seen his parents and younger brothers.

“It can’t get better,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was better that my parents were here. My brothers were here. We won. The crowd goes crazy. So I’m happy. I believe all the crowd was happy, and my parents are happy, so we’re good.”

The 19-year-old rookie forward said he had a meeting with Head Coach Larry Drew on the day of the game.

“I talked with my coach this morning and he told me I had to be more aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “I tried to be more aggressive and it ended up well.

“I made some mistakes at the end that can cost us the game, but Brandon was there. The hero was there to knock down the shot, so we won.”

And that -- for just the ninth time in 48 games this season -- was the bottom line.