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Better defense Sam Merrill's goal in second stint with Bucks
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Better defense Sam Merrill's goal in second stint with Bucks

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MILWAUKEE — As weird as it may sound, Sam Merrill might have felt just a bit of disappointment when the Milwaukee Bucks recalled him from the G League bubble last week.

It’s not that Merrill didn’t have a desire to leave sunny Florida for mid-winter Wisconsin and it certainly wasn’t because he preferred the less-than-glamorous lifestyle of a basketball minor leaguer.

Instead, it was having to give up his first regular playing time in almost an entire year.

“There are definitely pros and cons to it,” said Merrill, who Milwaukee selected (via New Orleans) with the 60th and final pick of the 2020 NBA draft. “It was a really good experience, playing my first meaningful minutes for those five games against really good competition.”

Merrill was a regular starter for most of his four years at Utah State but, not surprisingly for a second-round pick, saw limited action with the Bucks. He appeared in nine games and averaged 1.6 points in 6.1 minutes before he was assigned to the G League on Feb. 3.

The Bucks hoped the 6-foot-4 guard would use the time to improve his defensive skills. Milwaukee drafted him for his shooting ability — Merrill shot 47% overall and 42% from 3-point range in college — but defense has been the key to Milwaukee’s success under coach Mike Budenholzer and Merrill knew had has plenty of room for improvement.

“That’s always been the big question with me,” Merrill said. “I actually did not shoot the ball well down there — I missed a ton of wide-open 3s and couldn’t even make a free throw — but I thought I had a good five games on the defensive end, rebounding and guarding some tougher guys.”

The Bucks brought Merrill back to Milwaukee over the weekend when two-way guard Jaylen Adams was placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocol. Merrill returned to the floor Sunday night and missed his only shot attempt while playing the final 2 minutes, 40 seconds of the Bucks’ 128-115 victory over Sacramento.

With point guard Jrue Holiday still in the safety protocol, Merrill has an opportunity for more playing time Tuesday night when the Bucks host the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I definitely feel like I’m better, just from a confidence standpoint,” Merrill said. “I don’t know what my role is now or going forward but whatever it is, I’m just going to try and do it to the best of my ability. Even if it’s still only playing at the end of games, I’ll do the best I can whenever I get a chance to get in there.”

Fans return

Sunday night marked the first time the general public was allowed to attend a game at Fiserv Forum. The 1,800 fans represented just 10% of capacity, but the players were thrilled to have some genuine energy in the building.

“We’ve been playing in empty arenas so it felt like a lot of people to me,” forward Khris Middleton said. “It’s great to have some people and noise in there that’s not artificial.”

The Bucks used a gradual approach to bringing fans back, allowing 250 friends and family to attend last Tuesday’s game against the Raptors, followed by 500 and 750 people, respectively, for games Thursday and Friday.

Crowds will be limited to 1,800 fans for the next three home games. If all goes well, the hope is to admit up to 25% capacity for games during the second half of the season.

“It felt amazing,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “You could feel the crowd from the beginning to the end. We’re a different team when we have our fans. Hopefully, game by game, more fans can come out but for now, it just feels good to have them back.”

Up next

The Bucks will try to extend their winning streak to three games Tuesday night when they face the Timberwolves for the first time this season.

Milwaukee has won four in a row against Minnesota, including a 106-104 victory on New Year’s Day last year in Milwaukee.

The Timberwolves will be playing their first game under coach Chris Finch after Ryan Saunders was fired Sunday night.

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