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Bucks seek rebound from January loss to surging Jazz
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Bucks seek rebound from January loss to surging Jazz

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MILWAUKEE — With their five-game winning streak snapped, the Milwaukee Bucks will try to start another Friday night against the Utah Jazz in what could be their biggest challenge of the season.

Not only are the Bucks going up against the hottest team in the league — the Jazz (20-5) have the best record — they’re doing so without their best defender and in a venue that has been historically frustrating.

Utah won 11 games in a row, starting with the resounding 131-118 victory on Jan. 8 in Milwaukee. Since that game, the Jazz have won 16 of their past 17.

Utah guard Donovan Mitchell led the way in that game, scoring a then-season-high 32 points with 20 in the second half, and was one of five Jazz players to score in double figures.

The victory snapped a two-game skid and moved the Jazz to 5-4. Although it was satisfying to knock off a potential NBA Finals contender, Mitchell already had his eyes on the bigger picture.

“That’s the team we have to be,” Mitchell said. “The last two games, last few games, don’t really represent who we are. We have to stay at that level.”

Since that night in Milwaukee, he’s averaging 25.5 points on 47.1% shooting while making 47.6% of his 3-point attempts to go along with 5.1 assists and 4.7 rebounds. On Tuesday, he had a season-high 36 points and nine assists, leading Utah to a 122-108 victory over the Celtics.

“He’s really able to understand the tempo of the game and is able to find his teammates,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “He’s improved every single year. But this year it feels like, especially these last few weeks, he’s been at his best.”

While the first meeting between the two teams was a catalyst for Utah, it exposed the biggest of Milwaukee’s weaknesses this season.

Most notably, was an inability to defend opponents’ 3-point shooting. Utah set a franchise record against Milwaukee, knocking down 25 shots from beyond the arc and becoming the first team in NBA history to have five players make at least four 3-pointers in the same game.

Overall, the Jazz shot 50.5% from the floor while the Bucks hit 44 of 98 shots but only 13 of 42 from distance. Milwaukee received only 10 points from its bench.

“They played well,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of the Jazz after the game. “They executed their offense well. They shared it well. They made shots well. And on top of that, when they did miss, it felt like they were on the offensive boards all night.”

Milwaukee has done a better job defending the 3-pointer since and have held opponents to 36% shooting from distance over the past six games — the ninth-best mark in the league during that stretch. But with point guard Jrue Holiday sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols, the challenge of stopping Utah’s offense will be significantly more difficult.

In that first meeting, the Jazz thrived off the pick-and-roll but instead of using Gobert to set screens, coach Quinn Snyder’s game plan called for his guards and wings to screen each other. That strategy forced Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez to protect the rim against Gobert and resulted in open looks for shooters such as Mitchell or easy drives to the basket.

“They got in the paint off those pick-and-rolls or the slip-outs and just wreaked havoc, collapsing the defense and making plays,” said Bucks wing Khris Middleton, who scored 31 points in the first meeting.

The Jazz are averaging 118 points on 46% shooting over their past 10 games while limiting opponents to 105.5 points on 43.7% shooting.

Milwaukee is 7-3 over its past 10 games, scoring an average of 124.4 points on 50.5% shooting while allowing 113.7 points on 45.5% shooting.


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