SALT LAKE CITY – After an abysmal first half, the Milwaukee Bucks were on the verge of pulling off an incredible, unexpected comeback.
Then, in the span of 2.3 seconds, all their hard work, their scratching and clawing back from a 22-point deficit, a sublime second-half performance by Giannis Antetokounmpo and numerous clutch plays all were for naught.
In those 2.3 seconds, the sellout crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena went from anxious to raucously cheering and chanting the name of Bojan Bogdanovic, the man whose buzzer-beating three-pointer delivered a 103-100 win for the Utah Jazz on Friday night.
The loss marked Milwaukee’s 18th straight in Salt Lake City dating back to 2001, another heartbreaker in a list of many.
While the crowd roared, all the Bucks could do was sullenly walk off the floor, knowing they had had their chances.
“It’s tough,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said. “Guys out there gave it our all. Came down to two plays down the stretch that cost us the game.”
BOX SCORE: Jazz 103, Bucks
Middleton figured prominently in each of those two plays. With 2.3 seconds remaining and the score tied at 100, the Bucks had the ball and the opportunity for the last shot. The play, as has often been the case in crunch-time situations, involved Middleton running toward the inbounder along the sideline and catching a pass while curling into the corner.
When he turned around and rose to fire off a shot, though, he saw 7-foot-1 Jazz center Rudy Gobert – the reigning defensive player of the year – in his face, arm fully extended. Middleton, already in the air, froze in his shooting motion. He tried to drop the ball off to Brook Lopez, but the officials determined that he hadn’t let go of the ball before landing back on the ground.
The officials then went to the replay monitor where they determined the clock should be set at 1.3 seconds following the traveling violation.
“Probably the worst thing that can happen is a traveling violation,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Looked like Khris may have let go of the ball before he came down – I’d be curious to see what the report says tomorrow. He’s just got to shoot it or pass it or anything and we’re going to overtime.
“But, you know, it was a good play by Gobert. Khris has made a bunch of shots like that, a bunch of plays. Happens. Probably just the most unfortunate outcome we could have in that situation.”
Given a breath of new life, the Jazz capitalized.
Donovan Mitchell ran around a Gobert screen but was blanketed by George Hill. Bogdanovic, who finished with 33 points, had Middleton on his back, but planted his left leg and made a quick cut to the corner. Middleton couldn’t cut fast enough to catch up, getting his left arm up to contest but it wasn’t quick enough to affect or alter Bogdanovic’s game-winning triple.
“Comes down to making a play,” Middleton said.
That finish came after a series of events, each more unbelievable than the last.
It all started with the Bucks getting off to an atrocious start.
With the Jazz intent on locking down the paint, the Bucks settled for three-pointer after three-pointer and struggled to get any to fall, going 5 of 24 from deep before halftime. On their few trips inside, the Bucks weren’t any better with seemingly everything they threw at the rim bouncing or rolling off it.
By halftime, Milwaukee had shot just 21.7% from the field, with Budenholzer trying desperately to find any type of spark, going 12-deep on his roster in the first quarter searching for an answer.
No answer came. Not even from Antetokounmpo, who was held to two points on 0 for 7 shooting in the opening 24 minutes. Outside of Middleton, who had 13 of his 26 points at the break while making 3 of 4 three-pointers, the Bucks were in shambles as they went into halftime down 55-35.
“I think a little bit make-miss,” Budenholzer said of the first half. “It felt like Utah was playing really well, Utah was moving the ball, making extra passes. … Obviously, they played good defense, they’re tough, but also felt like we couldn’t make a shot, couldn’t make even around the basket – we missed some tip-ins, some easy ones. It was a bad combo – they played really well and we didn’t, especially we just couldn’t make a shot.”
It didn’t take long after halftime for the Bucks to start turning things around. Eric Bledsoe got inside for a layup. Antetokounmpo added a layup and then a three-pointer to open the third quarter with a 7-0 run.
The first half hadn’t been kind to Antetokounmpo, but he was intent on taking over the game.
“I was like, ‘How bad can it get?’” Antetokounmpo said of his third-quarter mindset. “We’re down 22, couldn’t get a field goal to go in, I was like, I’m just going to be aggressive, try to go downhill, try to shoot shots, try to make plays. That was it, I was just trying to power through.”
Together, Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe set the tone, leading a 21-5 charge over the first 5½ minutes of the third quarter. They combined for 15 of the 21 points, including a Bledsoe block that led to an Antetokounmpo layup and an Antetokounmpo pass to Bledsoe for a three-pointer that made it a four-point game with just over six minutes left in the third.
After a Jazz run that pushed the lead back to double digits, Antetokounmpo really took over. He popped in a hook shot for an and-one, added another bucket inside, slammed home a put-back dunk, rebounded his own missed free throw to earn another trip to the line and closed the period with a layup that was goaltended.
He scored Milwaukee’s last 12 points of the third quarter, part of a 21-point quarter that included 7 of 8 shooting to get the Bucks within seven heading into the fourth.
“Definitely got us going,” Middleton said. “Played with that attitude that we need him to play with, that dominance in the paint.”
It was Antetokounmpo again who gave the Bucks their first lead. After a monster jam by Royce O’Neale put the Jazz up four and get the crowd roaring, Antetokounmpo quieted them with a three-pointer. Seconds later, he blocked a Mike Conley floater then ran the court to put back a missed layup by Sterling Brown, giving the Bucks the lead, 89-88, with 5 minutes, 47 seconds left.
Middleton nailed a three-pointer with 4 minutes, 46 seconds left that re-tied the game at 92, but after that, the Bucks went cold missing their next six shots and the Jazz went on an 8-0 run while Antetokounmpo racked up foul after foul.
In a span of 67 seconds, Antetokounmpo poked Bogdanovic in the eye, made an unnecessary swipe at Gobert and was called for a charge after running into Conley in transition. Those three quick fouls gave the Bucks star five for the game.
Bledsoe, who finished with 22 points, scored a layup with just over a minute left to get the margin back within six. At the other end, Antetokounmpo went up to challenge Gobert at the rim and made contact, fouling out with 53.9 seconds left after a 30-point, 13-rebound performance.
Budenholzer challenged the foul call in an attempt to keep his superstar on the court, but Antetokounmpo knew the effort was fruitless. He had committed a foul and replay confirmed it.
“At the end of the day it’s not the sixth foul, it’s the fouls that lead up to that,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think the last couple of games I’ve been doing a great job avoiding stupid fouls, but sometimes when you get overaggressive and you want to guard it’s hard not reaching and not fouling.”
It looked like the beginning of the end for the Bucks, but the remaining players had something to say about that. Bledsoe deposited a layup after Gobert missed both his free throws. George Hill and Kyle Korver then trapped Mitchell, jarring the ball loose and prompting a jump ball at center court that Hill won.
With 29.9 seconds left, Brown rumbled to the rim for a layup that made it a two-point game. Bogdanovic then was off the mark with a three-pointer that could have sealed the win and Middleton was fouled by Gobert trying to get the rebound. Middleton then cooly stepped up to the line, draining both free throws with eight seconds left to tie the game.
It seemed like the Jazz were going to be able to take the last shot, but Hill had other plans. Mitchell tried to drive on him, but the veteran guard held his ground, reached out with two hands and ripped the ball from Mitchell before calling timeout with 2.3 seconds on the clock.
“Just a great individual defensive play and then the wherewithal to call timeout,” Budenholzer said. “It’s a big-time defensive stop. Gosh, it would have been great to then finish it with a basket, but great stop.”
But the Bucks couldn’t finish with a basket, instead fumbling their hard-earned opportunity to steal a win. Given another chance at a clinching three, Bogdanovic didn’t miss.
The loss dropped the Bucks to 2-1 on their current road trip, which ends Sunday in Oklahoma City. As sullen as frustrated as the Bucks locker room was, Antetokounmpo offered an optimistic view of the night’s dramatic events.
“Obviously, we cannot allow ourselves to get down 22 before the half, but at the end of the day, I think the team did a great job coming out of the half fighting, playing together,” he said. “And, you know, when you’re a good team, that’s what you do. We could easily just give up and allow the game to go to 30 and just have it be a blowout, but that’s not what we do. …
“At the end of the day, I think out of this game we go better. Even though we lost this game, we got better.”