SALT LAKE CITY – The Milwaukee Bucks have earned a reputation as road warriors since coach Mike Budenholzer took over last season. They tied for the best road record in the NBA (27-14) and entering Friday were the only team with four road wins, going 4-1 in five games away from Fiserv Forum.
But the big test for the Bucks comes down to Friday night in Salt Lake City, a place they have lost 17 straight games since their last road win over the Utah Jazz on Oct. 30, 2001. The Bucks have won in every other NBA city within the past two years, but coming away from Vivint Smart Home Arena with a win has eluded the franchise for nearly two decades.
So what is it about playing in Utah that has vexed roster after roster of Bucks teams? This year the Bucks have a trio of players who understand the mystique of playing in Salt Lake City because they spent time playing for the Jazz.
Kyle Korver played for the Jazz from 2007-10 and joined them last season via trade. Wesley Matthews played all 82 games of his rookie season with the Jazz in 2009-10. George Hill called Salt Lake City home for the 2016-17 season.
When it comes to playing in Salt Lake City, the topic of elevation comes up as an issue for visiting teams. The city is more than 4,200 feet above sea level.
“First of all, your breathing levels are thrown off a little bit because of the altitude,” Hill said.
Of course, the elevation isn’t the only thing that makes it difficult to play in Utah.
“There’s a lot of reasons,” Korver said. “One is the Jazz always have a good team. Two, the have great fans. Three, there’s elevation. Four, it’s really dry and the ball always feels a little different.
“You’ve got to slop your hands with lotion because otherwise the ball just slides out. There’s like a thing, where if you can’t feel the basketball you play a little differently. You know what I mean? It’s super dry here.”
Unleash the Dragan
While the Bucks spent Friday night in Salt Lake City for the third game of their four-game road swing, center Dragan Bender was back in Oshkosh opening the G League’s regular season with the Wisconsin Herd.
Bender, a free-agent acquisition this summer and the No. 4 pick in the 2016 draft, performed well for the Bucks during the preseason but has not yet been active for any of the team’s regular-season games. Over five preseason contests, Bender averaged 10.4 points on 60.7% shooting (7 of 13 on three-pointers) along with 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 blocks in 15.0 minutes per game.
However, the Bucks’ loaded frontcourt hasn’t afforded him any opportunities yet this season and the Bucks wanted to get him some minutes with the Herd.
“There’s so many different elements to development – player development – and being ready to play when needed,” Budenholzer said. “So, I think sometimes playing 5-on-5, playing in front of crowds and referees and a different team and different system or style, it’s all part of the big picture for him. We’re all really, really happy with how he’s played, how he’s working, his future. It’s part of the big picture for him.”
Budenholzer made it a point last season to utilize the G League, sending Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown and D.J. Wilson to play for the Herd at times. With the short distance between Milwaukee and Oshkosh, he wanted to make sure that players who weren’t getting run in NBA games were at least getting some G League action when the schedule allowed for it.
This, to Budenholzer, is not a demotion or negative of any kind; rather, it’s an opportunity. That sentiment was repeated to Bender over the summer and again ahead of Friday’s game.
“I would say he was great with it,” Budenholzer said of Bender accepting the assignment. “I think part of him choosing to play with us – I think he had multiple teams that (were interested) – there was a real vision for how to hopefully continue to grow him and develop him and that we would be aggressive in everything we do to help him just be the best player he can be. I think there was a lot of groundwork laid.”