MILWAUKEE — As Jason Kidd prepared his Milwaukee Bucks for their much-awaited return to the Mecca on Thursday night, the future Hall of Famer was asked how the smaller arena environment compared to the professional arenas he spent a portion of his career playing in.
“It’s a little cozy,” Kidd said prior to a 96-89 loss to the Boston Celtics. “It’s 11 thousand [capacity]. People say the Bucks had homecourt advantage when we had players like Oscar [Roberston] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] playing. But I think it’s gotten a lot bigger, there’s a lot more fans. But it just shows how the game has grown from then to today. But it’s always good to go back and have the opportunity to play in the Mecca or into the Garden because that’s where the game and the history started.”
As the Bucks celebrated their past, playing on a brand-new replica Mecca floor like the one artist Robert Indiana made so famous back in the day, they also had another chance to cherish their present and future. As the Bucks embark on their 50th anniversary season, there’s a realization around the league that the Bucks are beginning a new renaissance of their own with all-everything big man Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. At 22, he hasn’t just become the face of the franchise already, he has the type of transformative talent that can change the game. With his 28 points on Thursday, he has accumulated more points (175) in the first five games of a season than any other Buck in history, and that includes Abdul-Jabbar’s total of 166 points in 1970-71, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
But in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance of Thursday’s festivities at the now dubbed UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, the Celtics reminded Antetokounmpo and the Bucks that he wasn’t going to be able to dominate every single night. Aside from the sellout crowd’s proximity to the floor, what really got intimate was the Celtics’ defenders in and around Antetokounmpo’s airspace. After watching the Greek Freak throttle their team to the tune of 37 points and 13 rebounds a week ago in Boston, the Celtics were determined not to allow the young star to have his way again.
That’s why veteran Al Horford followed Antetokounmpo all over the floor and the Celtics were always ready with another body wherever he went. For the first time all season Antetokounmpo was held under 30 points.
“It’s pretty much similar,” Antetokounmpo said of the defensive looks he’s been seeing. “But you call tell night to night the other defenders pay more attention to me. You can see from the start that everybody loads and they close gaps so I don’t have a lot of room to go. I know moving forward that’s going to happen. I just got to stay disciplined and trust our offense, try to move the ball and I know the ball is going to find me back.”
Teams desperately searching for any type of tell on containing Antetokounmpo will scour the tape of this game for clues. After going to the line 13 times during that game in Boston, Antetokounmpo went to the line just seven times on Thursday, not once during the fourth quarter. Not only did the Celtics stay in front of the MVP candidate, they dared the other Bucks players to beat them. Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton each had 15 points a piece, but neither player strikes fear into an opponent’s heart the way Antetokounmpo does. Few players in the league do.
“They’re a very versatile team,” Brogdon said of the Celtics. “They have [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown, 6-7, 6-8 guys that can really guard any position on the floor so that allows them to switch a lot. If you’re not aggressive on those switches then they can really stop your offense.”
That’s exactly what the Celtics did most of the night, doing so inside of a small arena full of fans who were waiting to burst when given the chance. Players on both sides seemed to enjoy the ambiance of the building; an escape for one night from the norms of the NBA season.
“It’s a little cold in there, a little chilly out there on the court,” Bucks center John Henson said. “But it was a fun game, a historical game, so it was good to get out there and have the fans into it. Also as players, I think it’s pretty cool too.”
As the Bucks new multi-million dollar palace rounds into shape down the street, dreams of future glory with Antetokounmpo leading the way will hover in the minds of Milwaukee fans who were lucky enough to see Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar lift the franchise to prominence the first time around. But for as much joy came out of seeing a new era of players race up and down the remake of a beautiful old floor, it was also a reminder that the elusive championship days are still a long way off unless the Bucks can get their young star some more consistent help. In the meantime, Antetokounmpo laid out some pretty simple advice when asked what his teammates can do when defenders are collapsing down around him.
“Be ready to shoot,” he said. “Hopefully I can find them.”