Early Thunder scoring can't hold up in loss to Bucks

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APTOPIX Thunder Bucks Basketball

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) pumps his fist as Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook (0) and Jerami Grant (9) leave the floor after an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 98-94. Antetokounmpo had 26 points. 

The Thunder quickly transformed from flawless to faulty in Milwaukee.

There was a point during Oklahoma City’s 98-94 heartbreaker to the Bucks on Monday when the Thunder were perfect, 11 of 11 from the field. They didn’t miss until power forward Domantas Sabonis clanked on a left-wing 3 more than eight minutes into the game. But regression hit in the worst of ways.

A 15-point lead dwindled and eventually vanished. The Bucks bothered OKC ball-handlers with their never-ending arms. And the night concluded appropriately, with rangy defender Tony Snell using one of those pendulous limbs to poke a ball away from Russell Westbrook as the Thunder star tried to tie the game with the clock winding down.

“If Russell had a quick full head of steam, I thought he could get really in the lane, especially with where Snell was picking him up, because he was backpedalling,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He got around him. I guess Snell got a piece of the ball.”

The Thunder sank just 37 percent of their shots following the 11 of 11 start. And it wasn’t just because the same attempts were finding iron instead of nylon. Some of that was true. But for the most part, the quality of looks deteriorated come the second half.

“The first half, we got off to a good start,” Donovan said. “The third quarter, I thought we had some great opportunities. [We] just didn’t make shots like we did maybe in that first half.”

Center Steven Adams got the ball around the basket early. And it wasn’t just about post-ups. The Bucks were doubling on the block from the get-go. In fact, Adams found Westbrook out of a double-team for an open catch-and-shoot 3 during that fire beginning to the game. 

Adams got to 20 points in other ways. He was the beneficiary of pick-and-rolls or dump-offs that came even from fellow big man Enes Kanter. The looks appeared because of ball or player movement within the offense.

“He was being really aggressive and just going to work,” Sabonis said.

That crumbled a bit in the second half. Adams tossed up five shots during the first quarter. He made his first eight in the game. But he took only six in the final three periods. The ball and player movement halted against one of the league’s better defenses. It didn’t help the Thunder when Westbrook put up an 0-for in the third quarter, either, missing each one of his eight shot attempts. He finished with 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists on 9 of 28 shooting.

“I thought [Westbrook] had some good pull-up shots, and those are shots Russell practices everyday,” Donovan said. “It’s shots that he’s worked on. It’s shots that has made him the player he is. So, a lot of his shots as pull-ups, I thought were shots that he’s more than capable of making.”

It's already tough to find passing lanes against a defense owning a supply of arms only the U.S. military can rival, but the Thunder didn't make it any easier on themselves. Many Thunder possessions went the way of one-pass-and-then-a-shot. And OKC finished the game having made only 224 passes, 44 fewer than its average for the season, which is second-to-last in the NBA.

The Bucks owned the third period, outscoring the Thunder 29-16. Budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo took home another performance for the parents to magnet onto the fridge and eventually mail into every writer who has an All-NBA vote come the end of the season. He made up for a underwhelming first quarter with a casual 26 points, 10 boards and five assists.

"He’s able to make plays, winning plays," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "That’s what stars do in this league.”

He pinned one of Westbrook’s fast-break layups against the rim as if he were mimicking LeBron James’ iconic NBA Finals block on Andre Iguodala, except he was doing it in an actual NBA game against an actual superhuman. He ended Sabonis’ hopes for living a normal life with the best dunk of early 2017, a fourth-quarter right-handed slam to give his Bucks a four-point lead with minutes remaining.

Still, Antetokounmpo wasn’t the only issue for the Thunder. That performance is anticipated from one of the game’s best. But as he recovered following a slow start, the Thunder got away from what made them successful early, and they couldn't get back to it by the end.

Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the Locked on Thunder podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.

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