The Hornets played a strong defensive game as they took down the defending NBA champions.
The Bucks built a modest early lead while Giannis Antetokounmpo repeatedly ran into Hornets defenders to get both Mason Plumlee and PJ Washington into early foul trouble. Even with that going on, Khris Middleton did more damage in the first quarter while Miles Bridges buoyed the Hornets. Kelly Oubre did not bring his hot shooting from Wednesday, as neither of his first quarter 3-point attempts drew iron. The Bucks went cold as the quarter drew to a close, and it let the Hornets pull within two heading into the second quarter.
The Hornets built on their run into the second quarter. Kelly Oubre canned his first triple of the ball game to cap off a a 19-2 Hornets run before Middleton finally put an end to it. Some Bridges bully ball and a LaMelo Ball three forced a Bucks timeout later in the quarter as Hornets took an eight point lead, their largest of the game to that point. The Hornets played some of the best defense we’ve seen from them all season. They forced the Bucks to take contested jumpers and floaters around the rim and limited them to just 12 points in the quarter. They needed the defensive effort too, as they airballed about as many shots as you’ll ever see an NBA team airball. At the half, they led 47-41.
Terry Rozier got the Hornets off to a good start at the beginning of the second half. He hit a few jumpers as the Hornets extended their lead into double figures. He stayed aggressive all quarter long and carried the Hornets offense in what was an explosive quarter for both teams. The Hornets outscored the Bucks 42-34 in the quarter and took a 14 point lead into the fourth quarter.
Both teams broke out their zone defenses for the fourth quarter, which led to some disjointed offensive possessions on both ends. The Hornets found some success with LaMelo Ball breaking down the defense and dishing to teammates or finishing at the basket, while the Bucks let Giannis bully whichever Hornet had the misfortune of being matched up with him in the zone. Ball was called for his fifth foul about midway through the fourth with the Hornets up ten. Miles Bridges responded with a muscly finish in the paint before PJ Washington hit a three to put the Hornets up 15 with just over five minutes to play. Washington fouled out a short time later.
The pressure of the situation seemed to get to the Hornets. They couldn’t generate efficient offense and struggled to defend Giannis without getting called for fouls. By the two minute mark, the Hornets lead had been reduced to six. Ball ended the drought with a nice driving layup, but the Bucks responded with a dubiously allowed Giannis offensive rebound and put back that resulted in a bloody Mason Plumlee. A tough Khris Middleton jumper on the next Bucks possession pulled the Bucks within four as the clock ticked under a minute.
The Hornets used up the whole shot clock with their next possession but still were able to manufacture a wide open look for Terry Rozier, who splashed a triple off a slip screen and pop play with Ball. A couple back and forths were capped off with a Miles Bridges and-1 to set the final score at 114-106.
The Hornets will be a problem if they can defend like they did tonight, especially against teams that don’t have Giannis around to dominate the game physically when nothing else is working. They made the Bucks shoot hurried 3-pointers and walled off the rim to force floaters and mid range jumpers for most of the game. They didn’t give up the uncontested 3-pointers that usually let unheralded players get going against them seemingly every game. Bucks role players after Giannis, Middleton, and Bobby Portis combined to shoot just 6-of-36 from the field and 4-of-22 from three.
The Hornets will try to build off this as they face the Bucks in a rematch on Monday.