Adrian Griffin's team didn't exactly put its best foot forward defensively, surrendering 41 points on 19 shots to Julius Randle and allowing the Knicks to rack up a 119.6 offensive rating, a hair behind the Philadelphia 76ers' second-ranked league-wide mark. But the Bucks more than made up for it on the other side of the ball, with Giannis Antetokounmpo dominating the paint en route to 35 points and Damian Lillard leading a long-range onslaught that ended with 23 triples, the most any team has hit in a game this season.
After the game, Lillard expressed excitement about advancing for the chance to win the inaugural NBA Cup—also sending a subtle warning to their foes in Sin City about Milwaukee playing its “best basketball” at exactly the right time.
“I think we learned what the tournament was about over time and we played better and better over the course of it. You wanna advance as far as possible,” he said. “Like I said earlier, we're playing for a lot of reasons, for a lot of our teammates, to be a part of this in-season tournament for the first time and try to go all the way. So I'm happy that we're playing our best basketball going into it and excited to get to Vegas.”
As much as Milwaukee wants to make history, ending the tournament as the last team standing isn't the primary justification for its push toward the title. Each member of the winning team gets a $500,000 prize, one Lillard, Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee's highest earners are using as the driving force behind their quest for in-season tournament glory.
“We're one step closer. I think the more that we keep [the prize money] on our hearts and on our minds, we're gonna play like it,” he said. “Even though we're closer, we can't get too excited because we've got games to win. But we did make that trip, we're headed to Vegas now. We gotta make sure we touch down and stay focused.”
Bucks meet Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers in chance to play for NBA Cup
The Bucks will meet the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinal on Thursday at 2:00 p.m. Needless to say, they'll have to buckle down defensively to beat Tyrese Haliburton and company, who sport a mind-bending 123.6 offensive rating—the highest mark in the NBA by nearly four points per 100 possessions.
Milwaukee isn't exactly equipped to slow down Haliburton, either. Malik Beasley has emerged as Griffin's de facto perimeter stopper, a role he's primed to play with the basketball world watching against the Pacers. Don't expect Haliburton to be too bothered. He just dropped 26 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists on 10-of-18 shooting and 5-of-11 from deep in Indiana's quarterfinal win over the Boston Celtics, staking his claim as the frontrunner for in-season tournament MVP.
The good news for the Bucks? The Pacers might be even more overmatched checking Antetokounmpo and Lillard than they are Haliburton. Indiana is the third-worst defensive team in basketball; Milwaukee owns the third-best offense.
Either way, anticipate plenty of offensive fireworks for Thursday's highly anticipated matinee in Las Vegas.