‘I was so excited:’ Giannis Antetokounmpo powers Bucks past Knicks in Christmas debut
NEW YORK — Giannis Antetokounmpo was so eager to make a rim-rocking Christmas debut that he overshot the basket on his first attempt, a dunk from one side that ended with the ball all the way in the opposite corner.
“I was so excited that I went a little bit too high and I thought the rim was a foot taller,” Antetokounmpo said.
He and the Milwaukee Bucks eventually settled down and showed they belonged on the holiday stage.
Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 14 rebounds, and Milwaukee celebrated its return to the Christmas schedule by beating the New York Knicks 109-95 on Tuesday.
“This is one of the highest stages,” Antetokounmpo said. “Special teams play Christmas Day, and just it’s an opportunity for us and we’re really happy.”
Brook Lopez scored 20 points for the Bucks, who played on Christmas for the first time since 1977. They were selected for the showcase slate of games largely because of Antetokounmpo but the timing also was perfect to show an emerging team, which improved the NBA’s second-best record to 23-10.
Malcolm Brogdon finished with 17 points for the Bucks, the NBA scoring leaders who bounced back from a season-low 87 points in a loss to Miami on Saturday to win for the fifth time in six games.
“People come to see Giannis play but they’ve got to watch all of us, so it’s definitely a great opportunity for the rest of us to showcase as a team what we can do,” Brogdon said.
Rookie Kevin Knox scored 21 points for the Knicks, who have lost six straight Christmas Day games and fell to 22-31 in their NBA-record 53 appearances on the holiday.
“It’s on me to stay even in this whole thing, not be up and down emotionally because I (have) to keep their spirits up,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “They feel it. They’re human.”
New York has lost five in a row and 10 of 11 since rallying to stun the Bucks 136-134 in overtime on Dec. 1 at Madison Square Garden.
Antetokounmpo was angry that night with Knicks forward Mario Hezonja, who had dunked over him in the first quarter, then stared and stepped over him. Antetokounmpo felt it was disrespectful, vowing to punch Hezonja in the groin next time.
The Greek Freak was perhaps a little too pumped for the rematch — Brogdon grabbed the rebound of his errant dunk in the corner and fired in a 3-pointer — but he quickly got untracked.
It was only a seven-point game midway through the third quarter when Antetokounmpo began to seize control. His jumper followed by layup pushed the lead into double digits, and he scored 11 points in the Bucks’ 36-point period that ended with them leading 84-68 cushion.
“We played them really (well) in the first half — down two — in the locker room felt pretty good,” Knox said. “But that third quarter, defensively, offensively, just something slips with us.”
Noah Vonleh had 14 points and 15 rebounds, while Tim Hardaway Jr. had 14 points and 10 boards but shot just 4 for 18 for New York.
Bucks: Antetokounmpo was chosen Eastern Conference player of the week on Monday, the third time this season he’s won the award. He was also voted the player of the month in the conference for October-November. … The Bucks are 3-2 on Christmas.
Knicks: Rookie G Allonzo Trier had eight points in 18 minutes after missing seven games with a strained left hamstring. … Hezonja didn’t play. … The Knicks haven’t won on Christmas since beating Boston in 2011 in what was the NBA season opener following the lockout.
Both coaches were asked about the idea that a Christmas Day game favored the visiting team, which could treat it as a regular road game while the hosts were at home, perhaps surrounded by family celebrating the holiday.
Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer dismissed the notion, saying the Bucks brought plenty of family members and had a big team dinner on Christmas Eve so they could mix basketball and the holiday.
“Well, I look at this team, Milwaukee’s coming in with an advantage anyway,” he said with a laugh. “They’re a better team than us right now.”
Knox had his third straight 20-point outing. He came in averaging 20.3 points in his previous seven games.
The teams complete their season series Thursday night at Milwaukee.