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Wizards got their first glimpse of Giannis and the new-look Bucks, and it wasn't pretty

Wizards got their first glimpse of Giannis and the new-look Bucks, and it wasn't pretty

Giannis Antetokounmpo, since he has transformed from a lanky, jumper-less project to an NBA All-Star, has never been easy to stop. At 6-foot-11, he can run and dribble like a guard. And now with muscles, he can bull-rush defenders, always holding an athletic advantage in some combination of ways.

Dealing with Antetokounmpo alone was already a perilous task, and that was before the Milwaukee Bucks surrounded him with an array of lethal outside shooters. Now he has more space than ever, leaving hapless defenders with no ideal options.

Teammates can’t help off their own assignments, or else he will pass and create open shots. The league hasn't quite figured it out, and the Wizards can be added to the mix after Saturday's 131-115 loss to Milwaukee.

“They’ve got shotmakers and with him, he draws so much attention,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. “But he can see over, when you double-team him he sees over it. When you play him 1-on-1, he battles you down and gets to the free throw line. It’s hard to stop.”

The Bucks poured in 17 threes on 39 shots, good for 43.6 percent. Eight Bucks players made at least one triple. Khris Middleton had four, while Brook Lopez and George Hill each made three.

Antetokounmpo didn't make any threes, yet he dropped 37 points to go along with 10 rebounds, two assists and a steal. He did it all in less than 33 minutes.

Where Antetokounmpo made most of his money was at the free throw line. Wizards defenders did their best to obstruct the rim as they ran step-for-step with him through the lane. Antetokounmpo initiated contact, and their best strategy was often to wrap him up to prevent easy buckets.

Antetokounmpo got to the line 17 times and never missed. He went a perfect 17-for-17, falling one free throw short of the record for a player against the Wizards/Bullets franchise. Only Rick Barry has gone perfect with more attempts. He went 18-for-18 in 1975.

Antetokounmpo’s brute strength and relentless path to the rim left the Wizards out of answers. Brooks tried to go small to combat the three-point shooting. He played center Thomas Bryant only five minutes in the second half, instead opting for Jeff Green at the five.

But the Bucks did a remarkable job of staying within coach Mike Budenholzer’s structure. They were patient zipping the ball back and forth across the perimeter, often making the extra pass to find an open three. Getting those open looks and making them consistently held the Wizards from building any real sense of momentum.

“Every time we had a run, they countered it with a big shot,” Brooks said. “They’re a good team. They have the best record for a reason.”

The Bucks boast the best record in the NBA at 38-18. They are only six wins away from matching their total from the entire 2017-18 season. They are on pace to improve from 44 wins in 2017-18 to 61 this year.

Budenholzer deserves a lot of credit for that leap, along with the addition of Lopez who has transformed into one of the best shooting big men in the NBA. Collectively, they have improved from one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league to one of the best. They are third in three-pointers made per game this season.

That single area of the game seems to be the key to unlocking what now appears to be a juggernaut and legitimate title contender. They have opened the floor up for Antetokounmpo, one of the most uniquely gifted slashers the league has ever seen.

The Wizards beat this Bucks team in Washington just weeks ago on Jan. 11. But Milwaukee didn't have Antetokounmpo for that game.

With Antetokounmpo in store, the Bucks pounded the Wizards and led by as much as 32. Washington saw just how difficult it would be to face Milwaukee in the playoffs, if they can indeed crack the top eight by the end of the season. If they can play themselves into a postseason berth, they may very well have to face the Bucks in the first round.

Wizards guard Bradley Beal wondered if the pummeling the Bucks delivered on Saturday night was with the bigger picture in mind.

“The playoffs aren't here yet, but that was definitely a message that they were sending,” Beal said.

Whether it had extra intention or not, a message was sent. The Wizards now realize firsthand just how formidable the improved Bucks are this season. 

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How to watch Wizards vs. Bucks

How to watch Wizards vs. Bucks

After suffering their worst loss since entering the bubble on Sunday, the Wizards have two final opportunities to come out of Orlando with a win. 

In their toughest matchup thus far, Washington will square off with the Milwaukee Bucks, the No. 1 seed in the East and a favorite to win the championship this year.

The Wizards’ young squad has faced some of the league’s best talent in its six games in the bubble, but they will now have to take down reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez to earn their first win since the restart.

While Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr., Jerome Robinson and others have all stepped up in the absence of Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans and John Wall, will their combined effort be enough to take down one of the best rosters in the NBA? 

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS HOW TO WATCH 

What: Washington Wizards vs. Milwaukee Bucks 
Where: ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Fla.  
When: Tuesday, Aug. 11, 9:00 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Wizards vs. Bucks will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (NBC Sports Channel Finder)
Live Stream: You can live stream Wizards vs. Bucks on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the NBC Sports App.

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS TV SCHEDULE

8:00 PM: Wizards Pregame Live (LIVE) 

9:00 PM: NBA Milwaukee Bucks @ Wizards (LIVE)

11:30 PM: Wizards Postgame Live (LIVE)

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS WHAT TO WATCH 

Now that the Wizards have officially been eliminated from the playoff race, their remaining goal in Orlando is to come away with a win or two. If they can’t make the playoffs, taking down the No. 1 seed is the next best feat, and Washington will have the opportunity to do so on Tuesday. 

While the Wizards haven’t found their first win yet, they have shown promise in their first six games and hung tight with teams nobody expected they would like the Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Pelicans. 

Now that the Bucks have clinched the top seed in the east, the Wizards can hope to catch them on their heels. While Milwaukee took care of business and clinched its desired spot on the playoffs, its return in Orlando has been rustier than expected as well with a 2-3 overall record since entering the bubble. 

If the Wizards can steal a win on their way out of Orlando against the top team in the East, it will go a long way in their young roster developing confidence as they look to the future.

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WIZARDS vs. BUCKS PLAYERS TO WATCH 

Jerome Robinson (4.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.3 apg): Robinson has been a pleasant surprise for the Wizards since entering the bubble and has stepped into a huge role coming off the bench. Despite averaging under five points per game during the regular season, Robinson has put up double-digit performances in five of the six games in the bubble, including a 20-point performance in the opener and two 19-point performances against Philly and Oklahoma City. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.8 ppg, 5.7 apg, 13.7 rpg): The toughest challenge for the Wizards thus far in the bubble is Antetokounmpo, the reigning 2019 NBA MVP and one of the recently named finalists in this season’s MVP candidacy. While his team has won just two games in the bubble thus far, Antetokounmpo has been sharp, scoring upwards of 30 points in four of the five matchups. 

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What the Wizards hope to clean up in their final two games of the season

What the Wizards hope to clean up in their final two games of the season

Individual progress and development has taken a front seat over wins and losses for the Wizards in Orlando, as Washington remains winless in the NBA's restart, now at 0-6 and 0-9 overall, if you include the exhibition schedule. So, as they ponder their final two games of the season - against the Celtics and Bucks - what would more would the coaching staff like to see?

Head coach Scott Brooks has been trying to drill in some lessons to his young players and he wants to see some strides in key areas. He held a lengthy film session on Saturday, but did not get what he was hoping for in Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City.

"They’re all teachable moments," Brooks said. "We can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over. I said [at halftime] ‘either you’re not understanding it or I’m not doing a good job of explaining it.’"

As for specifics, Brooks said he wants his team to do a better job of stopping the ball on defense. Opponents are getting into the lane off the dribble far too easily and it is dismantling their defensive gameplan.

He also wants his team to execute better with outside shots. The Wizards are 21st out of the 22 teams in Orlando in three-pointers made (9.0/g), attempts (27.8/g) and percentage (32.3%). Not having Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal has done them no favors in those categories.

RELATED: WIZARDS FALL TO 0-6 IN BUBBLE

And perhaps most noticeable to Brooks has been the team's tendency to be pushed around physically. 

"You’ve gotta make a stand," Brooks said. "I thought [the Thunder's] physicality in the start of the game bothered us and it put us back on our heels. We played timid."

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Brooks highlighted rookie Rui Hachimura as a player who could put up more of a fight. On Sunday, Hachimura matched up at times with Chris Paul, who did a good job preventing him from reaching his favorite spots on the floor.

"You have to catch it deeper and go right through the guy’s chest. He’s going to learn that," Brooks said. "He’s still learning the league and the defenses that are going to be thrown at him."

Ish Smith is the most experienced player in the Wizards' rotation with 10 years of NBA service. He thinks the Wizards collectively are allowing other teams to be the aggressors. He says they need to cut harder on offense and be more assertive initiating contact on defense.

But overall, he thinks the young players on the team are learning that games with higher stakes are played differently.

"It’s such a good time for us because everybody that’s here is trying to get to the playoffs. So, they’re playing at a high, high level," he said. 

"Sometimes, no offense to the regular season and all 82 games, but some games you catch a team on a back-to-back or with injuries and different things. This is a good thing for all of us, to show us the level that you have to play at. The physicality that you have to play with, the level that you have to play at not just to make it to the playoffs but to be a champion."

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