MILWAUKEE — The Bucks couldn’t have hoped for a better debut in their new home. Giannis Antetokounmpo picked up where he left off last season, coach Mike Budenholzer‘s offense displayed a firepower the team lacked last year, and Milwaukee blew out the visiting Indiana Pacers 118-101 in the first regular-season game at Fiserv Forum.
Coming into the season, the Eastern Conference was generally seen as having three teams in its top tier: the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. After a 2-0 start, Milwaukee is making it known that it is a force to be reckoned with as well.
“New arena, new practice facility, new coach,” Antetokounmpo said after the 118-101 win over the Pacers. “This is the right time to be a Buck.”
Despite the Brewers being in a win-or-go-home game less than three miles away, Milwaukee sports fans filled the new, $524 million arena. Bucks legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and NBA commissioner Adam Silver both were among the 17,341 in attendance.
Milwaukee has been waiting a long time for the Bucks to break through: The franchise hasn’t won 50 games in a season or advanced in the playoffs since 2000-01. Last season ended with a first-round playoff loss against a Celtics team that was missing All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving.
While Milwaukee can’t make up for that Game 7 loss until April, three of the Bucks’ next six games come against the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers, so it won’t be long until their place in the East pecking order becomes clear.
“I feel we can beat any team on any night,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have a really, really good opportunity to do good stuff this year, so hopefully we can work hard, go back and work on our craft, and be able to execute and compete every night.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo pulls in the rebound, takes the ball to the other end and slams it home.
Budenholzer, who replaced interim coach Joe Prunty in the offseason after Prunty replaced Jason Kidd midway through 2017-18, has placed an emphasis on spacing and 3-point shooting, which has given the Bucks a different look from what they showed last season.
“We are just worried about how are we competing each day, how are we getting better each day,” he said. “If we do all of those things, then we will be where we should be, and that is hopefully with those top echelon teams in the East and in the NBA.
“We feel like we can be one of the best teams in the East and compete with anybody,” he continued. “All that is going to matter is how we play. I don’t think we are going out there to try to make a statement or show that we are something that hasn’t been said.”
On Friday, Antetokounmpo finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists. He had put up 22 points and 11 rebounds by halftime. It is the second time in his career that he has had at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half, according to ESPN Stats & Information. While he went 0-for-7 from beyond the arc, he vowed to keep shooting.
“It’s going up,” Antetokounmpo said. “I am not stopping. I worked hard this summer. I am not stopping.”
Antetokounmpo was shy from beyond the arc earlier in his career, but this newfound confidence reflects Milwaukee’s maturity.
“We are a complete team,” said Khris Middleton, who scored 23 points Friday night. “Giannis is a hell of a player. He can carry a team, but for us to be complete, we need every guy in this locker room. And so far, they’ve shown they can step up when their number is called.”