MILWAUKEE (AP) — It may not mean much in the standings by the end of the season, but a 16-point win over the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday may be a sign of the Milwaukee Bucks’ transformation into a contender.
The Bucks had beaten the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors on the road the night before for a signature victory. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a last-minute scratch on Monday with neck soreness. The 20-loss Cavaliers were in town.
Milwaukee had lost to the similarly struggling Suns and Knicks earlier this season, signaling a propensity to lose focus against lower-division foes.
No such problem against the Cavs.
Eric Bledsoe had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Milwaukee Bucks shot 52 percent from 3-point range in the first half of a 108-92 win to put the game out of reach early.
“We’re just trying to build something special. We had a good win in Toronto and we just wanted to capitalize on that tonight,” Bledsoe said.
Malcolm Brogdon scored 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, while Sterling Brown had 12 points and eight rebounds for the Bucks.
Leading by 18 points at the half and by as much as 26 in the third quarter, the Bucks hardly needed Antetokounmpo.
“I do think sometimes, one of your leaders is out, and some of the other guys maybe bring their focus into a better place,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “For the most part, I thought guys didn’t try to do too much to replace him.”
Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson had 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting and added six rebounds, but left in the third quarter with a left foot injury. Jaron Blossomgame had 11 points and 10 rebounds, while Larry Nance Jr. scored a team-high 16 points.
The Cavaliers did manage to cut the deficit in half, to 13, with 5:40 left and the Bucks playing mostly backups. It was close enough that Budenholzer put most of his starters back in the game until the closing minutes.
Otherwise, the game was decided in the first half, when the Bucks — one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the league — hit 11 of 21 from beyond the arc. Bledsoe was 4 of 5 from 3-point territory, with all his attempts before halftime.
“I’m not going to get down on them and I’m not going to let them get down on themselves when they don’t play well,” Cavs coach Larry Drew said. “We just have to learn how to get through it.”
Cavaliers: G Matthew Dellavedova scored 11 points in 16 minutes in making his debut in his second stint with Cleveland. A fan favorite in Cleveland, Dellavedova was acquired from the Bucks on Friday in a three-team deal that sent George Hill to Milwaukee. He played sporadic minutes this season for the Bucks. He received an ovation when he entered the game.
Bucks: Hill scored two points in 13 minutes in making his Bucks debut, often matched up defensively against Dellavedova. C Jason Smith, who was acquired from the Wizards in the same deal, went scoreless in four minutes in his first game with Milwaukee. … G Pat Connaughton was inactive.
Brown came off the bench to provide a spark in the first half, hustling all over the court to grab boards and defend. His transition dunk after a turnover with 2:08 left in the second quarter gave Milwaukee a 57-36 lead.
The Cavs had a tough enough time in the paint when the 6-foot-10 Thompson was in the game. They were outscored 50-40 in the lane and outrebounded 58-46, even with the high-flying Antetokounmpo out.
Thompson said his foot was a little swollen.
“They didn’t chop my foot off. I’ll be fine,” he said.
FROM THE ARC
The Bucks finished 15 of 36 (42 percent) from 3-point range for the night after going 4 of 15 in the second half.
“Things we talked about doing against this team, we did not do a good job with in the first half,” Drew said.
“Hopefully it’s just a short thing and we’ll see how it feels tomorrow and going into the game on Wednesday.” — Budenholzer on Antetokounmpo.
Cavaliers: Host the New York Knicks on Wednesday.
Bucks: Visit Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.