DENVER (AP) — Doc Rivers saw the same thing training from the sideline Monday night as he did watching from his couch all season: a talented Milwaukee team that just needs a little more time to take shape.
Also, that Nikola Jokic continues to be next level in everything he does.
Jokic ruined Rivers’ debut as Milwaukee’s coach by recording his 14th triple-double of the season to help the Denver Nuggets beat the Bucks, 113-107.
“They’re great,” Rivers said of his new team. “They are a very coachable team.”
Jokic finished with 25 points, 16 rebounds and 12 assists. Jamal Murray scored 35 for the Nuggets, who pulled away during a late 8-0 run.
The game was a chance for Rivers to evaluate his club built to win now. The Bucks players made an instant impression on him, and he on them.
“He did a great job leading the team, leading the team,” forward Khris Middleton said. “It’s going to take us some time to get used to it and see what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been successful so far this season and in the past.”
Rivers was pulled from his role as an analyst to replace first-year Bucks coach Adrian Griffin, who was fired after 43 games and a 30-13 record.
Embarking on his 25th season as an NBA head coach, Rivers alternated between arms crossed, hands on knees and hands on hips to move up and down the sideline. At times he knelt, clapped, conferred with Joe Prunty, the interim coach before Rivers’ arrival, and even showed frustration over a foul called on Brook Lopez late in the game for an illegal screen.
Rivers watched his new team blow an early 13-point lead, fall behind by nine and then fight back before Aaron Gordon finished the comeback by blocking Damian Lillard’s layup attempt with 24.7 seconds left.
The match featured 12 ties and nine lead changes.
“I mean, that’s why I play: to play these kinds of games, to play under pressure, to play tight games,” Jokic said. “I like to play in those circumstances.”
The victory was a milestone for Michael Malone: his 400th victory as coach of the Nuggets.
“It means I’ve been here a long time,” Malone joked.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 29 points and 12 rebounds for the Bucks, who began a five-game road trip. The “Greek Freak” played nearly 37 minutes despite dealing with an illness that left his availability up in the air before the game. Had he missed the contest, it would have been the second straight game in which an NBA MVP did not play in Ball Arena. On Saturday, reigning MVP Joel Embiid was ruled out late for Philadelphia due to a left knee issue.
But Antetokounmpo treated the crowd to a high-flying display (and was penalized for a 10-second foul on a free throw that electrified fans). He was named the NBA player of the week for the East that same day.
“I try to thrive in those moments as much as I can,” Antetokounmpo said of facing players like Jokic. “And learn everything I can.”
Lopez scored 19 points, including five of Milwaukee’s 16 3-pointers. Lillard finished with 18 points.
Rivers admitted it will take him a minute to settle in on the bench as he constantly blends his style with the way the Bucks already play. He wants them to flow and not think too much.
One thing you don’t have to remind them: how good they are. The Bucks have several holdovers, led by Antetokounmpo, from the team that won the NBA championship in 2020-21.
“They already know what the goal is,” Rivers said. “And everyone knows that the only way to achieve that goal is for it to be ‘us,’ as a group.”
UNTIL NEXT TIME
Bucks: Lillard returns to Portland on Wednesday to face his former team. He spent 11 seasons with the Trail Blazers.
Nuggets: Play at Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/nba