Returning from the All-Star break, the Knicks are in Milwaukee to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks for the second time this season.

After a restful week off for the All-Star break, the New York Knicks (19-18) return to action against the Milwaukee Bucks (22-14) on Thursday night.

The Knicks went into All-Star Weekend on a high note, finishing with a 10-point win over Detroit and closing out by winning five of their last seven games before the break.

The Bucks are also coming in with some momentum. Giannis Antentokounmpo captured 2021 All-Star Game MVP honors and say what you will about it being a glorified scrimmage, but he still hardly missed on the court. At a team-wide level, Milwaukee won six of its last seven games and bounced back from a five-game losing skid in early February.

Both teams met earlier in the season at Madison Square Garden. New York secured the first win of the Tom Thibodeau era in a 130-110 victory over Milwaukee on December 27th. It was also the Knicks’ first win over the Bucks in two years.

The rematch is set for an 8 p.m. ET tip-off from Milwaukee.

Repeat Performance?

Unsurprisingly, Antentokounmpo has been a problem for the Knicks. Last season, he averaged 29.0 points per game without playing in a single fourth quarter during all three Bucks’ wins over the Knicks. This year, the Greek Freak continued to torment New York, compiling a 27-point, 13-rebound double-double while shooting 9-of-15 on the floor.

With the reigning MVP playing well against the Knicks once again, how did they manage to beat the Bucks by 20 back in December?

Skeptics might’ve called it a fluke or a lucky win, but it was actually the start of a defensive foundation being created by Thibodeau in New York. The Knicks clamped down on the Bucks at the three-point line and hardly let them get comfortable from deep. Milwaukee, who shot 43% from long range against the Knicks in its regular-season sweep of New York last year, shot just 7-of-38 (18.4%) from beyond the arc.

Milwaukee’s starting five combined for just 4-of-23 from three. While Antentokounmpo was still getting his buckets, the rest of his team couldn’t say the same.

It also helped that the Knicks had the hot hand, especially from long range. As a team, New York converted on 16-of-27 (59.3%) three-point attempts. Elfrid Payton even made all of his threes en route to an efficient 12-of-16 shooting performance that resulted in a season-high 27 points. It’s unlikely the Knicks shoot that well again from deep. It’s a shooting clip that is certainly not sustainable, so attention to detail on defense will be important.

Since then, the Knicks have continued to lock down, holding opponents to an NBA-best 33.0% showing from the perimeter. The Bucks have bounced back since then and enter Thursday with the fourth-best three-point percentage in the league, 38.8%, so it should be an interesting rematch.

Setting the tone for the second half of the season

After mediocrity and incompetence from the front office, to coaches, and down to the players on the court in recent years, there’s a good amount to be excited for with the Knicks, who are on pace for their best season since 2012–13.

They’re a tick above .500 coming out of the All-Star break. While that’s hardly banner-worthy and there are still miles to go before anyone can start calling them contenders, New York has certainly exceeded all expectations with first-year coach Thibodeau. It is currently fifth in the Eastern Conference, but the margin between fourth and 11th is slim—only three games.

There’s also still plenty of basketball and season left. Collapses can happen. The Knicks still need to keep their foot on the gas. How great would it be for team confidence and morale to start off the second half of the season with a win over the Bucks?

A loss certainly wouldn’t be the end, but there’s something to be said about coming out of a break and starting things in the right direction.

 

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