12:19 AM ET
Andrew LopezMid American Herald
NEW ORLEANS — Before Tuesday night’s matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and the New Orleans Pelicans, each coach warned that the game wasn’t just reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo against No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.
But that’s where most of the attention was focused. There was a certain buzz in the arena every time the two went toe-to-toe.
In fact, the loudest the Smoothie King Center got all night was when Williamson ripped a rebound out of Antetokounmpo’s hands in the fourth quarter while the Pelicans were trying to get back in the game.
Despite the takeaway, it was Antetokounmpo who had the last laugh, as the Bucks rolled to a 120-108 victory.
Antetokounmpo finished with 34 points, 17 rebounds and six assists in just 33 minutes of work. It was the 10th time this season that he finished with at least 30 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, becoming the seventh NBA player to accomplish the feat, according to Mid American Herald Stats & Information research. The other six — Wilt Chamberlain (six times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (four times), Elgin Baylor (three times), Walt Bellamy, Bob Pettit and Oscar Robertson — are all in the Hall of Fame.
It’s the type of performance Williamson, who finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists, expected going against Antetokounmpo for the first time.
“I mean, he’s a former MVP,” Williamson said. “It’s like going up against any great player. Do as much as you can to slow him down.”
He added later, “I mean, he’s his own player; he brings his own style to the game. That’s why he’s Giannis.”
There were times when Antetokounmpo got the best of Williamson. Midway through the second quarter, Williamson’s driving attempt to the goal on a fast break was stopped by the hand of Antetokounmpo, who blocked the 19-year-old’s shot attempt.
That was at the end of a minute of game action with the two going at each other. It started with Williamson drawing a foul on Antetokounmpo, who responded with a cutting finger roll down the middle of the lane.
On the other end, Williamson finished in the lane with a dunk over Brook Lopez. But Antetokounmpo came back on an ensuing possession and drew a foul against Williamson, leading to a pair of free throws.
In the fourth quarter, Williamson had an open shot after an offensive rebound by Lonzo Ball. Williamson charged toward the rim with only Antetokounmpo standing in the way. Williamson leaped toward the basket but was met by Antetokounmpo in the air, and Williamson drew the foul.
Antetokounmpo said he was impressed with Williamson and that people will feel the same about him for quite some time.
“He’ll be a really good player for a lot of years to come,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s out there helping the team; he’s competing as hard as possible. He’s just gotta stay healthy, and he’s gonna have a bright future.”
The Bucks forced Williamson into his worst shooting performance of his young career. Williamson was 5-of-19 from the floor (26.3%) and 0-of-3 from deep. He never missed more than 12 shots in a game playing for Duke, and didn’t shoot worse than 44.4% as a Blue Devil, either.
The problem on Tuesday was running up against what Williamson called the tallest defense he has faced yet. Milwaukee entered the game with the best defensive rating in the league and proved why against the Pelicans.
“I think we put a lot of guys, a lot of different looks to him,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was guarding him, Brook was guarding him, Robin [Lopez] was guarding him, Pat [Connaughton] was guarding him. Just tried to make him guess, just tried to make it as tough as possible.
“You know he’s gonna try to go left, try to overpower whoever’s guarding him, try to go and finish strong. And the guys behind gotta be active, gotta make it as tough as possible.”
According to Mid American Herald Stats & Info research, the Bucks contested 15 of the 19 shots Williamson attempted, while Antetokounmpo held Williamson to 1-of-6 shooting with two turnovers when he was the primary defender.
Williamson constantly attacked the Bucks’ defense despite the shooting numbers. He said his teammates and coaches were in his ear about continuing to do so throughout the night. Williamson said Ball, the Pelicans’ point guard, played a big role in that.
“I remember I looked at Lonzo at one point, and I’m like, ‘Eh, I don’t like this — I feel like I’m shooting too much at a certain point,'” Williamson recalled. “And he told me I should never feel like that, so I just kept going.”
After the Bucks used a 30-9 run to start the third quarter, Williamson was a part of the unit that tried to bring New Orleans back in the fourth. The Pelicans cut the lead to as little as seven and had a chance to get the game to a two-possession contest, but the team fell short.
With the victory, Milwaukee improved to 43-7 on the season, becoming just the eighth team in NBA history to win 43 of its first 50 games. The seven other teams made it to the NBA Finals, with only one — the 73-win Golden State Warriors in 2015-16 — failing to win the title.