The Milwaukee Bucks suffered an upset loss against the New Orleans Pelicans 131-126 at Smoothie King Center on Friday.
The second leg of Milwaukee's three-game road trip saw the Bucks (11-7) miss out on their third three-game win streak this season despite a 38-point effort from reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. It just wasn't enough to overpower Zion Williamson and the Pelicans (7-10).
Lonzo Ball made his return to the Pels' lineup after exiting early in a win over the Washington Wizards with an ankle injury Wednesday. The point guard, who's been the subject of trade rumors lately, tested out his movement during warmups before the team made a determination on his status.
New Orleans has now won three of its last six but remains in last place in the Southwest Division.
Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans: 21 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists (career high)
Lonzo Ball, PG, New Orleans Pelicans: 27 points (career high), 8 assists, 3 rebounds, 7 three-pointers
Eric Bledsoe, SG, New Orleans Pelicans: 25 points, 4 assists, 7 three-pointers
Giannis Antetokoumpo, PF, Milwaukee Bucks: 38 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists
Khris Middleton, SF, Milwaukee Bucks: 16 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists
Bledsoe's Revenge, Lonzo's Return Lead Pels
One game after suffering an ankle injury—and two games after his name began popping up in trade rumors—Lonzo Ball gave the Pelicans all the justification they needed not to move the point guard.
After spending the day as a game-time decision, Ball put together a career performance and helped deliver New Orleans' biggest win of the year. Behind a lights-out shooting performance from Ball, the Pelicans built a 23-point halftime lead on the second-best team in the East.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Friday tied the largest halftime deficit the Bucks had faced under head coach Mike Budenholzer.
Adding to the sting was a hot start from former Bucks star Eric Bledsoe, who Milwaukee sent to New Orleans just before training camps opened up this year.
Bledsoe poured in 11 points early in the first quarter, nailing five three-pointers before halftime and tying his season-high in scoring before the third quarter even began.
On the rare occasion the Pels missed, Steven Adams was there to grab the rebound, finishing the night with an astounding 20 boards and four points.
The evening provided a glimpse of what New Orleans could look like when everyone is clicking. Consistent shooting from the backcourt stretched out Milwaukee's defense, leaving plenty of space for Williamson and Brandon Ingram (28 points) to operate on the wings while Adams stole a few extra possessions in the paint.
It may take head coach Stan Van Gundy awhile longer before nights like these become the norm, but there's no doubt the Pelicans are getting stronger in Year 2 of the Zion era.
Giannis-Led Comeback Falls Short
The low point for Milwaukee came four minutes into the second half Friday.
After the Pels opened up the third quarter with back-to-back wide-open threes from Ball, Budenholzer had to use two timeouts in quick succession to ensure he could keep his club in the game. At that point, the Bucks were down 29 points.
But Budenholzer didn't pull the plug on trying to eke out a win. He instead walked over to Antetokoumpo, gave his star player a pep talk and watched as he took over the remainder of the game.
Antetokoumpo scored 12 points in the third quarter after netting just nine points in the first half. His change of pace while driving into the lane, along with a few pump fakes, kept getting defenders to overcommit and give up uncontested shots at the rim.
Soon, Antetokoumpo's teammates began getting extra space to create, leading the Greek Freak to get the rest of the lineup involved in a major way.
The 81 points scored by the Bucks in the second half were tied for the most by any team in a loss in the last 35 seasons, per ESPN Stats & Info. On multiple occasions, Milwaukee was able to cut the lead to single digits, but the biggest impediment to the comeback quickly became the clock.
With a few more minutes in this one, maybe the Bucks end up pulling off the win. Instead, they leave New Orleans with a lesson that no lead is safe when the team buys in, especially if Antetokoumpo is the one doing the selling.
Milwaukee wraps up its road trip against the Charlotte Hornets at 8 p.m ET on Saturday before returning home to face the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday at 8 p.m. ET. The Pelicans remain at home for another three games as the surging Houston Rockets visit New Orleans on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.