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The Milwaukee Bucks returned to action on Monday night against the Denver Nuggets after a two-day layoff and earned their best win in two weeks since Doc Rivers took over the bench, beating the defending champions 112-95.

Milwaukee led by 28 points after the third quarter, at which point Denver head coach Michael Malone benched two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.

The Bucs (35-19) put together another strong defensive effort after allowing a season-low 84 points to Charlotte on Friday and their first back-to-back win since then. January 20-24 won three straight Under former head coach Adrian Griffin and interim head coach Joe Prunty.

Box score: Bucks 112, Jazz 95

The Nuggets (36-18) lost their second straight.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 36 points on an impressive 73.6% (14-for-19) shooting. It was the ninth time this season he hit 70 percent. He also had 18 rebounds and five assists.

Damian Lillard overcame early foul trouble and scored 18 points, including 14 in the decisive third quarter to give the Bucks a 60-44 halftime lead to 91-63. Bobby Portis added 13 off the bench.

Jokic led the Nuggets with 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Aaron Gordon (14) and Michael Porter Jr. (11) also reached double figures for Denver.

Bucks loaded Nikola Jokic again

On January 29th, the Milwaukee Bucks leaned into the phrase when they dusted off Mike Budenholzer’s game plan against two-time league MVP Jokic. Center Brook Lopez was one-on-one with Jokic — followed by Antetokounmpo — but the Wings flashed strategic double teams at various points to add momentum to Jokic’s offensive streak.

So, when Jokic recorded one of 15 triple-doubles with 25 points, 16 rebounds and 12 assists in that January win over the Nuggets, the Bucks were happy to influence the shooting. Jokic was just 10-for-25 (including 1-of-6 from behind the three-point line) — his sixth-worst shooting night of the season and his poorest since Dec. 25.

Jokic’s individual offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was just 105.8, one of his most efficient marks of the season. For reference, he entered Monday’s game with a personal offensive rating of 122.5.

One thing Rivers said the Bucks couldn’t get into in the game plan was going a bit short with Antetokounmpo at the five and forcing Jokic to run with the Bucks’ MVP candidate, which is mostly Antetokounmpo’s foul trouble.

Unfortunately, that issue reared its head again for the Bucks on Monday when Antetokounmpo committed two fouls in the opening minutes of the game. But the team stuck to the same game plan as Lopez, tracking the big man inside the three-point line, employing quick double teams and rebounding.

This required Lopez to play the first quarter, matching Jokic’s minutes. It was the first time this season that Lopez had played a full quarter.

Jokic scored 14 of the Nuggets’ 23 points in the quarter, but was 6-for-12. The rest of the teams managed 13 shots, and Jamal Murray was held scoreless in two attempts.

Then in the second quarter, Antetokounmpo started a few times against Jokic, but the overall defensive strength was the same against the Nuggets’ big man. He finished the first half scoring 9 points and going 4-for-6 from the floor over the final seven minutes, but the rest of the Nuggets scored just 21 points, a solitary effort. He also made three changes to his four assists.

That effort helped the Bucs build a 22-point lead before taking a 60-44 lead into the first half.

did you notice

In the first quarter, the 6-foot-2-inch Damian Lillard stepped up to stop the 6-11 Jokic’s drive at the free throw line — which blocked the big man’s drive. He then curled the ball awkwardly to shoot for a teammate, but it sailed too high and the Bucks’ Jae Crowder picked it up to start a break that ended with Antetokounmpo’s basket.

It was a small example of how the Bucs used a team effort to frustrate the two-time league MVP and force him into situations he didn’t fully like.

Jamal Murray was delayed by the Bucks, stopped by swelling

Murray, the Nuggets’ dynamic guard, scored 35 points on 13-for-22 shooting when the Nuggets beat the Bucks on Jan. 29, but he didn’t get a chance to go Monday night. Her first field goal didn’t come until a minute into the first half and she was just 1-for-5 through the first 18 minutes of the game.

Murray’s night ended at halftime due to a leg injury.

Milwaukee has struggled against opposing guards all season, allowing 30 or more points on 25 occasions.

4 numbers

2 Weeks since Doc Rivers took over the bench, and the Bucs are 3-5.Pat Connaughton: “For us, it’s all about getting better every day, so after two weeks, I think it’s not something that people really thought about. It’s not something that the guys realized. And he’s done a good job of simplifying, doing some good things, and adding some things that I think will benefit us in the long run.

5:19 Denver went scoreless late in the first quarter and early in the second. It allowed the Bucks to turn a 23-21 deficit into a 38-24 lead. The Bucks will never go again.

8-3 He missed Khris Middleton’s Bucks record this season.

10-5 A Denver record when Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo both played in Milwaukee. The Nuggets are 0-2 when Jokic sits with the Bucks and the Bucks are 0-1 against the Nuggets when Antetokounmpo sits.

When is Chris Middleton coming back?

Middleton sprained his left ankle after landing on Kevin Durant’s foot in Phoenix on Feb. 6, and left Footprint Center that night in a boot. On February 8, the team returned to Milwaukee against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but Rivers called it a “bad” ankle sprain despite not needing support on the ankle.

Middleton likely won’t return to the field until the team returns during the Feb. 16-22 All-Star season.

“He’s not going to heal quickly — maybe at 21 (years old),” Rivers said at practice Sunday. “With Chris, probably all of our guys, but the older guys, listen, I want to win every game now, but I want to be great at the end of the year. And the main thing for me is, we have to stay healthy. That’s basically one of the things I sit down with our medical people and talk about. I push guys to play. I’m not a coach. I’m a coach now, I sit down and coach guys and prepare because whatever happens if we win it all and we’re not ready – or if we lose it all and we’re ready – I’ll take that. It’s got to be our mindset. We want to win every game. I’m competitive as hell. I don’t like losing games. But We want to be ready.