It's a potential NBA Finals preview on Monday night as the Milwaukee Bucks (32-14) visit the Denver Nuggets (32-15). To add a little more juice to the game, Doc Rivers will make his debut as Bucks head coach after he was hired last week to replace the ousted Adrian Griffin. Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo is listed as probable on the injury report with a non-COVID illness and is fully expected to play. Denver is -4 on the SportsLine consensus.
If you are looking for one immediate difference with Rivers, it would be on defense. Milwaukee's defensive struggles were a large part of Griffin was fired. Some of it was to be expected after losing Jrue Holiday in the Damian Lillard trade, but the drop-off has been stunning. Milwaukee ranks 24th in scoring defense (120.1 points per game) despite still having two of the NBA's best overall defenders in Antetokounmpo and center Brook Lopez, who leads the NBA in total blocks.
Rivers, the 18th coach in franchise history, needs just one victory to tie Larry Brown (1,098 wins) for the eighth-most in league history. Milwaukee is a season-high-tying 18 games over .500 after smashing the Pelicans 141-117 on Saturday. The Bucks improved to 8-0 this season when scoring at least 140 points. They're 23-1 when scoring at least 125.
Antetokounmpo had 30 points, 12 rebounds and four assists Saturday while shooting 68.8% (11-for-16) from the field. It was his league-high 17th game this season scoring least 30 points on a minimum of 60% shooting after having an NBA-high and career-high 19 such games in 2022-23. Antetokounmpo remains on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average at least 30 points on 60% shooting. He's sat at over/under 49.5 points + rebounds + assists for Monday, which is a shade low for him because he's facing such a good defensive team in the Nuggets. Aaron Gordon will likely be glued to the Milwaukee superstar for most of the night.
Monday starts the Bucks' longest road trip of the season, during which they'll play five games over the course of 10 days. It's one of three four-game or longer trips on the season for the team, which went 3-1 on its first from Dec. 23-29.
Denver isn't listing anyone of note on the injury report and is 18-4 at home. The Nuggets beat another visiting Eastern Conference contender on Saturday in the 76ers, 111-05, although Philly rested Joel Embiid -- he never plays when the team is in Denver as it was the fourth straight season he missed a game there, denying us our last regular-season look at Embiid vs. fellow former MVP Nikola Jokic. Jokic had 26 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in the win for his 40th double-double of the season. He has an O/U PRA of 49.5 for Monday.
At DraftKings, Jokic has reclaimed the MVP favored role at +180 with Embiid at +220 and Antetokounmpo at +1000. The Nuggets and Bucks split last season, each winning at home.
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