The Doc Rivers era in Milwaukee is now officially underway and his debut with the Bucks didn’t quite go as planned.
Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets rallied to beat the Bucks 113-107 on Monday night at Ball Arena, which spoiled Rivers’ head-coaching debut with the franchise. Jokić had a triple-double with 25 points, 16 rebounds and 12 assists, and Jamal Murray scored 35 points in the Nuggets' win.
The Bucks fired Adrian Griffin last week, just 43 games into his head-coaching tenure with the franchise. Griffin replaced Mike Budenholzer, who was fired after the Bucks were bounced out of the playoffs in the first round last spring. The job marked Griffin’s first as a head coach in the league after spending 15 seasons working as an assistant and nearly a decade as a player. The Bucks were 30-13 when he was fired, which was good for second in the Eastern Conference.
Almost immediately, the Bucks turned to Rivers, who had been working as an ESPN analyst after he was fired by the Philadelphia 76ers this past offseason. Rivers has 24 seasons of head-coaching experience in the league under his belt, and he won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008.
“I’ve never done this,” Rivers said last week of joining a team midseason, via The Athletic. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, I can tell you that, just from the day-and-a-half. But it’s going to be a challenge. It’s a challenge that I’m running toward.
“We’ve got to get organized quickly. Can’t try to do too much too soon. We’re in the middle of a season, so we’ve got to try to keep our rhythm. There are changes that we have to make, there’s no doubt about that. We’ll start working on it immediately.”
But at least with the Bucks, Rivers said, the team is in a much better place than most first-year coaches.
“They know where they want to go,” Rivers said before the game, via Bally Sports Wisconsin. “This is not a team that you’re trying to convince them that they can be something. I think my last job I thought the first year, you were almost trying to convince them how good they could be. This team already, we have five guys who have done it. Dame came in here because he wants to do it. So it’s not like you have to try to talk them into a goal, they already know what the goal is.”
The Bucks came out hot in Rivers’ debut. They opened the game Monday night with a 17-6 run while shooting 7-of-10 from the field. The Nuggets chipped away at that lead, however, and went into the locker room tied 56-56. Murray had 21 points in the first half for the Nuggets after he shot an impressive 9-of-15 from the field.
The Nuggets pushed ahead to a seven-point lead headed into the fourth quarter after they held the Bucks to 19 points in the third. Jokić had a triple-double by that point.
The Bucks opened the fourth quarter on a 13-4 run, which was capped by a pair of Bobby Portis 3-pointers. Portis had missed his first nine shot attempts before sinking those two buckets from behind the arc. While that brought the Bucks back in it, and Giannis Antetokounmpo cut it to three points late, it wasn’t enough. The Nuggets, with 14 fourth-quarter points from Murray, held on to a six-point win.
Jokić shot 10-of-25 from the field and went 1-of-6 from the 3-point line. Michael Porter Jr. added 13 points and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finished with 10. The Nuggets shot just 4-of-18 from the 3-point line. The win marked Nuggets head coach Michael Malone's 400th career victory with the franchise.
Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 29 points and 12 rebounds. Brook Lopez finished with 19 points, and Damian Lillard had 18 points and five assists. The Bucks, who have now lost just two of their past six games, will head to Portland for a game against the Trail Blazers on Wednesday night. Rivers will make his home debut Feb. 8, when the Bucks host the Minnesota Timberwolves at Fiserv Forum after wrapping up their five-game road trip.