DENVER (AP) — Khris Middleton found a not-so-new way to pick up easy assist after easy assist — just lob the ball toward the rim.
From there, high-soaring Giannis Antetokounmpo will do the rest.
Middleton had 29 points and a career-high 12 assists, Antetokounmpo scored 30 points and the Milwaukee Bucks won their fifth straight game by beating the Denver Nuggets 125-112 on Monday night.
“He’s a threat out there,” Antetokounmpo said of Middleton’s passing and scoring ability. “He’s going to find you.”
Usually a forward, Middleton had the ball in his hands even more often with point guard Jrue Holiday out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. The Bucks found out earlier in the day that Holiday wouldn’t be available.
They adjusted on the fly.
“You always have to be prepared and thinking about what you can do if somebody’s not able to go,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer explained. “Just proud of the guys.”
Middleton’s 12th assist was a thing of beauty — a pinpoint pass to Antetokounmpo for a dunk with 1:39 remaining to give the Bucks a 120-110 lead. He had a similar play earlier in the fourth.
“I’m just looking at his route,” Middleton said. “Once I see him go to the rim, I just throw it high.”
Bryn Forbes had 15 points for the Bucks, who earned a rare win in the Mile High City. Milwaukee improved to 10-40 all-time at Denver.
Nikola Jokic finished with 35 points and 12 rebounds in a showdown with Antetokounmpo. Jokic couldn’t quite replicate his shooting touch from the other night when he scored a career-high 50 points at Sacramento.
Will Barton added a season-high 24 points as the Nuggets dropped their third straight.
Before the game, Nuggets coach Michael Malone broke down Antetokounmpo’s talents this way: “The athleticism, the ability to get downhill to use that Euro-step, to use his size, length and athleticism to live in the paint and finish at a high level.”
That proved to be an apt description, with Antetokounmpo scoring 14 points in the third quarter and hitting a big 3-pointer late in the fourth.
Milwaukee and Denver came out launching from 3-point range in the first half, combining to go 19 of 49. The Nuggets led 62-59 at the break in a tight opening half that featured 14 lead changes.
But the Nuggets once again struggled in the third quarter. The Bucks outscored them 34-26.
“We still find ourselves trying to figure out how to be a team that plays a lot better in the second half,” Malone said. “We’ve lost three in a row because we haven’t defended anybody.”
Bucks: The Bucks outrebounded the Nuggets 50-38. … C Brook Lopez said he woke from his pregame nap not sure if he would have a text saying the game was off in light of the Holiday news.
Nuggets: Gary Harris missed his third straight game with a strained left adductor. … F Paul Millsap had 14 points. … Reserve G Monte Morris finished with 12 points. … G Jamal Murray went 4 of 17 from the floor in scoring 11 points.
Holiday won’t make the trip to Phoenix for Wednesday’s game. His teammates will continue to reach out to him and keep his spirits high.
“Make sure his mind is right. He’s probably a little stressed out,” Middleton said. “Hope that he’s going to be well.”
Asked about the marquee matchup between Jokic and Antetokounmpo, Malone feigned hurt feelings.
“Are you telling me the marquee matchup isn’t Michael Malone and Mike Budenholzer?” Malone kidded.
Bucks forward Torrey Craig returned to Denver after spending his first three seasons with the Nuggets. The team put together a video tribute to him and aired it on the scoreboard in the first quarter. Craig finished with nine points — all on 3-pointers.
“In the time Torrey was here, he had a tremendous impact on our culture and our winning,” Malone said. “I miss Torrey Craig, the person. I have a lot of respect for who he is and the journey he took to get where he is.”
Bucks: Game No. 4 of a six-game trip Wednesday in Phoenix.
Nuggets: Host Cleveland on Wednesday. Lost both games to the Cavs last season.
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