MILWAUKEE — It’s not the ideal formula, but the Nets can’t seem to break their habit of digging a hole in the first quarter that requires incredible effort to climb out of the rest of the game. They cut a 26-point Milwaukee lead to seven late in the third quarter Friday night but simply didn’t have the endurance to keep up with All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose 41 points led the Bucks to a 116-91 victory at Bradley Center.
D’Angelo Russell finally got it going in his fourth game back from knee surgery with 10 points, including two three-pointers, in a 14-4 run that brought the Nets within seven late in the third quarter, but they faced a nine-point deficit heading to the fourth quarter.
Antetokounmpo opened the final period with two baskets sandwiched around an assist to help drive the Bucks’ lead back to 13 points, and the Nets never got closer than nine.
Antetokounmpo scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and totaled 13 rebounds and seven assists for the Bucks (25-22), who got 21 points from Khris Middleton and shot 51.8 percent from the field and 52.2 percent from three-point range (12-for-23).
Russell and DeMarre Carroll had 14 points each for the Nets (18-31), who shot 37.1 percent, including 23.5 percent from three-point range (8-for-34).
“It was total domination by the Bucks,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They outplayed us from one through 15, including the coach, so one through 16. I thought they were just better at every position. It didn’t matter, starters or substitutes. Obviously, Giannis started off with a big first quarter, big first half, and we didn’t find a solution to slow him down.”
Anteto kounmpo returned from a two-game absence to rest a sore right knee, but he hit the first jumper he looked at from the top of the key and scored nine points in an opening 16-2 run that established the Bucks’ dominance.
“I don’t know how many games that is where we got in a big hole like that and we’re totally out of the game early,” Atkinson said. “I wish I knew the number, but it’s too many.”
Starting with the final Bucks basket of the first quarter, Antetokounmpo scored six straight Milwaukee points, then threw a between-the-legs bounce pass on the fast break to Sterling Brown, who was fouled and made both shots to push their lead to 21 early in the second quarter.
Then Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who had the primary responsibility of covering Antetokounmpo, limped off the court with 6:24 left in the second quarter and did not return because of a right groin strain. His status for Saturday night’s game at Minnesota is uncertain.
“That was a tough blow to our defense, losing Rondae,” Atkinson said. “It cascaded from there. We went super- small because we were down and that hurts our defense.”
The Bucks blocked six shots, but it seemed their incredible length bothered many others and forced the Nets to settle for threes far too often. Atkinson and Carroll both faulted their shot selection.
“We came out lackadaisical,” Carroll said. “We’re not a good enough team to feel our way into the game. We’ve got to come out aggressive from the start. We started settling instead of attacking and getting three-point shots in rhythm.
“Giannis started off really aggressive and dominant. He was going downhill. I feel like they were getting most of those transition buckets off long threes we were missing.”