DENVER — Before Doc Rivers took the sideline for his first game as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night in Denver, he was already emphasizing the need for patience.
For the first time in his 25-year coaching career, Rivers is taking over a team midseason, a challenge he said “he wouldn’t wish on anybody.” Meanwhile, the Bucks are adjusting to an entirely new voice in the huddle after first-year coach Adrian Griffin was replaced by Rivers.
“It’s going to take a minute,” Rivers said prior to Monday’s 113-107 loss to the Nuggets. “What I’m trying to do really slowly is put in some of my stuff and simplify some of their stuff.
“One thing you don’t want to do and we’re so fearful of doing it is paralyzing their brain and now they’re thinking it. So it’s just going to take a while.”
Denver spoiled Rivers’ Bucks coaching debut with a loss, dropping him to 1-4 in his career in his first game with a new team, but the Bucks were still encouraged by one of their most inspired defensive efforts of the season.
They held the Nuggets, one of the league’s most prolific offenses, to 113 points, forcing two-time MVP Nikola Jokic to take 25 shots to score 25 points — although he still finished with a triple-double with 16 rebounds and 12 assists. Jamal Murray added 35 points.
But it was an improvement from a Bucks team that ranks 24th in the league in defensive efficiency, prompting Rivers to joke that the “cat was out of the bag” now that the Bucks have proved they can play defense.
“I told our guys, anyone who told you you couldn’t play defense lied,” Rivers said after the game. “You proved that tonight. You competed tonight. … Our half-court defense was excellent. I think tonight was an offensive loss. I didn’t think we were crisp offensively.
“Dame and Giannis have played 40 games together in their life, Joker and Murray have played — you know? And if you looked at the game tonight, they had it going, our guys couldn’t get it going and that was the difference.”
Damian Lillard finished with 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 29 points and 12 rebounds. Antetokounmpo was happy with the way the Bucks played in their first game under Rivers said the learning process will take time.
“He was great,” Antetokounmpo said about Rivers. “Everybody has to have patience. It’s new — the way we play, the way we defend, it’s going to take a while to get used to. We’re slowly, slowly adjusting, changing a couple stuff. Coaching staff got to have patience with the players. Players got to have patience with the coaching staff, but I feel like for the first game, it was good.”
The improved intensity on defense was a direct sign to Antetokounmpo of how the players responded under Rivers.
“At the end of the day, the game plan is one thing, but our effort [has] always got to be there,” he said. “We have very, very smart players on the team and sometimes when the game plan is not as accurate, sometimes our effort might not be there and that’s not good.
“We cannot just pick and choose. Like, in order for you to win, you have to do it all the time. There’s going to be times that you lose games, but in order for you to win at a high level, there’s got to be a standard. And today, I think we set the standard as a team.”
Rivers takes over the Bucks in the midst of a five-game, nine-day road trip, a chance to get acquainted with his new team away from home. He envisions longer shootarounds and maybe a few more extra practice days than usual to help the players get up to speed on adjustments he wants them to make.
With 35 games remaining on the Bucks’ schedule before the playoffs, Rivers takes the reins knowing it all can’t be solved in a day. But the subtle tweaks with an experienced leader at the helm already have Bucks players buying into the process.
“I thought there was just a great sense of composure, calmness,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said about Rivers’ debut as their coach. “Nothing too high or too low. I mean that in the best way possible. He handled everything great. He did a good job making sure everyone was clear on their responsibility, what to do defensively, what to do offensively, and there weren’t any real hiccups.
“He did a good job making sure everyone was on the same page pretty much from the get-go.”