Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo 'so thankful' for hitting goal of a Christmas Day return

Jim Owczarski
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo passes between Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard, left, and center Robert Williams III on Saturday.

Just before the 7-minute, 40-second mark in the first quarter of the Milwaukee BucksChristmas Day game against the Boston Celtics, coach Mike Budenholzer called for Donte DiVincenzo to check in for Giannis Antetokounmpo. DiVincenzo peeled off his warmups and checked in – signature red shoes and all – and Fiserv Forum erupted.

It was his first game since suffering an ankle injury in Miami during the playoffs on May 27, and DiVincenzo said he was so dialed in that it wasn't until after the game when his father, John, relayed the details and feel of the standing ovation did it sink in.

“I was sitting on the couch at home and just were talking to my dad, reflecting on it and, you know, we have the best fans in the world,” DiVincenzo said. “To go through what I went through and to be out the start of the season, it felt good sitting at home and just knowing how much I was appreciated coming back into the game.”

On the court, he missed two layups and a three-pointer before knocking down his first basket of the season – a three-pointer off a Khris Middleton assist with 5:08 to go in the third quarter. DiVincenzo played 15:41 and fulfilled a goal he had set once doctors told him that his surgically repaired ankle had healed properly.

For him, having an open-ended rehabilitation wasn’t going to cut it. He needed an end date, something to work toward. A way to compete with himself. So when he was initially cleared to return for a Dec. 15 game against Indiana, Budenholzer revealed the month was indeed DiVincenzo’s goal for a return.

On Monday after practice, DiVincenzo was a bit more specific.

“Ironically, in my head, I was saying Christmas,” he said. “So, when they said, hey, you’re ready to come back the 15th or whatever, I felt great. I would take it ‘cause its early.”

Then, it wasn’t.

When DiVincenzo saw head athletic trainer Scott Faust calling him on Dec. 14, he knew what the message was going to be – that he was headed for the league’s health and safety protocol.  

“I was borderline about to hit decline,” DiVincenzo said with a smile. “And as soon as he said 'sorry,' I was like 'awww, s---.' That's just where I was at. But like I said, that was all just part of the plan. Sometimes there's bumps in the road and I was just ready to take on another bump.”

DiVincenzo said he felt no symptoms and was grateful for that, but the additional 10 days off set him up for a memorable return on a national stage and with his family in town for the holiday.

“It was all part of God’s plan for me,” he said. “I came back Christmas. I had that mindset the whole time and I just stuck by it.”

Budenholzer and his Bucks teammates had spoken glowingly of DiVincenzo’s work ethic all season, seeing him do his drills and rehab off to the side. But it didn’t mean he was free from ribbing as Jrue Holiday gave him a hard time for missing the layups, but Holiday called it a joy to have his backcourt running mate return. Antetokounmpo was similarly thrilled that DiVincenzo’s long rehab was over.

“I’m happy that he came back like way early from what they predict,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was extremely focused. I’d see him every single day when we went to practice how focused he was to improving his body, improving his game, his mindset. I know he’s hungry.”

Now that DiVincenzo is back, it’ll be up to Budenholzer to manage not just DiVincenzo’s return but a plethora of wing players. The head coach acknowledged he and general manager Jon Horst anticipated the midseason “acquisition,” if you will, of a starting-level talent – but now that the roster is healthy, decisions will have to be made on rotations and minutes.

DiVincenzo came off the bench in his first two seasons before cementing a starting role alongside Holiday last year. In 66 starts and a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, he shot a career-best 37.9% from behind the three-point line while also notching career highs in points (10.4), rebounds (5.8) and assists (3.1) per game.

But with DiVincenzo sidelined to begin this season, the Bucks acquired Grayson Allen via trade and extended him through 2023-24.

“I know what he can do, I’ve seen him play,” Allen said of DiVincenzo. “He’s going to be huge for us. Like I talked about how our team does a little bit of everything and different guys at different times can go off, and he just adds to that. He’s another a guy who can do a little bit of everything out there.”

And as for how DiVincenzo’s return may affect him directly once he can play a full game, Allen said, “I haven’t thought about it, but I mean, I guess. I don’t know if it’ll necessarily change. I mean, minutes and rotations might change but I’ll be doing the same stuff. I don’t know if it makes much of a difference to me.”

Along those lines, the rotation did change a bit on Christmas Day.

Since the start of the year, Pat Connaughton had been averaging 29 minutes per game. He played 17:41 against the Celtics.

In 17 of the previous 18 games before playing the Celtics, Rodney Hood averaged just over 17 minutes of action per game. In the seven games from Dec. 12-23, Jordan Nwora started five times and averaged 25 minutes per game. Neither saw the court against Boston.

When asked about DiVincenzo’s return possibly affecting minutes or rotations, Hood said flatly “I don’t care, you know what I mean?”

“It’s a long, long season,” he continued. “Hopefully if things go well and we’re healthy I plan on playing in June. It’s a long season. Things happen within a season, just like a lot of teams dealing with COVID, a lot of teams dealing with injuries, anything happens at any given time so you just stay locked in. I came here to hopefully try to win a championship and in that regard you’ve got to be selfless. It’s not about individual or what I can do. It’s about how I can help the team. I’m just trying to figure that out.”

Such problems are good ones for the Bucks to have, as they’ve been just as injury and illness-ridden as many teams around the NBA through the first half of the season. And after missing a championship run and the start to this season, such good health isn’t something DiVincenzo won’t overlook.

“I'm just thankful to be back,” he said. “To be able to practice today with these guys, just go through the drills and stuff, my spirit is just so high right now. I'll never take for granted being out on this court with these guys and just being able to play basketball for a living because when I was out, I said it multiple times, it's tough just to be out and witness the championship run. And then start this season and still not be ready to go. That's tough. I had no expectations.

"I was so thankful to be able to play in front of those fans again and now I can start getting into a rhythm with myself and kind of just start building off of that.”

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