The playoffs this year exposed Milwaukee’s head coach and MVP
I want to get this point across straightforward — basketball in the regular season is not even close to basketball in the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks have held the NBA’s best record in each of the last two seasons going into the playoffs. They were 60-22 in 2019, and 56-17 in 2020. Giannis Antetokounmpo is about to be a 2x MVP. There was all of this chatter about Milwaukee being the clear favorites to win their first championship this year since Kareen Abdul-Jabbar still went by the name Lew Alcindor. That was all the way back in 1971.
So the Bucks cruise past the Orlando Magic in the first round despite stinking up the joint in the opening game. They have the momentum going into their next opponent, the Miami Heat. Sure, the Heat got the best of the Bucks in the regular season. They won the regular season series 2-1. But the Bucks will be fine. Why? They have the league’s MVP, former Coach of the Year, and because they have the best record — largely because of those two — they should beat the Heat.
And then, crash and burn.
Let’s start with Mike Budenholzer. For those who recall, he was with the Atlanta Hawks at one point. He gets 60 wins on a team with Al Horford and Paul Millsap as their top two guys in 2015. They get swept 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals by LeBron James and the Cavaliers. But since the Hawks didn’t have a superstar and LeBron beat everyone, it’s not surprising they got destroyed.
Flash forward to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks have a 2-0 lead against Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. Then they collapse, drop four straight contests and ultimately fall two games short of the NBA Finals. That’s the third time in his head coaching career he’s lost four consecutive games in the playoffs.
And then, September 4, 2020. Milwaukee is down 2-0 to Miami in the conference semifinals. The season is likely on the line. The Bucks are up 91-87 with roughly nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter. And then you SIT your best player AS the Heat are gaining momentum? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next. Milwaukee was outscored 28-9 the rest of the way, and the Bucks in a flash are down 3-0.
For some reason, Budenholzer refused to play his team’s best player more than 40 minutes in the Bucks’ biggest game of the year. Brook Lopez — not Giannis or Khris Middleton — played the most minutes in Game 3 with 38.
Budenholzer’s stubbornness to not keep the league MVP on the floor for the entire fourth quarter is baffling to everyone not named Mike Budenholzer. But it’s a perplexing trend he mysteriously did not change throughout the entire series until Giannis got injured.
Giannis played 37 minutes in Game 1. In Game 2, he saw the floor for 36 minutes. Then in Game 3, Giannis played even LESS minutes with 35. Why is the Bucks’ best player, who is still only 25 years old, getting capped at around 35 minutes of action? That’s acceptable in the regular season. But unless he is in foul trouble, it should be a sin in the playoffs.
And it’s not just Giannis’ minutes that was a problem. It was also that way for Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and especially Wesley Matthews. Jimmy Butler has had trouble all series scoring when Matthews is his primary defender. Matthews was on the court for 21 (!) minutes. He subbed out with 6:51 to go in the game, and never played after that. Butler scored 10 of his 17 fourth-quarter points without Matthews guarding him.
But let’s not put all the blame on Budenholzer, because Giannis deserves a chunk of the blame, too.
The Heat’s defensive scheme sounds simple: build a wall around Giannis, don’t let him get into the paint, and force his teammates to make shots. But Miami’s game plan got so deep into the head of the Greek Freak that Giannis is afraid to use his natural gifts of driving, slashing and dunking, and instead backed off and took 20 to 25 foot jumpers — shots everyone knows he doesn’t have a high probability of making — or dished the ball out when he should actually have been the one taking the shot, especially in crunch time.
Throughout the series against the Heat, the reigning MVP didn’t play like it. Giannis shot an average 50 overall from the field, and 3-for-14 from the 3-point line, good for just 21 percent. His 29.5 points per game regular season average went down all the way to 21.75. His free throw shooting was ugly — just 22 of 39 from the stripe — the equivalent to 56 percent, down from his 63 percent average during the regular season. He also committed 11 turnovers before re-injuring his ankle. Those totals were well below his standards. In a series where the Greek Freak needed to put up numbers similar to his MVP-like regular season averages, if not better, he shrunk. MVP’s don’t shrink in the playoffs.
We saw this last year in the conference finals against the Raptors. Giannis played decent, well at times, but not good enough to push the Bucks over the hump. Nick Nurse’s scheme worked to perfection ever since he put Kawhi on Giannis. Even if Giannis could sneak by Kawhi, he had a wall that consisted of Pascal Siakim and Marc Gasol to slither past. In many of those situations, Giannis would either lose the ball or go to the line, and fail to capitalize on free throws.
Which leads me to say this: Giannis Antetokounmpo cannot carry the Bucks to a title by himself. He cannot overcome adversity by himself. Giannis needs another superstar beside him who can facilitate the offense, penetrate his defender, and create and hit his own jump shot in the clutch.
Every other team currently in the playoffs has at least one player who can facilitate, penetrate, and create. The Heat have Butler. The Raptors have Lowry. The Celtics have Kemba. The Lakers have LeBron. The Clippers have Kawhi. The Rockets have Harden. Heck, the Nuggets have Jamal Murray. Who is that one guy on the Bucks that can do what those seven aforementioned superstars already do? Khris Middleton showed in Game 4 he could be that guy. His clutch 3-pointer over Tyler Herro with six seconds left in overtime — which is undeniably one of the biggest shots of his career — is why the Bucks even forced a Game 5. But the question is: Can Middleton be that guy?
Having Malcolm Brogdon in this situation definitely would’ve helped Milwaukee. He was the team’s clutch shooter. But at the same time, he had no desire to stay in Milwaukee, so keeping him for north of $20 million while venturing into the luxury tax would’ve been a no-win situation. But we can save that conversation for another day.
Right now, Giannis is Robin. He needs his Batman. He’s no Scottie Pippen, nor Dwyane Wade, nor Kyrie Irving, nor Klay Thompson. That may sound contradictory, but he’s a 2x MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, something those guys never accomplished. But he hasn’t proven he can be a Michael Jordan, or a LeBron, or a Steph Curry or a Kevin Durant when it matters most. Giannis is an irresistible force, but good defenses are his immovable object. He needs a sidekick that can be the other irresistible force so maybe the opposing object could actually move, even for just a little bit. If Middleton takes more initiative in running the offense — and if Budenholzer allows him to do that — there’s a good chance the floor opens up more for Giannis to do what he does best.
As good as the Milwaukee Bucks have been these last two years, they have proven that unmatched regular season success does not translate to trophies in the playoffs. On one hand, you have a head coach who’s reluctant to change his plan of attack. And on the other hand, you have a back-to-back MVP who can’t handle the pressure with the lights on bright. That led to the team getting exposed much quicker than many of us ever would’ve thought.
Which further begs the question, what happens next? Is Budenholzer on the hot seat? Will Giannis be willing to sign a super max extension and stay in Milwaukee? Or will Jon Horst start looking for trade packages if Giannis declines the supermax? However, Giannis did tell Yahoo Sports senior NBA insider Chris Haynes a trade request is “not happening” after Milwaukee’s disappointing playoff exit to Miami. So if he’s a man of his word, that’s a major sigh of relief for the Bucks organization and fan base. However, it doesn’t change the fact Giannis still needs an alpha-type player by his side when he’s the beta.
The complete irony in all of this is that the two people who have given the Bucks the biggest success are the two biggest flaws. Budenholzer and Giannis will get you to the playoffs, but they won’t get you anywhere further. It’s like seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel never ends.