Just a short time after appearing to exorcise their playoff
demons by sweeping the Miami Heat, the Milwaukee Bucks have
suddenly reverted back to their old habits, and they find
themselves in a 2-0 hole following drubbings by the shorthanded,
yet unflappable, Brooklyn Nets.
Sure, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are doing the heavy lifting
without their third amigo James Harden, who's been sidelined by an
awfully-timed hamstring injury, but it's been a reborn Blake
Griffin, jack-of-all-trades Bruce Brown and confident reserves Mike
James and Nicolas Claxton who truly have Brooklyn playing as
On the other end of the spectrum, the Bucks are not moving the basketball.
Through two games, they're averaging just over 208.0 passes per
game. Though smaller sample sizes are noisier by nature, it's the
lowest amount in the semifinal round thus far, and a far cry from
their 258.3 passes per game in the postseason's opening round.
Related to that fact, Milwaukee is not racking up consistent
assists in any way, shape or form.
Though understanding they've got to make shots, the Bucks have
gone "one and done" all too many times, settling early and often
against a Nets team that can be beaten if you get them off balance.
According to NBA.com, Milwaukee is shooting a ghastly 32.8% on
pull-up field goals in this series. When that is the case, there
should be no reason to take over 33 of them per contest.
Stating the obvious, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not a point guard,
nor should he be Milwaukee's primary playmaker. He is a force to be
reckoned with when playing without the ball, cutting to the rim and
attacking using angles off the catch. That was evident in the
Bucks' beatdown of the Heat! Now, the Nets have done a solid job of
walling off the restricted area -- a la the 2019-20 Heat -- and
he's been trying to make them pay with jumpers; however, that's not
exactly his strength (he's 8-of-21 on jump shots and 3-of-13 on
field goals outside of the paint).
He's been too timid and indecisive in the half-court. Post-up
fadeaways aren't the answer, either, and making free throws would
be quite helpful to a now-struggling offense (he's shooting 20%
from the charity stripe on five attempts per game).
Of course, Giannis' teammates need to be much better if the
Bucks expect to win a game, much less this series. That starts with
Khris Middleton, who has been nothing short of disappointing after
torching Miami for four games. On the surface, it's missed attempts
and, like many of his teammates, poor-shot selection. Playtype
numbers tell a story that takes it a step further.
According to InStat, Middleton has failed to generate more than
0.65 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and
even worse, has created a lowly 0.29 PPP on seven post-ups. Those
are his two most frequently used roles within
the Bucks offense so far. To compare, in the Heat series, he
had double the frequency on catch-and-shoot possessions and he was
posting up six percent less.
Defensively, Middleton has been toasted by Irving, Durant and
James (Mike, not Harden). Against Middleton, the Nets are scoring
1.88 points per possession on catch-and-shoots, 1.75 PPP on
handoffs, 1.75 PPP with pick-and-roll handlers and 1.25 PPP in
isos, per InStat. Again, noisy numbers with just a two-game sample
size, but the offensive shortcomings are clearly leading to
To be frank, this is not a version of Middleton that the Bucks
can overcome to beat a title favorite that's just hitting its
stride (especially since Brooklyn should only better once they get
back Harden and a key glue guy in Jeff Green).
While Jrue Holiday is doing his best at taking care of the ball
and has clearly been Milwaukee's best bet as a playmaker, he's
still not being aggressive enough, especially on the fastbreak. He
hasn't driven with a purpose off misses or turnovers; instead, he's
had a more methodical pace and has been fine with attempting threes
before most of his teammates have even gotten set in their
Defending in transition, Holiday has been no match for
Brooklyn's speed when its players have momentum or use their
trickery. To be fair, he's done a decent job against Irving,
especially since we all know how elusive and crafty Uncle Drew can
The final piece to the puzzle is Bucks head coach Mike
Budenholzer. We're not going to dig into the rotations all that
much because most people see the perplexing all-bench lineups, and
we've had this conversation many times before. The confusing thing
is that the lineups improved in the Miami series, and then Coach
Bud went right back to square one. It's like Budenholzer got a
random bout of amnesia and forgot everything he successfully tried
over the last year, regressing back to the 2020 version of
It's as simple as this: the seat temperature is going to
increase fast if he doesn't change his ways. There was a moment in
Game 2 when the Nets came out of the gate and took a 17-point lead
in the first quarter. Sticking to his ways, Budenholzer pulled
Giannis out for a rest... with Milwaukee down double-digits and
Brooklyn going for the early kill.
This decision coming off of a Game 1 postgame quote from Coach
Bud that really caught some attention (and flack):
"I think our guys left it all out on the court. They all want to
play 48 minutes," Budenholzer said. "So we just gotta keep them
competing, keep them where they can execute. Giannis never wants to
come out, Khris, Jrue. But we got a deep team and we gotta take
advantage of it. Keep them ready. Keep them fresh, but they want to
be out there."
Budenholzer's playoff reputation precedes him, and even with the
exception of the first round, he hasn't shown a willingness to
change or adapt on the biggest stage (or in a series with all eyes
on his team).
Get the rock out of Giannis' hands and put him in position to
thrive away from the ball, fall back to the drive-and-kicks, don't
settle, be decisive, stay disciplined as best as possible against
Brooklyn's stars and scrap for loose possessions the way that
Griffin has done.
Across the board, Game 3 is going to be the most important 48
minutes the team has played all year long. It's probably the most
pivotal game the team has played since Milwaukee was in the Eastern
Conference Finals in Bud's first year.
It's time to put up or shut up. If they fail to do the former,
Giannis and the Bucks won't have to bother packing their bags for a
trip back to Barclays Center.