It took more time than I care to admit to fall asleep last night. After watching the Heat put the finishing touches on one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history, my mind was racing. Trying to figure out exactly what went wrong in the 2023 NBA Playoffs and why isn’t the way to go at 11:30 at night. Unfortunately, a lot went wrong, with the vast majority of it being controllable.
Any team that’s ever competed in the playoffs in any sport will tell you that you can’t control everything. Weird things happen all of the time that affects the potential outcome of a series. Whether that be injuries, fluky bounces, or unexpected hot/cold stretches. Even though that played a small part in the Bucks series, they controlled 80% of what led to an embarrassing series loss.
2023 NBA Playoffs Pitfall No. 1: Age/Roster Composition
The age of this roster’s core has been a point of topic here and there but never truly focused on at the highest levels of talking heads. With Giannis still being very much so in his prime, it’s by no means shocking the ages of key contributors were overlooked. Here’s a list of core players and key rotational contributors, along with their ages outside of Giannis. Grayson Allen (27), Pat Connaughton (30), Jae Crowder (32), Jrue Holiday (32), Joe Ingles (35), Brook Lopez (35), Wes Matthews (36), Khris Middleton (31) and Bobby Portis (28).
Jae Crowder rarely played in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, but the Bucks shipped off a handful of picks for him, so he needed to be added. Allen and Portis are the only two players on the right side of 30. Teams need veterans on the roster and in the rotation to make playoff runs, but when 75%+ of the rotation is in the back half of their career, there might be a problem.
Many of the most successful teams in the NBA prefer to deploy small-ball lineups. Teams like the Heat, Celtics, Kings, and Warriors don’t have traditional rim protectors in the middle. Although this may cause issues on defense depending on the matchup, they are nightmares to stop on offense. That much floor spacing, ball handling, and shooting is nearly impossible to stop consistently. We’ve seen the Bucks get knocked out of the playoffs by small ball teams the last couple of years outside of 2021.
Depending on matchups and injury luck, larger, less-mobile lineups can find success like what this team experienced two seasons ago. However, the lack of lateral quickness and young, athletic wing defenders continues to plague this team when the games matter the most. Size is great, but it doesn’t matter if the roster lacks versatility and speed. We are clearly seeing that across the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
2023 NBA Playoffs Pitfall No. 2: Free Throw Woes
The free throw line was a big part of this 2023 NBA Playoffs series, not necessarily due to misses but because of the lack of trips to the charity stripe while Giannis was out injured. Scoring from the line is a big part of the Bucks’ offense. As I stated earlier, they have a size advantage over basically every team in the paint. Game 1 was a bit of an outlier due to the Heat shooting 60% from the field. In Games 2 and 3, the bucks got to the line a combined 20 times.
The lack of ability to get into the paint and draw contact was an issue without their star player. It luckily didn’t matter in Game 2, thanks to a historic shooting performance, but it likely would have helped in Game 3. Game 4 alone totaled 20 free throws for the Bucks, although only four were from Giannis. The aggression was at least back, although it didn’t equate to a win.
Game 5 of the 2023 NBA Playoffs was its own beast as Milwaukee attempted 45 free bees. The issue was only 28 were made. As solid as the Greek Freak was overall, only converting 10-23 attempts was a huge reason the Bucks lost. He’s never been an overly reliable free-throw shooter but has come up clutch in big games in the past. His back very well could have hindered an already robotic (in a bad way) shooting motion. Even so, making less than 50% leaves a ton of points out there.
Whether it’s a struggle to get to the line or converting when they do, it paints a picture of the issues with this team. Their main source of free throws was out for virtually three games, and when he came back, he made less than 50% of his attempts. Not a great combination when two of the losses were major fourth quarter collapses.
2023 NBA Playoffs Pitfall No. 3: Fourth Quarter Execution
The blown leads in Games 4 and 5 can be attributed to many people. Whether it’s a lack of preparation from coach Bud, or just terrible execution from the players, it doesn’t matter now. The Bucks played well enough for three quarters in the last two games to have a 3-2 lead in the series heading back to Miami.
The Heat outscored the Bucks by 32 points in the fourth quarters of Games 4 and 5. In Game 4, the unbelievably bad defense allowed Jimmy Butler to score at will. In Game 5, the Bucks’ offense looked completely lost, forcing up shot after shot, just hoping for something to fall.
Both situations are completely avoidable, which is the frustrating part. This team looked more like a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 15 years than one littered with veterans and two years removed from a title. The lack of discipline and decision-making during crunch time was unfathomable. If you are going to have a rotation full of this many championship-caliber players, they need to perform much better mentally when things get tough.
2023 NBA Playoffs Pitfall No. 4: Coaching Collapse
A lot of the fourth-quarter failures fall on the shoulders of the coach. His lineups looked completely out of sorts, and timeout usage, what little there was, was done horribly. The players didn’t execute, and no one can dispute that. However, they weren’t put in positions to succeed seemingly all series long.
Jimmy Butler was taking Jrue Holiday to the cleaner on offense, yet coach Bud continued to give him the defensive assignment. It’s understandable to an extent when Giannis was out, but once he returned, you need to put your best defender on the other team’s best scorer.
His lack of adjustments has been talked about before, and they stuck out like a sore thumb in the 2023 NBA Playoffs. While the Heat found weaknesses in the Bucks’ gameplay and personnel, Milwaukee continued to do the same things game after game, expecting different results.
It’s wild to think this team won a title with a coach incapable of making minor tweaks to help his team. It just goes to show how impressive of a performance it was from Giannis and how important luck and matchups are in title runs. The Nets were half an inch away from sending Milwaukee home in the semi-finals.
It’s a bit surprising we haven’t gotten an update about the franchise parting ways with Mike Budenholzer. With his history of being on the hot seat and winning only one game against an eight seed in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, one has to think his time is limited. He didn’t sound overly optimistic in his post-game presser, and rightfully so.
2023 NBA Playoffs Pitfall No. 5: Terrible Luck
I’ve mentioned it several times, but luck is a big part of title runs. In 2021, the Bucks got lucky that Giannis wasn’t seriously injured while the teams around them struggled in that department. On the flip side, the Miami Heat got white hot at the worst possible time. They came out firing in Game 1 and never slowed down.
Sure, you would hope the top seed in the playoffs would be able to make adjustments, but then their MVP got hurt. Again, you’d hope the No. 1 seed would be able to perform better without him, but it didn’t work that way. The play-in team continued to roll and found a rhythm that not even Giannis could slow down.
To the Bucks’ credit, they played well for 75% of the Games 4 and 5. Unfortunately, it takes more than that to win in the playoffs. Jimmy Butler willed his team to win, appearing to refuse to lose. That’s the killer mentality we saw from Giannis in 2021. It looked like the back injury took it out of him, even after returning.
At the end of the day, many factors go into the type of performances we saw over the last five games of the 2023 NBA Playoffs. The only thing we can ask for is to learn from them, but with an aging core, we are likely to see some changes between now and next season. The front office must make some tough decisions, starting with finding a new coach.
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