It was far from pretty, but the Milwaukee Bucks are finally on the board after stealing a close one against the juggernaut Brooklyn Nets, 86-83. They enter their next game at home with momentum in the series as they attempt to equalize it at 2-2.
Make no mistake: a win is a win, but the Bucks can’t be happy with a performance like this if they want to sniff any degree of playoff success from here on out.
Here are a few things we noticed.
Intensity can turn the tide for the Bucks
The Bucks came out swinging and looked determined to defend home court. Giannis Antetokounmpo made this clear by going on a personal 9-0 run for the home team. The Greek Freak was a freight train in transition and slashed every chance he got. His inward gravity generated good looks for his teammates, which got Khris Middleton going care of a timely assist by PJ Tucker.
Speaking of, Tucker’s game was one of the higher points for the Milwaukee Bucks. His scoreless game on 0-4 shooting belies the elite defense he played on Kevin Durant en route to a game-high net +10. In these playoffs so far, Tucker is holding opposing scorers to 38.7 field goal percentage, per NBA.com matchup data.
Great defense from Tucker, I guess Bud isn't a foul up three guy but he might want to rethink that with KD nearly making this one. pic.twitter.com/Bt7NKdnVAf
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) June 11, 2021
This was evident in the first quarter, where the 6-foot-10 superstar scored just four points on 2-7 from the field when stifled by Tucker. Durant finished with 30 points, albeit on 11/28 (39.2%).
Up against the wall down 0-2, it was the dream start for the Milwaukee Bucks until it wasn’t. This intensity disappeared after ending the opening period up 30-11.
Milwaukee’s momentum quickly evaporated after a quarter where they once led by 21. That coaching nearly cost the Bucks this one is an understatement. Mike Budenholzer’s decision-making might be the most glaring flaw in Milwaukee’s performance Saturday night. In a complete 180-degree turnaround from the Heat series, all of Bud’s bad habits from the past two years came back with a vengeance.
For the 19-3 run the Bucks gave up to start the second quarter, the Nets leaned on the same Bruce Brown screen-and-roll to dice up the Bucks defense. Brook Lopez could not keep up with the small ball center after dropping low in the paint and gave up floater after floater.
After a quick timeout with 7:43 left in the quarter, Budenholzer elected to keep Lopez on the floor. Despite this refusal to adjust, he never once took advantage of the mismatch against the 6-foot-4 Brown in the post. It was a low-hanging fruit staring them in the face; instead, he reverted back to isolation basketball with Giannis handling the rock after all the momentum the Bucks built up.
To be sure, he deserves some credit for playing the Bucks’ stars the minutes they deserved. The big three of Giannis, Khris, and Jrue all played north of 43 minutes, to good results. Per Statmuse, Giannis’ 43 minutes were the most he ever played in a non-OT game in the Budenholzer era whether in the regular season or playoffs. It was also a quick double team on Kevin Durant that sealed the game for Milwaukee.
If playing your franchise cornerstone heavy playoff minutes is something to praise, you may not be the coach to lead your team to a title. This game was coaching malpractice. Hard stop.
Giannis isn’t a point guard
This shouldn’t be a takeaway. After all, the Bucks’ retooled offense focused on the dunker area to address the vaunted Giannis wall teams threw against the two-time MVP.
None of that mattered in this game. Budenholzer insisted on putting the ball in Giannis’ massive hands in the half-court for what felt like the entire second half. The Bucks stood around, Giannis was clamped in the paint, and the offense stagnated. It was the same isolation-heavy offense for what felt like the entire second half that let the Nets back into the game with open arms.
It’s a fact that Giannis initiating half-court plays instead of finishing them does the Milwaukee Bucks no favors in the playoffs. It’s a predictable invitation for opposing defenses to drop low, and Blake Griffin clearly thought so.
It doesn’t help that the Bucks as a team ran the third-most isolations in the league in the regular season. They’re now in the 50th percentile on those plays.
Here’s a damning statistic. Per NBA.com/stats, Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the zeroeth percentile as the pick & roll ball-handler in these playoffs. He turns the ball over 22.2% of the time on these plays and only scores on 44.4% of them.
Giannis’ full answer(s) to multiple questions about the amount of threes he took tonight and if he will continue to do so: pic.twitter.com/hLxfxuLsSC
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) June 11, 2021
Shooters shoot, but Giannis is not a shooter. After going 0-6 on three-pointers, Giannis decided it would be helpful to his team to shoot two more, often right after crossing half-court. He is in the 29th percentile on spot-up plays in these playoffs, according to NBA.com/stats.
Giannis’ firm ownership of the ball-handler role is likely what caused Jrue Holiday’s 4-14 performance. The point guard for whom the Milwaukee Bucks traded practically their entire future was hardly a point guard in this game. He finished with nine points.
Khris Middleton is good, but the Bucks need to be better
It wasn’t their franchise player that the Bucks went to in the dying seconds of the game. To hardly anyone’s surprise, it was smooth-shooting swingman Khris Middleton, who scored 8 of his game-high 35 points in the last 2:40. He was the only other Buck not named Giannis to score in double figures.
Khris and Giannis made history after they scored 68 of the Bucks’ 86 points (79%), the highest percentage of any team’s points by any duo in NBA playoff history. For all of Holiday’s struggles in this game, he was also responsible for the game’s last field goal to put the Bucks up one with 11.4 ticks left.
35 PTS | 15 REB | 1 AST pic.twitter.com/bqgheSsRkT
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) June 11, 2021
As a team, Milwaukee shot 6-31 (19.4%) from deep and 12-19 (63.2%) from the free-throw line. They finished with just 12 assists. To keep up with the scoring barrage that Brooklyn can generate, Milwaukee will need more contributions from its role players in Game 4.
Middleton made some boneheaded decisions, too. His composure when handling the ball, or lack thereof, was on full display tonight. Double teams and ball pressure are still all it takes for the opposition to get a quick steal. He and Antetokounmpo were also responsible for 8 of the team’s 10 turnovers.
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