For a team that was considered one of the deepest heading into the NBA Playoffs, they have looked anything by deep through four games. After losing last night’s game to drop to 1-3 in the series, depth and versatility have become a major concern for the Bucks. While Jimmy Butler poured in nearly half of the 119 Heat points, Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer could only scratch his head as he tried to figure out the best way to stop it.
There’s no denying the Bucks have a good roster. They have arguably the best player on the planet, two supporting cast members that are borderline stars in Jrue Holiday and Kris Middleton, and then a handful of players that are hit or miss on if they’ll perform any given game during the NBA Playoffs. The inconsistencies are one thing, but the lack of lineup versatility is currently killing the Bucks.
More Versatility Needed For Long NBA Playoffs Run
Players like Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, Joe Ingles, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis are great, but they need to be in the right lineups and have the right matchups for the team as a whole to succeed. Portis is a consistent scorer but isn’t relied on to play defense. Allen and Connaughton can catch fire, but when they are off, they don’t provide enough on defense to warrant a spot on the floor. Ingles helps with floor spacing and ball movement, but he could be the slowest player in the entire NBA Playoffs. While Lopez was great last night, small ball lineups take advantage of his lack of mobility on the defensive end of the floor.
What this boils down to is the Bucks don’t have ideal depth. They have players that do things well, but they aren’t done consistently enough to make up for what they lack. Milwaukee’s biggest advantage in the NBA Playoffs is their size and rim protection. That was the case last year when Boston small-balled the Bucks to death. We are seeing it again with the Heat. Sure, Lopez is putting up points, but is he closing out on shooters or shutting Butler down? Absolutely not.
Coach Bud has been outcoached multiple times throughout the last couple of years. We are seeing it again this season as well. With that said, his roster isn’t put together to match up well against smaller, faster teams. Going small with Giannis Antetokounmpo at center puts someone like Ingles, Portis or Middleton at the power forward spot. None are good defensively as it is, not to mention if they are forced to guard someone potentially bigger or faster than them.
That leaves some combination of Allen, Connaughten, Holiday, and Middleton if Ingles or Bobby are playing the 4. Although there is more speed on the floor in this case, no one would categorize these players as defensive stoppers outside of Holiday. Not to mention the streaky offense that these lineup combinations produce. The beauty of having Lopez in the lineup is that the size advantage leads to many easy buckets. So far in this series, and in the loss to Boston last year, those easy buckets haven’t outweighed the lack of ability to stop smaller, faster, and better shooting lineups.
Jae Crowder was supposed to be a key piece to fix these issues. He was supposed to be a defensive-minded player that could hit open shots at a decent clip. After watching him struggle early in the NBA Playoffs series, it’s not shocking he didn’t play at all Monday night. He doesn’t have the lateral speed to keep up with virtually anyone from the Heat and has been a liability on offense. A player this franchise shelled out a load of picks for hurts more than he helps when the games matter most.
The Cracks of Age Are Starting to Show
The loss to Boston last season wasn’t ideal, but at least fans could point to the fact Middleton wasn’t playing, and the series still went to game seven. The Bucks fought hard and just lost to the better team. That’s not the issue this post-season. Sure, Giannis had been out for basically three games, but Milwaukee, even without their best player, should be able to advance past an eight seed. When five key pieces of your rotation are 30 or above, your defensive margin for error shrinks significantly.
This roster was put together to go all in, which is understandable. When you have a generational talent still on the right side of 30, you do everything you can to go for it yearly. With that said, we are seeing the pitfalls of that strategy. Teams don’t typically go all in with young players. It’s done with veterans that have proven they can win at the highest level of professional basketball. That’s why players like Jae Crowder and Wes Matthews are on this team.
Unfortunately, the Heat have one player that is exploiting that strategy during these NBA Playoffs. Jimmy Butler has been on fire all series long and is the perfect player to destroy the defense of an aging core. As good of a defender as Holiday is, he isn’t big enough to stop Butler from getting to the paint. Once there, Lopez isn’t fast enough to keep up with the pivots. Putting Giannis on him would likely slow Butler down, but now the best help defender in the league is stuck on one person while the 3-point shooters post up all around him.
As impressive as Giannis is, he can’t do it all on defense. Holiday is a top-tier defender himself, but Butler is big and strong enough to bully him. The rest of the crew is either well over 30 or far from reliable defenders. Having a young player with the size and speed to work around the perimeter or stick with Butler would be huge. Right now, Milwaukee has to pick its poison. Do they want Butler to be able to get to his spot at will, or do they want to hope the outside shooters are having off days? With a more versatile/younger roster, you don’t necessarily have to choose.
On offense, age is leading to huge inconsistencies. As good as Khris Middleton has been in the NBA Playoffs at times over the last couple of years, his bad games are downright ugly. It’s not just missing shots, either. He looks like he cannot help facilitate an offense if he is pressured at all. He is forced to give the ball up quickly or turns it over. Miami has identified a way to slow down a major piece of the Bucks’ rotation.
We also can’t overlook Jrue. We all must admit he was a huge reason this team won a title in 2021. We should also be able to admit that poor shot selection and untimely turnovers were a big reason why the Bucks lost game four. With Jrue being 32 and Middleton being 31, things won’t get easier for them on either end of the court moving forward. Neither player has been overly reliant on their athleticism in their careers, but aging and injuries, in Middleton’s case, could be what has them looking off in the NBA Playoffs.
Between age and injuries, Middleton isn’t the same offensive threat that can catch fire and carry this offense for quarters at a time. In a perfect world it never comes to that but in playoff basketball it’s inevitable. So far in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, a lack of athleticism and explosion from the 2nd and 3rd most expensive players on the team has been evident and is finally starting to show up in the W/L column.
Is There a Solution to Win Three Straight in the NBA Playoffs?
This team can absolutely pull out this NBA Playoffs series. Is it likely? Simply put, no. It’s never easy to win three straight games in the NBA Playoffs, not to mention when you’re facing a player that looks more like prime MJ than a 33-year-old who averages 22 points per game. However, two of the remaining games are at home, and it took an out-of-body experience from Butler to win game four.
Coach Bud needs to make adjustments; it’s as simple as that. Even though the smaller lineup was scoring at will, there was no chance to try and match the speed of the Heat. The points Lopez provided were huge, but finding a lineup to help slow Butler down would have been better.
Crowder seems to be out of the rotation moving forward, but it would be nice to see Carter get more time. He’s an undersized guard, but he has the speed and strength to keep up with the Heat shooters outside and could help with double teams on Butler. He would take minutes from Allen or Connaughton, but at the rate those two have been shooting, there isn’t much drop-off on that end anyways.
This team needs versatility on defense, plain and simple. Giannis can shut a lot down in the middle or by helping to slow down Butler. However, he needs more speed around him. It can’t be as simple as one screen and switch for Butler to get a defender he can punish. Maybe it’s as simple as more intensity and effort, but it has looked far too easy for the Heat to score in this series.
On offense, hitting open shots is a great place to start. Connaughton went 1-6 from behind the arc in game f,our and every single one of them was wide open. Hitting 32.5% of triples as a team isn’t good when many of them are great looks. Between bad misses and Jrue forcing shots to be a part of the offense, that’s a lot of empty possessions. This has been an NBA Playoffs issue for this team for years now. The potential is there, as we saw in game two, but not being able to do it consistently has limited this franchise to one title, with Giannis leading the charge.
For More Wisconsin Sports Content:
Follow me on twitter at DrewEsports and us at WiSportsHeroics. To check out more of our content and to stay up to date on the latest in Wisconsin sports, click here.