The Milwaukee Bucks are in the NBA Finals for the first time in a long time. A large part of the credit is owed to Mike Budenholzer, who took over after the 2017-18 season and transformed the Bucks from a playoff hopeful to a perennial powerhouse in the Eastern Conference and a regular name in championship contender rankings. As is the life of a basketball coach, a large part of the blame is also owed to Budenholzer for the Bucks' playoff failures in the last two years.
The basic line of logic would suggest that, because the Bucks have reached the Finals, Budenholzer has figured it out and learned from his mistakes. Right? Wrong! According to Jay Williams, anyhow, who said on KJZ this morning that the Bucks are here in spite of Budenholzer's coaching ability, not because of it.
Let's start by giving credit where credit is due. Budenholzer has solved the biggest problem of his playoff coaching career thus far, which is simple: play your best players as much as possible. Giannis Antetokounmpo has played more than 40 minutes in seven games this postseason. Khris Middleton has recorded 11 games with over 40 minutes to this point. In the Bucks' 2020 second-round loss to Miami, Giannis had zero games with over 40 minutes throughout the postseason, while Middleton only had two. It shouldn't have taken this long, to be sure, but Budenholzer adjusted in that regard, and should be acknowledged for it.
Everything else is still a work in progress, as highlighted by Williams above. Milwaukee has refused to move away from their drop coverage in the pick-and-roll and have really just gotten lucky that they can get away with it. The Heat had nobody to punish the Bucks with pull-up jumpers. Kevin Durant obliterated that strategy for nearly every one of the seven-game second round series with the Nets and Kyrie Irving/James Harden would have done the same at full health. Trae Young was averaging 32 points per game going against the drop coverage before he got hurt. Chris Paul and Devin Booker combined for 57 points and 15 assists last night in Game 1 while the Bucks simply did not change their strategy.
This idea of Budenholzer sticking with drop coverage is a microcosm of the larger issues with his coaching style. It works like a charm in the regular season, when true superstars aren't logging more than 35 minutes and aren't going to take every single window of opportunity provided by drop coverage. That's all different in the playoffs, but Budenholzer continues to utilize it because it worked before. It's the ideal that continues to perpetuate issues like Giannis not guarding the other team's best player on every possession (before he got hurt) or the minute restriction Budenholzer imposes on superstars during the playoffs. He fixed the latter issue, but it's only one of several.
The Suns basically have two coaches who can see what the opposing unit is doing and adjust immediately with Monty Williams on the sideline and Chris Paul on the court. Budenholzer seems incapable of doing the same in the middle of a game, and CP3 is one of a kind as far as basketball IQ goes. Budenholzer simply has to be open to changing what works to find something better, or this series will be shorter than anyone is hoping for.