Mike Budenholzer is Up to His Old Tricks and Could Sink the Bucks, Again
By Liam McKeone
Last year, the Milwaukee Bucks went up 2-0 on the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then Kawhi Leonard happened and the Raptors won four straight games to advance to the conference finals. There was much ado about the role head coach Mike Budenholzer played in that failure. His defensive system (along with Giannis Antetokounmpo's ascension to MVP-levels of play) catapulted the Bucks from a low seed in a weak East to the best team in basketball by most statistical measures. But in the playoffs, Budenholzer didn't really change anything up, which led to his downfall. He didn't put Giannis on Leonard and neglected to play him 35-40 minutes a game, standard fare for superstar players in the postseason.
A lot of other factors went into that series loss, of course, but upon reflection, Budenholzer's decision to stick to his gameplan was the biggest factor. But it was, after all, against a team that would go on to win the Finals and his first deep playoff run in five years. The assumption was that Budenholzer, like most good coaches, would learn from his mistakes and build upon them. He certainly did so during the regular season, trotting out a Bucks team even better than his 60-win squad last season. But last night's game against the Miami Heat likely brought back unpleasant memories for Bucks fans.
Jimmy Butler demolished Milwaukee. You may have heard. He scored 40 points, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter. He scored most of those points against Khris Middleton. Middleton is a good defender with length, but Butler is built like a brick house and possesses a sizable strength advantage over Middleton. He was getting to his spots with little trouble, and it gave Miami the win.
The Bucks' defense is designed to give up the shots Butler likes in the middle of the floor, and they'll welcome him taking mid-range jumpers over a three-point barrage from the likes of Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson. But when it mattered most, Budenholzer, for whatever reason, kept Middleton on Butler. Even Wes Matthews would have been a better choice and did a good job on Butler as his primary defender for the first three quarters. But he rode the pine in the final period. It's also worth mentioning that Giannis is now a Defensive Player of the Year award winner and was stuck off the ball, far away from Butler. Putting him on Miami's superstar isn't an automatic win for Milwaukee-- Butler is very good at scoring the basketball and the Heat can always send him through a maze of screens to find an optimal matchup-- but common sense dictates that when the opposing team's best player is feeling it, putting your best defender on him is a good idea. And yet, Budenholzer did not.
The same thing happened with Leonard in the ECF last year. Budenholzer stuck with Middleton, who, again, is a good defender in his own right. But nobody in the league has the combination of strength, speed, and size that Giannis offers. That is why he won one MVP and seems to be on the verge of winning another. When a coach has that ace in his deck, he's supposed to use it. Giannis' foul trouble likely played a part in the decision not to last night, but in the final two minutes, that doesn't matter. If Butler is tearing the defense to shreds, Giannis shouldn't be on the other side of the court while he isos if Budenholzer can help it. The fact that history is repeating itself only makes the concerns more pressing.
This series is far from over, and the Bucks probably did a lot of other things wrong if they go home because Budenholzer didn't put his best defender on Butler in crunchtime. But if Budenholzer continues to be strangely reticent to using Giannis as effectively as possible, Milwaukee could be in more trouble than anyone thinks.