Mike Budenholzer's Game 3 Adjustments Against Nets Will Determine His Future With Bucks
By Liam McKeone
Mike Budenholzer's tenure as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks has been defined by great success and great failure in nearly equal measures. Budenholzer came in ahead of the 2018 season and immediately turned the Bucks into one of the best teams the Eastern Conference had to offer by unleashing Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee has broken several regular-season records that speak to their statistical dominance and this year's third-place finish in the standings is by far the lowest of the Budenholzer era.
The failure then comes in the playoffs. The Bucks fell to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in 2019 because Budenholzer didn't let Giannis guard Kawhi Leonard and refused to play him 40 minutes per game, as all the best players in the playoffs do. Milwaukee lost in embarrassing fashion in 2020, going down in five games as the top seed to the Miami Heat in the bubble playoffs. Again, Budenholzer didn't have Giannis guard the opposing team's best player and still kept his minutes low in comparison to star standards in the postseason.
An optimistic individual could excuse Budenholzer for those two playoff losses, though. The Raptors ultimately won the title, after all, and it was the coach's first postseason run with this particular squad. The bubble playoffs were strange and weird and kind of terrible for everyone involved and hard conclusions should not be drawn from those games.
The third time is supposed to be the charm, though. The Bucks oblierated the Heat in the first round of this year's playoffs, an exorcism of the highest order on the demons from 2020. Their matchup with the Brooklyn Nets in Round 2 was tabbed as the best series in the playoffs heading into the affair. And thus far, Budenholzer has not proved up to the task of making these games even competitive, much less winning a few.
In fairness, the Nets are a ridiculous team. But they haven't had James Harden for nearly all of the opening games of the series, still won Game 1 handily, and blew out Milwaukee in Game 2. It's not just because Kevin Durant looks like Kevin Durant again or that Kyrie Irving is on one of his hot streaks. It's the same mistakes showing up yet again.
Giannis is averaging 32.5 minutes per game this series. He only played 30 minutes in the 39-point blowout, which makes a certain amount of sense. But Budenholzer played his superstar all of 35 minutes in a very winnable Game 1. Milwaukee has been abysmal offensively and collectively settle for jumpers instead of driving into the paint, which is partially a player problem, but the onus of the blame falls on the head coach for failing to adjust. Hell, Budenholzer's only significant change during the Game 2 onslaught was... trying to play a 2-3 zone. Against one of the greatest shooting teams of all time. A middle school coach could tell you that's a bad idea.
Game 3 is tonight. The Bucks are back in Milwaukee with home-court advantage. Harden is still out. This is their last shot at staying in the series. Budenholzer has to change his approach. He can't stick to the regime and sit Giannis for double-digit minutes throughout. He needs to play his MVP, and playing the Khris Middleton/Jrue Holiday duo more would do him wonders. I doubt Budenholzer will go back to a 2-3 zone, but he definitely shouldn't even consider it!
If he does not, he's getting fired. It's as simple as that. When a coach fails to make adjustments for three straight postseasons, much less the most obvious adjustment of "playing your best players as much as possible", ownership can't and won't stand by. Budenholzer isn't a bad coach in the big picture, but he's bad when the games matter most. Unless he can flip that narrative starting tonight, Milwaukee will be yet another team looking for a new head coach this summer.