For two straight seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks were tipped to breeze through the Eastern Conference and take center-stage in the NBA Finals. In two straight seasons, they’ve fallen short.
It took only five games for the Miami Heat to send the Association’s best regular-season team home from Orlando. But the team has the likely back-to-back MVP on the roster, so what exactly went wrong for Wisconsin’s only NBA franchise?
Miami’s second unit is a UNIT
In every game, excluding Milwaukee’s Game 4 victory, Miami’s bench outscored Milwaukee’s 124-89. Led by rookie sharpshooter Tyler Herro, who averaged 13.2 points and shot 42.4 percent from three, the Heat have altered the traditional playoff narrative of relying on starters.
The depth of Erik Spoelstra’s bench meant that Miami were able to become only the third team in the last 25 postseasons to be seeded fifth or lower and make a conference final.
Kelly Olynyk put up a solid 7.5 points and 4 rebounds to back up Herro through the series, and Andre Iguodala’s disappointing series made Olynyk’s contribution all the more valuable. The former Golden State Warriors Finals MVP averaged a lacklustre 3.6 points in an average of 16 minutes per game with fewer than two assists and one block or steal. The bench’s ability to hide the disappointing series for Iggy is one attained by good depth.
Coaching battles aren’t always at the forefront of fans’ minds when they watch a playoff series in the NBA. Erik Spoelstra versus Mike Budenholzer is a big clash in terms of Eastern Conference coaches. Spoelstra, who has been the Heat head coach since Pat Riley promoted him in 2008, has two NBA titles to his name. Budenholzer was the mastermind behind the incredible 60-win Atlanta Hawks team in 2014 and, of course, has led Milwaukee to two straight east first seeds. However, he made some questionable coaching decisions that would have contributed a lot to the Bucks defeat.
Take Game 3, for example. The Bucks were up 12 that game and, in the fourth quarter, Miami came back and won. The Heat had all the moment in the fourth quarter. The Bucks’ lead was crumbling. Budenholzer didn’t have star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo in the game at this point, and for whatever reason, with the lead depleting, he opted to keep the Greek Freak on the bench. Giannis had to sit and watch as his teammates blew a strong double-digit advantage. In the end, a win that would’ve brought them right back into contention was gone.
Budenholzer and the Bucks failed their fans. The Heat played similarly to the strong defensive Raptors squad that beat the Bucks a year ago. The Bucks didn’t adapt from that series and it was clear.
Why didn’t Budenholzer prepare for these strong defensive teams? It is almost self-sabotage. Did Budenholzer assume with Kawhi Leonard in LA that their path to the Finals would be easy? That’s quite possible. Now it’s been made clear that the Bucks cannot cope when strong defensive teams come in and shut down their offense.
Giannis wasn’t Giannis
Antetokounmpo wasn’t his usual self in this series. He didn’t play in Game 5 and only briefly in Game 4, but in the games he did play, he wasn’t his usual stellar self. Bam Adebayo and the Heat shut him down at times, but hoisting up bad threes early in the shot clock is essentially a turnover in the playoffs. In that crucial Game 3, Antetokounmpo attempted seven three-pointers and made exactly zero. Furthermore, his shooting from the line was awful. He didn’t break above 70 percent for the whole series and for someone who takes most of their shots at the rim, his 33 percent shooting in Game 1 was atrocious.
Antetokounmpo’s defense was poor. The regular season’s Defensive Player of the Year was leaving Heat marksmen open on the perimeter. Miami won by invalidating the reigning league MVP. He was arguably the Bucks third-best player this series. When he’s the only real star on the team, that just won’t do.
Time to evaluate
I’m afraid it’s next season or bust for Milwaukee. They need to adapt. If Budenholzer keeps his job for next season, then he needs to provide, at the very least, an appearance in the finals.
The front office will fire Budenholzer if he doesn’t provide. Giannis will ask to leave and they will have to blow the whole thing up. That’s just the way it is.