Last May, Toronto asked questions the Milwaukee was not ready to answer. The Raptors slowed the game down, walled off Giannis Antetokounmpo so he couldn’t just drive to the rim, and put athletic defenders on the Bucks’ other scorers. Once Toronto found the formula Milwaukee never adjusted and Toronto won four straight, advance to the NBA Finals, and won.
Fifteen months later, Miami is asking the same questions, using the same basic playbook. Milwaukee still is not adjusting, still has no answers.
All that time to prepare and we see no innovation and little growth from the Bucks. That’s troubling.
It is also why the Heat are up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference second round, and it doesn’t matter if the referees made the end of Game 2 about themselves. Unless the Bucks find answers to the Heat’s challenges fast, the questions Milwaukee will need to answer going forward about Antetokounmpo’s future are much tougher. The Bucks are going to offer him a supermax contract extension this offseason, but if Antetokounmpo doesn’t believe Milwaukee is a contender, is he going to sign it?
The Bucks have not looked like a contender in this series.
Miami is winning on both ends of the court.
They are winning because Mike Budenholzer has played Antetokounmpo — a freak athlete in peak condition — just 36 minutes a night in each of the first two games. He did this a year ago as well and said the Bucks should be able to win with Antetokounmpo playing fewer than 40 minutes. Why? It’s the playoffs, use your best weapons. Play Antetokounmpo 40+ minutes a night — and keep him in the game when he picks up a third foul. Trust the MVP to know how to adjust his game a little to stay on the court.
Antetokounmpo had 29 points in Game 2, but a look at his shot chart shows what Miami is doing — walling him off and making it difficult for him to get to the rim — is working. In part because he can’t hit from anywhere else against physical and athletic Miami defenders.
When he does get a little room in transition, when he can get playing downhill, we see the MVP Antetokounmpo emerge.
HEAD OF STEAM.
SLAM.@Bucks within 1 on ESPN! pic.twitter.com/eJCK2HxGEm
— NBA (@NBA) September 3, 2020
But that’s rare against a disciplined Heat defense — and the Bucks have just a 102 offensive rating when Antetokounmpo is on the court the first two games in this series.
Mike Budenholzer has to find a way to make the game easier for Antetokounmpo, to get him the ball moving toward the rim, through cuts and other steps. It can’t be Antetokounmpo pounding the ball 30 feet out and attacking straight on. Miami is too good for that.
Part of this is on Antetokounmpo, too. There’s a lot of talk about how he needs to develop a three-ball to keep defenses honest (30.4% from three this season). That would help. But what would help more is a good pull-up 16-18 foot midrange shot. The best players have this in their toolbox (watch Kawhi Leonard for a game, or LeBron James, James Harden can do it, etc.) and it keeps the defense off-balance. Antetokounmpo needs that balance.
As a team, the Bucks are not making the collapsing Heat defense pay with threes, either — Milwaukee took 25 threes in Game 2, their fewest attempts all season. This was one of the core tenets of the Bucks philosophy — surround Antetokounmpo with shooters to space the floor and let him attack — that they have not followed or made work against the Heat.
The bigger problem may be the other end of the court, where the Heat are shredding the Bucks basic drop-back coverage that prioritizes protecting the paint. The threat of the Heat shooters pulled Bucks players out a little in Game 1, and then it was death by 1,000 back cuts. Miami did what they were not supposed to be able to —they got to the rim in Game 1.
Milwaukee did a better job protecting the rim in Game 2, but Miami poses a bigger problem — they have great shooting.
The Bucks defense protects the rim first, last, and always, but they also take away corner threes well. What they give up are above-the-break threes but to lesser shooters. Against most teams that works — if the best player drives and kicks out, there are limited guys who can knock down the shot, and the Bucks can target them.
Miami has shooters everywhere — through two games they are 28-of-63 (44.4%) on above-the-break threes. The Heat will take what the Bucks give and beat them with it.
Miami has to start switching more on defense (at least off the ball) and has to slow the rate of threes from the Heat. Easier said than done, Miami has a lot of them.
The Bucks problems this series do not all fall on Budenholzer and his system, nor on Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee GM Jon Horst has built a talented roster but not the most athletic one by NBA standards. Miami has athletes all over the floor. Through two games, that is winning out.
This series is not a blowout — both the Heat and Bucks have each won four quarters through the two games. Game 2 was a coin flip kind of game that could have gone either way. Milwaukee knows it can come back — last May the Bucks had a 2-0 lead on the Raptors, before Nick Nurse and company made adjustments and took the next four.
Now it’s on Budenholzer to do the same thing, make adjustments — like playing the MVP more — to get his team to the next level. If not, the next questions in Milwaukee will be more painful to answer than the ones Miami is asking.