By playing themselves into a 3-0 series coffin against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Milwaukee Bucks are speeding toward an offseason of hard truths. What almost assuredly awaits them is not merely a matter of lamenting their untimely exit from the NBA's postseason, but the existential crisis inherent of not knowing where they feasibly go from here.
All the while, as the Bucks confront the fallout of what can only be described as self-implosion, an even harder, coarser truth will loom: It didn't need to be like this.
Assuming Milwaukee's series defeat does not overstate the situation. Friday's 115-100 loss to the Miami Heat isn't just another letdown. It is a postseason death sentence. No team in NBA history has ever come back from being down 3-0, and the Bucks, frustrating and fragile in a way not thought possible, have given no indication they're prepared to be the first.
Blame for their likely irreversible dilemma will mostly fall on the shoulders of head coach Mike Budenholzer, in the form of not just an incensed fanbase, but measured, warranted relitigation.
Nearly every breath of criticism will harp on his inability or outright refusal to make adjustments midstream. A head coach's job is complicated, and as the Action Network's Matt Moore effectively outlined Friday, fuller-scale deviations from a regular season's worth of success cannot be taken lightly.
There is a fine line between adaptive and impulsive, and to that end, some external assessments are half-formed, verging on reductive. Every decision comes with a trade-off, a concession that isn't guaranteed to be navigable.
Why hasn't Giannis Antetokounmpo spent more time guarding Jimmy Butler, particularly at the end of Game 1? Because his job has seldom included checking primary-scoring wings, and deviations from that norm compromise Milwaukee's defense elsewhere.
Less explicable is the apparent opposition to change at all, a stubbornness disguised as results-based continuity.
Why lean so heavily on Eric Bledsoe down the stretch of Game 3? Why play Wesley Matthews, the best option to defend Jimmy Butler, so little in the fourth quarter of both Games 1 and 3?
Why have there been any stretches at all, however brief, in which neither Antetokounmpo nor Khris Middleton is on the floor? Why go so bench-heavy with certain lineups?
Those latter issues touch on the chief complaint about Budenholzer's approach to this series and the postseason at large: Why aren't Antetokounmpo and Middleton playing more? And why is his answer to this question so overwhelmingly insufficient?
Perhaps Antetokounmpo couldn't labor through more than 35ish minutes in Game 3. He rolled his right ankle in the first quarter and didn't look right from that point on. That doesn't provide cover for Games 1 and 2, through which he logged nearly 37 and 36 minutes, respectively, including (his usual) fourth-quarter breathers.
Maybe this is a matter of energy expended. Antetokounmpo plays both ends of the floor like he has an emotional attachment to the outcome of every possession. Budenholzer might be uncomfortable stretching him to 40-plus minutes.
Say that, then. Or at least don't dismiss the notion that Antetokounmpo and Middleton should play more as incomprehensible. And definitely don't hide behind obscure and meaningless achievements that aren't achievements at all.
Managing minutes can be admirable, a commitment to the bigger picture that fans and pundits don't always see. This isn't that. There is no longer game for the Bucks. This is their long game. They're trying to win a title. They're supposed to a win a title. You aren't saving Giannis for anything else (his rolled right ankle notwithstanding).
Armchair coaching is prone to oversimplification. This is different. Too many issues are in play for all of them to be trivial bystander talk.
And it's fair to wonder what this series looks like had Budenholzer extended his best player. Maybe they aren't up 2-1. Claiming so would be an insult to the role the Heat have played in their demise. But the Bucks, with a different approach, or perhaps a different coach, would almost certainly be on the board at least, facing a 2-1 deficit rather than the prospect of sweep.
This isn't to imply Milwaukee's undoing is entirely on Budenholzer. He isn't playing the minutes he doles out. His team went freezing cold from the perimeter in Game 3, shooting only 29.7 percent from deep (11-of-37) while failing to buy a single bucket outside the paint for most of the second half:
Giannis is not Teflon in this discussion, either. Most will focus on the absence of a jumper, and he was 1-of-12 outside the restricted area in Game 3. But there is a level of predictability to his repertoire that isn't solely owed to his outside limitations.
Even when he has nine assists, it doesn't feel like he gets rid of the ball quickly enough when facing a wall. He's more inclined to try going through it, resorting to his fadeaway or trying to defer through thickets after defenses have already collapsed. And, yeah, his free-throw shooting (20-of-37 in this series) is an issue.
None of this is breaking news, though. And Antetokounmpo is far from a problem. The Bucks are just flawed—more solvable than any regular-season juggernaut should be. The responsibility to address that doesn't fall on the players. It doesn't even necessarily rest with Budenholzer. It's on the organization to maximize its window and augment its superstar. Milwaukee hasn't quite done that, not to the best of its ability.
Malcolm Brogdon's departure stands out here. Highlighting his absence now, after the Bucks ran roughshod over the East for most of the regular season, is low-hanging fruit. That doesn't make it wrong.
Painting his exit as a choice between him and Bledsoe doesn't even say enough. They didn't actually have to choose. They could've retained both.
Dipping into the luxury tax is no small ask for a small-market team. But you don't get to express a willingness to pay the tax after making a decision to actively avoid it. (Milwaukee sign-and-traded Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers for what became the No. 24 pick in this year's draft and two future seconds.)
Barring an actual miracle, the Bucks will soon be left to reconcile the extent of their failings. There is no clear answer to their problems, beyond that they cannot afford to do nothing.
Trading Giannis is not part of that proactive calculus. It doesn't matter if he won't sign a supermax extension this offseason. Short of him demanding out, he's the type of transcendent talent you keep until there's zero hope. If he's still open to stay in Milwaukee long term but hasn't put pen to paper on an extension, you do your damnedest to make the most of that one-year sales pitch.
Not much changes if Giannis re-ups (and he might). That is not a license for complacency. Nor does it allow the Bucks to take the easier, more obvious way out. Firing Budenholzer could result in an upgrade on the sideline, but it might not. And there's no guarantee that his successor will provide enough of a boost on their own.
True breakthroughs tend to come by way of shaking up the roster, and free agency will help only so much. At most, Milwaukee will have the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception to dangle, and even accessing that without winding up in the tax afterward might require some housecleaning, depending on where next season's salary cap falls.
Swinging for the fences via trade is more realistic, albeit still difficult. The Bucks don't have a ton of assets to peddle if Giannis and Middleton are off the table. There's Donte DiVincenzo, who has not helped his stock in the bubble, and distant first-round picks. (They already owe their 2020 and 2022 selections elsewhere.)
Can they get in the conversation for Chris Paul? Are they willing to stomach the final two years and $85.6 million of his contract? Can they handle giving up one or both George Hill and Brook Lopez in such a deal? Does salary filler and unloading their asset clip get them in the running for Victor Oladipo?
This is the plight of the Bucks. Their season is on the brink, and if it topples over, weighing moves on the margins won't cut it. Should this series end how it's threatening to end, it will mark an inflection point—the kind that demands the Bucks explore the seismic, without a guarantee it's actually available to them.