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Mike Budenholzer, Bucks Facing Franchise-Defining Pressure vs. Nets

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2021

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer looks on against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Saturday, June 5, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

The second-round series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets was supposed to be the de facto Eastern Conference Finals. It may still be, because right now it sure looks like nobody on the planet is beating the Nets in a seven-game series.

But if it keeps going the way it did on Monday night, when the Nets blew the Bucks out to take a 2-0 series lead, the sweeping changes many thought would be coming in Milwaukee last offseason might not be able to be delayed any longer.

All the Bucks can say right now is thank goodness Giannis Antetokounmpo already signed the long-term extension that prevented him from becoming a free agent this summer. If he hadn't, that would have been looming over the Bucks' entire season, with the panic kicking into even higher gear after Monday night's disaster.

The major roster upgrade that was needed after their second-round collapse in the bubble last summer came in the form of Jrue Holiday, and he's been as good as advertised, especially on the defensive end. Mike Budenholzer, who was roundly criticized from all corners during last playoffs for never adjusting his rotations—even Antetokounmpo could barely conceal his annoyance during last year's series against the Miami Heat—survived, with the implied hope that with new supporting personnel behind the two-time MVP and All-Star teammate Khris Middleton, he'd make the necessary adjustments come next playoffs.

In exorcising last year's playoff demons in a dominant first-round sweep of the Heat, the Bucks gave reason to believe this year would be different. That they came off that series to be this uncompetitive against a Nets team, down one of their three superstars in James Harden, is raising all manner of alarms.

Some of this is on Budenholzer, who is still refusing to adjust his rotations (he talked after Game 1 about keeping his starters "fresh," as though this time of year isn't what you'd spend the whole season keeping them fresh for). But for all his talk about not needing to play Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton in the high 30s because of their depth, there are many Jeff Teague and Bryn Forbes minutes happening. The loss of starting guard Donte DiVincenzo for the remainder of the playoffs hurts; the team they're playing is missing a former MVP and still running them off the floor.

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Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

All of which brings up the question of whether general manager Jon Horst will come under the same scrutiny Budenholzer undoubtedly will. Even being charitable and chalking up last November's botched signing of Bogdan Bogdanovic (making huge shots for the Hawks in the playoffs, by the way) to bad luck and miscommunication, Horst has missed on practically every role player he's signed to build out the rotation.

After Game 1, in which the Bucks were competitive in a loss, Antetokounmpo pointed out that they'd had a week off after sweeping the Heat. Coming back out after that as listless as they did on Monday doesn't give much reason for optimism that they'll be able to turn things around if the series goes longer.

No defense on the planet can fully stifle the Nets' big three, but on paper, Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday are as good a trio of defenders as any team will have to throw at them. And that big three is now a big two, with Harden's hamstring injury sidelining him for all but the opening minutes of the first game. Now that they go to Milwaukee with a 2-0 lead, the Nets can comfortably hold Harden out even longer. Durant, Irving and the Nets' role players have the Bucks overmatched without him.

Going into the playoffs, the Bucks appeared to be in a better position than they were either of the last two years. Dominating the regular season in 2018-19 and 2019-20 the way they did made it easy for everyone to assume they'd be fine in the playoffs. Struggling this year to work in new personnel and navigate injuries could have seen them come out better prepared for the higher level of competition in the playoffs. 

Getting past Game 1's overtime thriller against Miami felt like a massive weight being lifted. They went on to dominate the rest of that series and pull off the first round's only four-game sweep. Now, they're looking a lot like the team that will be on the other end of that sort of beatdown.

Securing the long-term commitment from Antetokounmpo last fall was a massive victory for the Bucks. But they may still not have enough to truly put themselves in position to take advantage of his prime. For the second consecutive year, something's got to give.

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