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Does Mike Budenholzer Need to Get Giannis to NBA Finals to Save His Job?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJune 23, 2021

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer gestures toward his players during the first half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Monday, June 7, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The Milwaukee Bucks saved their season, and most likely Mike Budenholzer’s job, with a Game 7 win over the Brooklyn Nets. He was coaching to save it entering the playoffs, and according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, getting to the conference finals may have bought the head coach another year.

However, things change quickly in the NBA these days. If the Bucks advance, they’ll make their first Finals since the 1973-74 season. Only the Atlanta Hawks stand in their way, and this is Milwaukee’s best shot to win a title during Budenholzer’s tenure. But losing to the 5 seed and, just as importantly, watching the Bucks head coach fall into his old postseason traps (against his old team no less) would make that Nets series feel like a distant memory. 

We’ve been here before. Budenholzer’s job might be secure today, but a loss in the conference finals might heat his seat back up. 

              

A 3-Year Journey

Before Budenholzer arrived in Milwaukee in 2018, the Bucks had made the playoffs two years in a row and for a third time in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first five seasons. The team was trending in a positive direction and showed promise with a rising star. But Jason Kidd was believed to have hit his ceiling as a coach in Milwaukee.  

The hiring of Budenholzer raised the Bucks’ floor and, in hope, their ceiling. Budenholzer showed immediate results in Year 1. Milwaukee finished first in defensive rating (104.9), fourth in offensive rating (113.5) and first in net rating (8.6). The team’s pace jumped from 97.03 to 103.57. With the improvements came the franchise’s first 60-win season since 1980-81.

Heading into their first playoffs under Budenholzer, the Bucks were favorites to come out of the East with both the league’s best record and the MVP on their side. (Antetokounmpo was the first Buck since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974 to win the award.) 

After breezing through the first two rounds, with a sweep of Detroit and a gentleman’s sweep of Boston, Milwaukee got off to another strong start against the Toronto Raptors. It looked as if the team was destined to walk to the Finals when it went up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, but things went south once the Bucks headed up North. 

              

Signs of Trouble

Everything turned when the Bucks dropped Game 3 in double-overtime. From there they lost the following three games, and the series exposed Budenholzer’s lack of adjustments, a similar criticism during his run with the Hawks.  

Budenholzer failed to react to Fred VanVleet catching fire and he was too cautious with Antetokounmpo’s minutes. Just by comparison, Kawhi Leonard played a total of 248 minutes to Antetokounmpo’s 231 minutes. 

Morry Gash/Associated Press

The following season all eyes were on the Bucks. They responded in a big way going 56-17 with the year cut short by COVID. They had a better net rating than the previous year (9.4) but kept playing the same style.

The real question was what would happen in the playoffs. Would they change their style if they ran into the wrong team? 

The NBA season resumed in a bubble, and the Bucks got past the Orlando Magic in five games. But a hungry Miami Heat team was waiting in the second round where Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo ran into a wall, literally. 

The Heat consistently built a wall against Antetokounmpo (held to 21.8 PPG) when he drove into the paint. The Heat eliminated the Bucks 4-1, Antetokounmpo averaged only 21.8 points in the series and the theme of Budenholzer making zero adjustments held true. 

After another disappointing exit, there was speculation the head coach could be out of Milwaukee. Instead, the Bucks opted for a roster overhaul. They brought in Jrue Holiday from New Orleans for Eric Bledsoe and George Hill plus several draft picks. 

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

To Budenholzer’s credit, he did take a different approach to the 2020-21 season. Milwaukee experimented with more styles defensively and offensively, and Khris Middleton emerged as a legitimate playmaker in the pick-and-roll. But the team was in the same spot as the previous season, and it was going to be judged by success in the playoffs.

Round 1 offered a chance to exorcise past playoff demons against the Heat. After a thrilling Game 1 overtime win, the Bucks ran off three more victories to sweep Miami. But then came an entirely different challenge in the Brooklyn Nets. 

The Bucks entered the second-round series as +160 underdogs, according to FanDuel. Before the first minute elapsed in Game 1, James Harden re-aggravated his strained hamstring, making the Nets’ Big Three a duo. But it didn’t matter. 

Quickly down 0-2 heading back home, the Bucks looked like deer caught in the headlights.

             

The Biggest Test Yet

At this point, Budenholzer’s time with the team looked all but cooked. It wasn’t just that the team was down in the second round—everything was coming back to a lack of adjustments, and post-game responses like this after Game 2 added fuel to the fire:

Eric Nehm @eric_nehm

Asked Mike Budenholzer, whether or not seeing Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving on pace to play 40-plus minutes has any impact on what he does with Giannis and his stars. (Antetokounmpo would have played 38, if he went the whole way. Durant 41, Irving 46.) His response: https://t.co/MD9HdUFkRT

The Bucks turned things around by jumping out to a 21-point lead early in Game 3 during a 30-11 first quarter. After that, they never scored more than 22 points in a quarter but avoided falling 0-3 in the series with an 86-83 win, all before evening things up in Game 4 with a better offensive effort. 

Everything after Game 4 was trending in Milwaukee's direction. The Nets’ Big Three was whittled down to a Big One with Kyrie Irving's ankle injury. The Bucks built an early lead in Game 5 around good offense, ball movement and defense. But then in the second half, the offense went from team-oriented to isolation-heavy. Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday combined for 32 of Milwaukee’s 42 second-half shots.  

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant was putting together a masterpiece, going for 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists while playing the whole game. He was unstoppable—but the Bucks and Budenholzer were willing participants.

With Brook Lopez in the game, the Nets would target the center knowing his drop coverage would get Durant clean looks off of ball screens. After staying with Lopez too long, Budenholzer adjusted and brought in Pat Connaughton, but the Nets began targeting him next.

The Bucks were reluctant to send a double team Durant’s way when he had a mismatch after conceding switches too easily. Budenholzer stayed too long in coverages that were not working, and his late adjustment put the Bucks on the brink. 

Another source of criticism toward Budenholzer stemmed from Game 5 and how little the Bucks attacked Harden, who was clearly hobbled after coming back from his hamstring injury. For the series, Antetokounmpo went 8-of-31 from three, as the Nets laid way off him and gave up that shot. Antetokounmpo settling for threes and mid-range pull ups let Brooklyn’s defense off the hook. 

 

The Bucks also got away from their clutch offense. Down the stretch this season, the ball was often in Middleton’s hands. He led the team in clutch usage percentage at 31.4. It paid off in the Miami series when he hit the game-winning jumper in Game 1. But in Game 5’s clutch situation, Budenholzer went away from Middleton to Antetokounmpo isolations. 

That changed in Game 7 with Budenholzer going to Middleton on several key possessions at the end of the fourth and overtime, including what turned out to be the game winner. 

 

Milwaukee spent all season adjusting and playing with things. In Game 7, all of that experimenting came through in a big way. 

            

At a Crossroads

Milwaukee managed to survive its series against Brooklyn, but it certainly made it harder than it needed to be. 

Reports say making it to the conference finals was enough to save Budenholzer. However, the Bucks have been here before in the 2019 playoffs. Another failure in the conference finals could change things quickly for the head coach.   

It becomes even trickier for Budenholzer with a great candidate like Rick Carlisle now available. Prior to him leaving the Dallas Mavericks, there may not have been a clear-cut replacement, but now there is.  

Carlisle is a championship coach, having won it all in 2011, he is a well-regarded tactician and he created an offensive system around a unique talent with Dirk Nowitzki. If the Bucks’ job becomes open, Carlisle would be the immediate front runner to take over. 

If Budenholzer is slow to adjust, if Trae Young explodes offensively or if the Hawks’ defense forces Antetokounmpo to become a jump-shooter, it could cost Milwaukee this series. And that could cost this three-year head coach his job.  

A trip to the conference finals might have saved Budenholzer’s job, but a Finals run will surely solidify it.

            

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA

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