I wouldn’t call it a tailspin, I wouldn’t call it a disaster, and I wouldn’t call it a back-breaker, but Milwaukee’s game four loss to the Toronto Raptors has, more than any other moment this season, forced the team to take a long look in the mirror.
There is always a fine balance to be struck in the up-and-down nature of a playoff series between riding whatever got you there versus changing your approach. For the Milwaukee Bucks, their “approach” resulted in a 60-win season, a historic statistical profile, and home-court advantage throughout the postseason. It was even good enough to get them two games up in their first ECF appearance in a long time.
Now, with the series tied 2-2 and the team suddenly bereft of answers, it is time for Mike Budenholzer to make a change.
The options available are many, though some may make more sense than others depending on your POV. To me, there are five to six paths available to coach Budenholzer & Co., each with its own possibilities and pitfalls that makes any decision fraught with risk.
Don’t change a thing
It seems a little counterintuitive, but there is at least a short track-record that the Mirotic-for-Sterling starting lineup switch enacted in G2 against Boston can at least stop the bleeding. While the stats don’t look great (that lineup is -10.8 net against this series and ended up being a neutral 0.0 against the Celtics), conceptually it retains quite a bit of punch: Giannis continues to get some modicum of space to work with, you maximize your potential of dragging bigs out of the paint with threes from their assignments, and keep your defensive philosophy intact while hiding Mirotic out on an ineffective Danny Green.
That lineup then lets Milwaukee maximize the firepower they can call upon coming off the bench. Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill were poor offensively in G5, but both have routinely burned Boston’s and Toronto’s weaker bench and/or tired starters (over the last nine games, Brogdon has averaged 12.6 pts (.436/.385/.556), 4.0 rebs, 3.2 asts, +8.4 in 26.6 mins, while Hill is at 12.6 pts (.569/.483/.773), 3.6 rebs, 2.7 asts, +3.7 in 26.8 mins. Their presence has been a rock of stability that has allowed the Bucks to skate by with something resembling a regular rest schedule for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton amid a nine-man rotation.
All that said, now that the rubber has hit the road I’m not sure the Bucks can afford to see whether the strategy as currently construed will work itself out. Over the course of a season? Sure. But Milwaukee has three games to shake things up and hoping a fragile +1.4 net rating can hold the line feels unnecessarily risky. Which brings us to our next option.
Bring Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup
This seems like the easiest option available to Budenholzer if only because the Bucks had a track record of 64 games of experience operating with this makeup.
Concerns about how ready Malcolm is to take on a heavy load went right out the window the second he started regularly putting in 28+ minute performances. My eyes tell me that, even if not fully-recovered, he’s close enough that you have to chance starting him.
A starting unit of Bledsoe/Brogdon/Middleton/Giannis/Lopez played 450 more minutes together than the second-place grouping (Brown in place of Malcolm) and averaged a 110.7 ORtg and 104.5 DRtg; for comparison’s sake, Milwaukee’s current starters of the last eight games clock in at 101.7 ORtg and 107.9 DRtg (-6.2). The regular season starters generated a higher AST%, quicker pace, and slip slightly in terms of REB% and TOV%.
On top of that there’s all the positive things we know Malcolm gives on the court: Steady shooting hand, can score it from literally everywhere, we’ve seen him more than hold his own in defensive assignments against the likes of Kawhi Leonard, and another option that gives the Bucks a chance to quickly move in transition before Toronto can reconstitute their defense. There’s a reason why Brogdon has been lauded as a player and his consistent play could be beyond valuable in a slumping starting unit.
If bringing Brogdon back into the starting lineup is decided upon the next question is who he would replace. The obvious answer is Nikola Mirotic who, while valuable as an outside shooter and rebounder, has inexplicably shot 28.1% from three (16/57) since the start of the EC Semis and 21.4% (6/28) in the ECF. When he doesn’t convert at anything resembling a reasonable clip then the offense can be ground to a halt and he can be bullied on the other end if the Bucks fail to set up into half-court offenses or switch Nikola onto players he has no business trying to defend.
A return of Malcolm would be a return of Milwaukee’s most prolific group of the regular season. He started in all 64 games he appeared in and was often critical in shepherding sub-heavy lineups through closing moments in first and third quarters. It’d be a shame to see the Bucks go down without at least trying to revive the strategy that helped put them atop the NBA.
Bench Eric Bledsoe
The logic here is relatively simple: Bledsoe has been something akin to a complete and utter disaster on offense. So much so that the Raptors aren’t even keeping a man on him while he putters about with or without the ball on the perimeter. In a five-out system designed to give Giannis as much room to operate as possible, Eric has been a failure. Slot in Malcolm Brogdon, slot in George Hill, hell, slot in Pat Connaughton to try and give an oft-sputtering unit a chance at life.
However, such a seemingly obvious change presents a few problems underneath the surface: You risk Bledsoe completely shattering and failing to provide even backup minutes when he’s continued to at least be passable in some aspects of the game.
Breaking Bledsoe doesn’t need too much explanation, though it’s by far the most complex problem plaguing the guard. Would he have the mental fortitude to take a demotion in stride and reorient himself off the bench? What if it fails to spark anything and instead submerges his contributions further? Does it really matter since he’s getting pulled three minutes into the game anyhow? All of those questions are hard to parse from the outside and falls on Budenholzer to try answering.
And even with his struggles Bledsoe has found ways to try and be an effective piece. Milwaukee plays some of its best defense when he is on the floor (96.3 DRtg on v. 104.1 off), he continues to find teammates in scoring positions being responsible for 33.3% of the assists generated while he’s on the floor while managing simultaneous dips in raw assists and turnovers, and he’s probably still the best single guy available to assign on a supernova-hot Kyle Lowry to continue to try and slow down Lowry’s shooting while keeping Lowry from picking out Raptors for easy shots.
All that said, it needs to be acknowledged how horrid he’s been as a scoring option. He’s seen a 6% drop in attempts coming within three feet of the basket in the playoffs, but in the ECF has jumped from a .388 3PAr to .422; normally not a problem in Milwaukee’s three-heavy scheme, unless a guy taking 4.8 threes a game is only converting 10.5% of them. It is legitimately shocking to see how broken Bledsoe’s ability to score has been - he flashed at times against Boston but seems completely out of it on that end now. If you’re a neutral O, fine, the Bucks can survive that. If you’re an active detriment that allows the opponent to essentially build human walls to stop Antetokounmpo, not so much.
In my mind, putting Bledsoe on the bench isn’t the move. You may find a way to survive this series, but I am convinced that any shot you have at winning a championship will require Eric waking up. If defenders are going to leave you all alone outside, fine, either resolve yourself to an aggressive drive to the basket or pass out and re-position in hopes of finding a lane to cut open a defense that isn’t focused in on you. Keep doing your best to make Lowry’s life even a fraction more difficult and hold on for dear life because the team needs you.
Play Giannis and Khris in more minutes
Sometimes the simplest change is the one staring you right in the face. Of all the tools available to head coaches in the postseason, one of the easiest to pull is “increase the starters’ minutes”.
To an extent, coach Budenholzer has adhered to that dictum by boosting Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton from regular season averages of 32.8 & 31.1 MPG respectively to 37.7 & 36.0 MPG in the ECF. In contrast, Toronto has every one of its starters at ~30+ MPG with Kawhi Leonard topping out at 41.7 mins a night. That strategy can be effective to a point, but it’s like redlining your car: You might get a nice pop for a short while but the engine will implode eventually.
Nick Nurse appears willing to chance that implosion, though he has done a much better job distributing minutes to his bench guys to lighten the load just a tiny bit. Mirroring a redline approach could be difficult for Milwaukee because 1) They’re getting relatively solid minutes from the bench 2) Giannis and Khris have been prone to foul trouble due to defensive assignments and mental lapses 3) If you burn those guys out you’re really at a loss for who else to throw at Toronto in tight moments.
The Raptors’ found a way to survive an off night from Kawhi thanks to contributions from others; Milwaukee almost did the same in G3. Getting your top two players out there for a minute or two more might run up against the ceiling of diminishing returns without drawing enough on-court value to justify the decision.
The Bench Mob cometh
You ready for some off-the-wall ideas? How do minutes for Tony Snell, Sterling Brown, DJ Wilson, Bonzie Colson, or the corpse of Pau Gasol sound to you? Not great? Yeah, me neither. Maybe you can squeeze a few more possessions out of George Hill (who has been excellent all playoffs), but he’s already tied for fourth-highest number of minutes played with Malcolm Brogdon. Perhaps you cut out Pat Connaughton minutes and distribute a few more of those elsewhere, and you run right back into a redlining danger.
Milwaukee’s depth kept them churning through opponents during the entire regular season when there was ample opportunity to try different combinations out in search of the hot hand. Now you risk losing it all if you tinker too much with your back up against the wall.
I hear you asking across the digital void, “Is it really that simple?”
In my opinion, yes, it is. Looking back on games three and four, so much of what plagued the Bucks could be broken down to a lack of * deeeeeeeeeeeeep inhale * energy and effort on the defensive end. The Raptors came out energized and executing in every tight space the Bucks put them in. Any time Milwaukee saw Toronto move the ball around they failed to rotate hard enough or gave help in situations that didn’t demand it. Over in the scoring department, much of the trouble falls on Eric Bledsoe and Nikola Mirotic’s shoulders. If 2/5s of your players are non-factors it is inevitable that one of the league’s best defenses will find ways to make every possession a living nightmare for the other three.
All is not lost for Milwaukee: They have home court, they have the MVP, they have a system that generated massacre after massacre, and they have the force of destiny on their side.
It is up to them to grasp the hand history has stretched out to them; they’ve got three games to show they’re up to the task.