I get all the glass half-empty sentiment after the Milwaukee Bucks Game Three squeaker of a win over the Brooklyn Nets. It’s not often two top-five offenses in the regular season devolve into putrid performances reminiscent of basketball from an entire other era, but here we are. For a series that started with many prematurely calling it the “real” NBA Finals, it’s far from lived up to that billing. The blame falls squarely on the Bucks shoulders. Despite the fact each team has held serve on their home court, no Bucks fan would find that comforting. After watching each game, there’s no other takeaway than feeling like Milwaukee is on tilt.
That being said, I hope there was a contingent of readers who were able to savor the bits of victory on Thursday, with Khris Middleton delivering down the stretch to snatch a win. We went years without any semblance of playoff success, so I soaked it up in the moment, even if I understand the reality of what has battered our eyeballs for 144 minutes of on-court action this series. Before Game Three, Andrew laid out a few items on Milwaukee’s to-do list: exploiting the size mismatch, Giannis playing smarter, passing the ball, and Khris/Jrue Holiday playing competently. Our answers to those requests, in order: whoops, LOL, nah and...hey, half a checkmark!
The simplicity of Andrew’s list explains the root of so much frustration for Bucks fans. We just saw this team accomplish every one of those items against a purportedly superior defense in Miami. We’re not asking for some 2014 Spurs basketball nirvana stuff here, we’ll take a well-executed pick-and-rolls, possessions that go beyond Giannis pull-up triples and a semblance of cohesion among the five players on the court. At times on Thursday, it felt as if Milwaukee was playing two-on-five offensively, with Khris and Giannis combining for an unthinkable percentage of the team’s points.
Giannis:— StatMuse (@statmuse) June 11, 2021
— 33 PTS
— 14 REB
— in 43 MINS
— 35 PTS
— 15 REB
— in 44 MINS
They combined for 79% of the Bucks points tonight, the highest by any duo in NBA playoff history. pic.twitter.com/If8p6ViRpY
Brook Lopez found himself relegated to a perimeter role once again with Bud opting for Giannis pick-and-rolls; in turn, he was basically invisible and went 1-5 from deep. Holiday, unflappable and assertive against Miami, looks tentative and discombobulated. Bryn Forbes has been blanketed. P.J. Tucker isn’t going to score. It says plenty about the peripheral pieces that Bobby Buckets scoring four points in a two minute stretch and Pat Connaughton snaring two offensive boards felt like a divine gift from the basketball deities.
So as we stare into a two-day layoff before an (gulp) afternoon tip for Game Four, what are we left to think about this team that aced the first round and turned into a pumpkin in the second? Brooklyn very well may have sandbagged the regular season defensively, but they’re not doing anything we didn’t expect them to do against Giannis. They’re still sagging off, asking him to gobble up space and attack the rim. He put up gaudy numbers against Brooklyn in the regular season and has fallen flat on his face given the stakes, even with the victory in Game Three. He’s nowhere near the right calibration of aggression and intelligent decision making. If he can’t overcome Brooklyn’s one-on-one defense, the Bucks shooters aren’t going to find open spaces, and Milwaukee is toast. We all can look at his shot chart and know whether he’s likely made a smart choice with a possession. In the intensity of a game situation, will he? The evidence points to no.
Everything in this series leads back to Giannis. He needs to win his battles, he needs to not butterfinger passes to him in the pick-and-roll, he needs to make faster, better reads when he chooses to drive, etc. Still, there’s plenty across the board to complain about too. Khris no-showed Games One and Two. Holiday hasn’t shown enough of the deft finishing around the rim or in the paint and seems content to take a severely diminished role despite ostensibly being the Bucks second best player in the regular season. Brook Lopez’s size mismatch doesn’t matter anymore, I guess? Doom and gloom is our default, and the Bucks haven’t given us plenty of reasons to revert back to that safe haven.
And yet...they’re still in this thing! Sure the Nets don’t have James Harden or Jeff Green (yet...) but you can only play the dudes who are in front of you. For all the faults in Game Three, they did manage to close it out with late-game execution that flew in the face of our assumptions this team would find a way to blow it. At some point, 3-point mean reversion has to occur with the Bucks at 20-88 (22.7%) through these contests. Granted, it would help if fewer of those chucks came from Giannis, but still. Maybe Middleton is finally through his shooting slump? Perhaps Jrue’s late-game bucket will give him a boost to blast through Brooklyn’s woeful perimeter defenders with more purpose. Lopez has gotten roasted in the midrange and needs to be better deterring floaters, but the Bucks needed every one of his six blocks and contest at the end to win. P.J. Tucker dogged Durant for the entire game and hyped up a home crowd. Maybe, like Game One against Miami, this team was so tightly wound it just needed a win to uncoil its offensive mess?
Tactically, I just don’t have much to say beyond “play better.” Milwaukee has the offensive tools in their bag, they just aren’t deploying them the same way we watched all year. Defensively, Brooklyn missed tons of shots in Game Three they’ll make going forward, and the switching/not switching is still reaching infuriating levels at times, but they just held a juggernaut to an 84.1 offensive rating; it’s the offense that needs to wake up.
I know, I know, a lot of the above is admittedly grasping at straws. But still, for all the issues, the Bucks found a way to win a game. In season’s past, I would’ve expected these dogs to just roll over. For now, at least we get to keep grasping at something?