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Bucks Progress Report: East Semis

What grades do the Bucks receive for their series victory over Brooklyn?

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

While it may have only been by a literal inch, the Bucks won a Game 7 on the road to the complete astonishment of many, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons. It’s both the first Game 7 victory since 2001 and the first Game 7 victory on the road in franchise history (franchise-defining moments will abound in this article). Was it pretty? Rarely. Was either team healthy? Partially. Did the best team win? Ultimately! After Game 2, I would have been hard-pressed to grant anyone above a D since they looked like sweep fodder. Even after they won 4 of the next 5, it took extremely gutsy wins in back-to-back closeout games for the Bucks to save face, not to mention the season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last series: A-)

With the exception of Game 2, you’ll note some very gaudy and efficient statlines from Giannis this series, as he averaged a massive 31.9 points on 57.9% shooting and 12.9 boards. Of course, those numbers conceal the abject terror of seeing him at the charity stripe (though he hit 7 of his final 9 free throws in Game 7 after starting 1 for 5) and the eye-gouging frustration watching him jack up ill-advised jump shots, particularly early-shot clock threes. For the series’ first five games, it really appeared as though Giannis was trying to be Kevin Durant (who Giannis cited as an influence in a 2013 pre-draft interview), perhaps to make a point. Fortunately, he curtailed those unwise attempts in the closing games, made better decisions, and passed like a whiz. Though he was gassed, it resulted in a career-defining performance when Milwaukee needed it most. Plus, for all the rightful consternation over his three-point shooting, Giannis outshot Joe Harris—the NBA regular-season leader in 3P% at 47.5%—from deep over the series’ last five games: 26.1% to 24.2%.

Khris Middleton: A (last series: A+)

After no-showing Game 1 and missing his first 8 shots in Game 2, Middleton got the Bucks back in the series while Giannis struggled with his shot and Jrue Holiday somewhat vanished. He absolutely saved their season by outdueling Durant with a 38-point performance of his life in Game 6 at home, then saved it again by being arguably the Bucks’ most valuable player down the stretch of Game 7, when he played all but 39 seconds. His go-ahead shot with 40.7 remaining in overtime of that game is one of the most significant shots in Bucks history. Such heroics forgive transgressions in the opening games, some inefficient shooting numbers, and unevenness from deep outside of Games 3 and 6 (just 36.5% this series). Defensively, he was of great help switching onto Durant—forcing a missed jumper in the closing 40 seconds of OT last night—and notched 5 steals in both Games 6 and 7. When the dust settled from these 7 games, Middleton had a few of the Bucks’ best clutch performances of all time, right up there with Ray Allen in 2001.

Jrue Holiday: C (last series: A)

The fact that Milwaukee won this series in spite of a complete stinker from their third star is indicative of two things: the elite play of their other two stars and the fact that Brooklyn only played 43 seconds with all three of theirs. While he generally was a good passer (6.3 APG) plus helped on the glass (5.4 RPG), his main contribution to the series was defensive, as he held Kyrie Irving (20 PPG and just 10/29 from three) and then Harden (14.3 PPG on 30.6% shooting and one leg) and very much in check. However, when switching onto Durant he struggled more than any of the other Bucks who handled the Brooklyn star, spare forcing a very tired KD into an airball at the end of Game 7’s overtime period. On the other end, he became a bit of a liability, reminding us hauntingly of quarterbacks point guards past. Across the last two games, he missed 13 straight threes and began Game 7 an atrocious 2/15 from the field. Nevertheless, he broke through in the fourth with a critical 9 points including two huge triples in the closing 6 minutes, one of which also will count as one of the franchise’s biggest ever to put the Bucks ahead with 2:32 remaining in regulation.

Brook Lopez: A- (last series: A)

Bucks fans got a taste of Splash Mountain again as Lopez hit 40.7% of his three-point attempts against his former team, and was the only Buck outside of Giannis to show up in Game 1’s loss (19 points). It wasn’t until Game 6 and 7, though, did he again exhibit the interior scoring prowess he demonstrated so often in the regular season. Oddly, he took just two shots in the restricted area in Games 3 and 4 (zero in the latter) as we all scratched our heads; shouldn’t Brook be used to attack the rim against the Nets’ suspect paint defense? He gets a big demerit for losing track of the shot clock with 7 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 7, but he redeemed himself with one of the most critical blocks in franchise history (it’s nice to type that phrase so often) on a driving Durant in OT. Lopez was sensational at protecting the rim all series (2.0 BPG including 6 in Game 3) and gave the Nets very few opportunities at clean looks down low. He was being killed in the pick-and-roll by KD in Game 5 and perhaps he should have played less towards the end of Game 7 (his late gaffe notwithstanding), but it’s impressive that he was generally a plus in closing lineups, even when Brooklyn went small.

P.J. Tucker: A (last series: A)

As anyone with two eyes knows, Kevin Durant is one of the best basketball players in the history of the human race. This series may have been peak KD, a stupendous achievement after his Achilles tear two years ago. Pops Junior Tucker knows this and is well-equipped to guard his longtime buddy after facing him for years in big Western Conference postseason matchups so the mutual respect was evident, even when they quibbled. While earlier in the series he appeared to have few answers for the Nets superstar and his all-time great jumper, Tucker held Durant to a respectable 45.4% from the field and a stellar 30.8% from behind the arc in 59 minutes as KD’s primary defender across all 7 games, per In Game 7, Tucker victimized KD for 2 of his 3 steals and both of the blocks he registered while going one-on-one for over 11 minutes of game time. Not even a bodyguard could separate Tucker from Durant’s hip. Yes, KD went the distance in two games this series and had two of the best postseason games ever, but this much is always likely. In total, I don’t think you could have asked for a better defensive effort by Tucker. Furthermore, his two big offensive performances in Games 4 (13 points and 3/6 from three) and 7 (11 and 3/5) weren’t just nice bonuses, they were essential. Though his jumper is about as pretty as Game 3 of this series, those corner threes are always there for him.

Pat Connaughton: B+ (last series: A)

This was not a banner series for the Bucks’ reserves in the slightest, but Connaughton became rather effective as the series progressed, after being invisible in its first three contests. Like every Buck, his three-point stroke escaped him (6/21), but half of his makes came last night with the season on the line. Game 4 was his best performance, though, going +23 with 4 steals and 2 blocks. With the starters playing heavy minutes, the energy Milwaukee received from Connaughton went a long way as fatigue set in and legs got tired.

Bryn Forbes: C- (last series: A+)

While Forbes appeared in every game, his minutes were slashed after the first two as he couldn’t carry over his shooting magic from the Miami series. Last night he saw a mere 5 minutes. To Brooklyn’s credit, it was clear they were keying in on him after he blitzed the Heat because from the get-go, Forbes had no good looks. He’d finish shooting an uncharacteristic 27.3% from downtown, and though he did have two double-digit efforts early in the series, they didn’t seem important. Has he bricked himself out of the rotation?

Bobby Portis: D+ (last series: A)

Once Portis hit the bench for Game 5 and remained glued there for the series’ duration, there weren’t many moments where the Bucks could have used him. This was never a good matchup for him given Brooklyn’s offensive firepower and his defensive limitations, but he flashed some surprisingly good rim protection early in Game 4. When he did play, he provided little scoring. He may have been useful in Game 5 as the Nets charged back into the game and the Bucks needed an easy bucket to stop the run, but it’s just as likely he’d have given those points back on the other end: those Game 4 blocks were probably a fluke.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo: B+ (last series: injured)

Though he made no huge defensive stops himself, it’s commendable how Thanasis has taken to his new role of entering at the ends of first and third quarters to prevent late buckets. He knows that immediately once they get a stop, his work is done and he trots to the bench before Bud calls his name, even enthusiastically ushering in a competent offensive player himself. The Bucks closed quarters well this series, a task they struggled with at times in the regular season. Thanasis deserves credit for helping that happen.

Mike Budenholzer: B- (last series: A)

Coaching for his career, Bud slowly made the necessary adjustments before Milwaukee’s season was completely sunk. You can definitely make the case that the Bucks should have won this in fewer games since Games 1 and 5 felt like such missed opportunities. This was all because of their ineptitude at scoring the basketball the first four games when as we all have bemoaned, the Bucks went iso-heavy and looked terrible doing it. For many stretches in these games—plus in the second half of Game 5 as their chance at taking a 3-2 series lead slipped away—it seemed like Bud was making an active choice to not do what worked against Miami and in the regular season. Their halfcourt sets didn’t exploit obvious mismatches such as anyone on a one-legged Harden, almost as if they meant to avoid them. The Bucks simply weren’t running offense. At really no point, though, in Games 6 or 7 did it appear this was the case as they ran much less hero-ball. Was Bud trying to beat the Nets at their own game at times? Does he deserve some criticism for the complete absence of ball movement for multi-game stretches? These both felt like playcalling decisions from the bench rather than the players. At least he devised a sound defensive gameplan for the Nets that only failed them in Game 2. Even as they blew their Game 5 lead, it’s hard to pin the evening’s failure on an inability to get stops when an all-time great is going supernova.

Flagrant Foul Upon Entering Game A: Mamadi Diakite (9 minutes)

Why Did You Play Real Minutes At All? C: Jeff Teague (21), Elijah Bryant (21)

Garbage Time A: Justin Jackson (10), Sam Merrill (7), Axel Toupane (2)

Injured A: Donte DiVincenzo (foot), Jordan Nwora (thigh)

It’s no exaggeration to label this series as a crossroads for the franchise: jobs are safe and legacies are not tarnished yet. Milwaukee certainly caught a break at the very end, and I can entertain arguments that the better team may not have won this series, but consider how just a few things outside a team’s control going their way can benefit them. To win their titles, Golden State needed injuries to two of Cleveland’s three most important players in the 2015 Finals, those same Cavs needed Draymond Green’s deserved suspension in the 2016 Finals, Golden State needed Kawhi Leonard to land on Zaza Pachulia’s foot in the 2017 West Finals, those same Warriors needed Chris Paul to injure his hamstring in the 2018 West Finals, Toronto needed several bounces on a buzzer-beater in their 2019 East Semifinal matchup, and last year’s Lakers needed injuries to two of the Heat’s three most important players. Every champion catches breaks.