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Bucks Progress Report: First Round

What grades do the Bucks receive for their sweep over Miami?

2021 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks

Like some of you, I felt unease brought on by the 2019–20 season at the prospect of facing the Heat. How satisfyingly was that abated by the sweet tonic of a dominating first-round sweep! There is very little to criticize for the Bucks’ utter dismemberment of their former tormenters, especially from their role players. Milwaukee has set a rather high standard for themselves indeed, and even the national media is taking notice.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: A-

While the jumper wasn’t working very well, The Freak figured out Miami’s interior defense after one game. It seemed like he may have forgotten his struggles from last year in Game 1: missing free throws, not playing within himself by barreling at Miami’s wall, making turnovers off bad passes/strips/charges, and generally displaying the same kind of poor decision-making that doomed him in the bubble. Honestly, it felt like he was hurting their chances of winning down the stretch, and the Bucks were wise to shift a lot of usage to Khris Middleton in the waning minutes of OT. It didn’t take long for him to wise up, though: in Game 2, he found much more effectiveness as a role man (more of this, please). By the closeout Game 4, he was finding open shooters with aplomb too. One element of his game that never wavered in the series, though, was his lockdown defense on Jimmy Butler.

Jrue Holiday: A

With two double-digit assist performances, this series was peak Holiday-as-a-distributor while he slid into a third/fourth scoring option role. As expected, he managed to be the first Buck guard in seemingly forever to shut down Goran Dragic (and let me go on record here: Dragic is one of the league’s dirtiest players), after I worried Dragic would be up to his usual tricks based on Game 1. Incredibly, Holiday was a sensational +98 while on the floor of this series. Plus/minus numbers can be deceiving, but if you watched the entirety of all four games, that figure very much matched the eye test.

Khris Middleton: A+

The Bucks’ offense looked worryingly ineffective until midway through the second quarter in Game 1 when Middleton took charge of the offense with Giannis out. In general, good things were happening in this series when Middleton had the keys. On the other side, once he became Duncan Robinson’s primary defender, the Heat sharpshooter vanished from the series. While Robinson went off in Game 1, the Bucks struggled to contain dribble handoffs between him and Bam Adebayo on the wing, giving up many open looks from deep. It wasn’t until the second half when Middleton began going over those screens was that threat neutralized.

Brook Lopez: A

Lopez has obviously established himself as an excellent rim protector since arriving in Milwaukee, but never have I seen him get so deep inside an opponent’s head on defense as he did with Adebayo this series. Those deep drops that dared the Heat big man to put up inefficient jumpers had him clearly shook. It almost seemed like that carried over to the other end as well since Lopez was easily able to score at the rim most of the series, both by receiving passes from the dunker spot or from the high post. Interesting fact: Lopez had zero assists this series, but that does not feel selfish in the slightest. The Bucks ran plays for him frequently and the Heat never made him pass out of those, allowing him to score.

Donte DiVincenzo: C

Perhaps he was robbed of some redemption with his injury—and he will surely be missed moving forward—DiVincenzo did not look the part of a starter on a title contender in his first appearance as one. He did nothing wrong defensively so he didn’t really hurt the Bucks at all, and his shooting volume was appropriately low, but 3/16 across 3 games (1/4 inside the arc) isn’t deserving of heavy postseason minutes. I did appreciate his defensive effort as a surprise closing lineup member in Game 1, though I would have preferred P.J. Tucker. In any case, his best postseason matchup would likely have been Brooklyn, so I fully expected he’d have improved as the playoffs continue.

Bobby Portis: A

Apparently, the Heat were close to signing Portis this offseason but didn’t meet his contract preferences. He made them pay for that transgression, but this was really just more of the same we saw from Portis all year. A very effective interior game highlighted by his automatic and soft touch within 10 feet (these days I’m shocked when his floater or jump hook doesn’t fall), frequently sinking triples, and even some solid interior defense to boot. These offensive weapons are huge off the bench and can bail the Bucks out of scoreless stretches, though we saw few of those against Miami.

P.J. Tucker: A

I had the privilege of being in Fiserv Forum for Game 2 (that first quarter was one of the wildest things I’ve seen in person), and as soon as he entered, Tucker’s defensive intensity was palpable. On multiple possessions, both he and Holiday absolutely stonewalled Butler on the perimeter, which got serious rises out of the crowd. How often do you hear the volume you’d usually associate with a made layup from home fans with on-ball defense as the shot clock ticks? It requires an elite defender like Tucker on a legit star like Butler.

Bryn Forbes: A+

I could write up something more insightful about such a huge performance, but I think the following NOAA weather report* speaks for itself. Hurricane Bryn (60 points) made landfall in South Florida last week as a category 5 storm. Widespread destruction followed and millions of Miami-area residences remain without NBA basketball in his devastating wake. Preliminary reports show that no storm has wrought such deeply-felt (16/33 from downtown) damage since 2014’s Hurricane Kawhi. In related news, Tropical Storm Jimmy (58 points) has been downgraded to a cirrus cloud.

Pat Connaughton: A

Both Connaughton and Forbes spearheaded what was otherwise a weak Bucks three-point assault (32.7% as a team this series). While overshadowed by his backcourt mate’s Games 2 and 4 onslaughts got all the attention, his efforts in Games 2 and 3 were big reasons the Bucks opened up such insurmountable leads. We haven’t seen this type of postseason shooting prowess from Planet Pat since the 2019 Boston series, and he really struggled to shoot in the second-round exit to Miami last year. He has the confidence that DiVincenzo doesn’t right now, and if he can credibly maintain the same level of defense (by no means a guarantee), the Bucks should be fine plowing ahead with him in the starting lineup.

Mike Budenholzer: A

The last time I saw Bud outcoach a well-regarded opponent was also the 2019 Boston series, though I’m of the opinion that Brad Stevens was never an elite coach, merely a good one. Erik Spoelstra, however, is a future Hall of Fame coach. I never thought I’d say this, but after thoroughly being outwitted by him in the bubble, I think it’s clear that Bud won the coaching matchup this year. His rotation decisions were sound, he developed an outstanding defensive gameplan (that he stuck to), he avoided defensive sets that looked ineffective in the regular season, and he pulled the right strings at the right times to spark the halfcourt offense by running it through Middleton and Holiday when necessary. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by how quickly he made these adjustments too because I recall thinking after the opening quarter in Game 1 that like Giannis, he hadn’t seemed to learn anything from being embarrassed by Miami in 2020. To me, the turning point was in the closing minutes of that first half when they established a lead, which they wouldn’t really surrender until Game 4.

Garbage Time A: Jordan Nwora (13 minutes), Elijah Bryant (12), Sam Merrill (12), Mamadi Diakite (12), Jeff Teague (10), Axel Toupane (8), Justin Jackson (1)

Shoutout to all these guys for closing out 3 playoff wins despite being buried on the bench after the starters thrashed Miami.

*not actually a weather report

In two days, we’ll find out if this excellence—particularly defensively—can be maintained against many people’s title favorites. While it wasn’t the case in previous years, Miami’s offense was quite mediocre (maybe that’s being a little generous), though that doesn’t make Milwaukee’s defensive masterpiece less impressive. Holding an opponent to 107, 98, 84, and 103 across four games (with one OT even!) in the playoffs is always laudatory. Brooklyn, however, is a historically elite offense by the numbers. In fact, they have the best offensive rating in league history. Should the Bucks be able to approximate the prowess they sported against the Heat moving forward, I’ll be thoroughly convinced of their title chances. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.