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Survive and Adapt: On Head Coach Mike Budenholzer

The oft-criticized head coach delivered adjustments when it mattered this postseason

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When Mike Budenholzer stepped on the sidelines for Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets, some small part of him had to know that 2.5 hours later, he would either be updating his resume or locking himself in the film room. Given his preposterous success with this franchise in comparison to its past coaches (who, somehow, are now gainfully employed), the very concept of “playing for his job” seems ludicrous. But, after two postseason failures and an offseason where the front office cashed in all its chips, it was understandable.

Two weeks later, Mike Budenholzer has coached this team to the NBA F*&$%*# Finals. You can hold off on updating those certified skills on LinkedIn coach.

I hesitate to even call it a love-hate relationship with Coach Bud given it’s hard to remember the love at times (ah, those blue square salad days...), but the oft-criticized leader of this squad has delivered this postseason. This isn’t to completely absolve him of all decisions. Sure, the rotation can seem puzzling (Elijah Bryant?), the offense can look stagnant and the drop coverage can drive you up a wall when it isn’t working. But, given all the slings and arrows slung his way, it’s worth taking a collective breath and offering up our kudos.

All season long, we saw Bud acquiesce to calls for diversifying Milwaukee’s defensive approach. We saw switching and zones throughout, and while they never looked all that sound throughout the regular season in my opinion, this team is in no way ready for the Playoffs without those reps. Maddening switch screw-ups aside, in the aggregate, this Bucks team has put forth the best defensive team in the NBA this postseason. Offensively, he worked Giannis in the pick-and-roll more, he added the dunker spot as a way to open up outlet valves for his star and found better ways to utilize Brook Lopez inside as the season progressed. That last point has paid off in spades this Playoffs. Tinkering worked, and Bud willingly bent his rigid schemes that gave Milwaukee the tools to pull off this miraculous run.

Round one started with the “Spo is gonna coach circles around Bud” narrative. It was a valid criticism at the time given what had happened in the bubble. Whoopsies. Bud immediately employed his most versatile defender, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on Jimmy Butler, who twisted the Heat’s All-Star out of his stupidly locked in game. Bud kept to his principles with a zone drop that mitigated any sort of momentum Spo hoped to gain from Bam Adebayo’s relentless perimeter screening, passing and rolling. As a result, the Heat’s free-flowing system looked stupidly locked up. He also asked Khris Middleton to fight like hell around picks and keep Duncan Robinson from ever feeling comfortable. After Game One, mission accomplished. On the other end, they hunted Robinson and Dragic relentlessly. It was such a thorough takedown, Bud didn’t even really get the chance to make adjustments.

That changed in Round two, when his team could’ve folded after the 40-point humiliation in Game Two against Steve Nash’s Brooklyn Nets. Yes, Nash was at a disadvantage given his team’s health situation, but he also spent the whole season working through those exact scenarios. He tinkered out of necessity, and the Nets were more than prepared to play at less than full strength. And if you’re going to hand the entire reins of an offense off to one player, is there a better option right now than Kevin Durant?

Whatever happened in those first two contests, Bud altered the approach going forward, moving Lopez further out the perimeter in hopes of creating one small gasp of air for Giannis and company to drive through. Game Three was simply about survival. We all watched a Bucks team fold two years ago in a pivotal Game Three against Toronto. This time, they came through, and evened up the series after winning both contests on their home court. The offense looked horrendous against Brooklyn, and while some of that falls on Bud, it’s also incumbent upon the players to avoid the tantalizing nature of a mismatch. They fell into one-action possessions, but they found more success as the series unfolded.

Bud’s decision to start PJ Tucker for that series might’ve been his most important of the Playoffs. Not only did Tucker fighting around screens help make Durant “uncomfortable” from jump, it also set the terms of engagement for the refs. Were they going to let this turn into a drag-out fight? Or get whistle happy from the outset? Bud’s never been one to argue for calls, but I thought that was a subtle way to try and tip the scales in his team’s favor. And as for the rotations? Well, once Steve Nash gave Kevin Durant the “Tim Frazier treatment,” Bud countered aptly. He cut the rotation to its barest bones, but still squeezed in momentary bits of rest of his superstars. Finally, in the last gasps of overtime, those extra breathers paid off. Milwaukee had one ounce left in the tank while the Nets were running on empty. Letting his players go the distance, in contrast to his rigid rest management strategies of year’s past, was another season-long adjustment.

I think Round Three might’ve been the most fitting culmination of Bud’s work this season. The Teague minutes in Game One were a mistake, I think even he would admit that, but he implored his team to punish the Hawks repeatedly down low. Even throughout his “let it fly” years, this team was at its most deadly when it acknowledged the three-ball wasn’t falling on a particular night and still found ways to win through sheer force of will inside. He tweaked the drop coverage in Game Two to bring Brook up higher, an adjustment that turned that contest into a boatrace. When Brook’s defense wasn’t slowing down Trae, he downsized, and trusted his smallball unit to bring home the win for Game Three.

Finally, after the Game Four debacle and losing their star player, it would’ve been easy to make excuses for this team. They were able to use it as the world’s tiniest crutch for last year’s loss to Miami after all. Instead, this feels like the moment when Bud’s culture building helped paid off. Yes, it seems floofy, but for a player like Bobby Portis to go from three straight DNP-CD’s, to having the confidence to deliver when called upon to start, that’s a credit to Bud’s entire coaching staff. They created a culture of lifting players up rather than telling them what they can or can’t do. Plopping Bobby in the starting lineup and going immediately to switching 1-5 wasn’t something I think any of us expected, and it delivered a team without its star a berth in the NBA Finals for the first time in 47 years.

The quibbling won’t stop of course. We’ll probably pull our hair out with some Game One Jeff Teague minutes. We’ll probably wonder why he still lets Giannis shoots those threes. The laundry list of issues will continue, but for now, it’s been a postseason worth celebrating for Mike Budenholzer. For a prideful coach, it couldn’t have been easy to have his (successful) systems challenged and recognize that change was necessary. But whatever you want to say about the guy, he delivered with adjustments we didn’t see in past seasons. And now, he just won three straight coaching matchups in the Playoffs. Not bad for someone who was “replaced” before he was ever fired.