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Bucks Progress Report: East Finals

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

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While the Bucks didn’t defy many odds on paper, beating the pesky and talented Hawks—even without a fully healthy Trae Young—in Games 5 and 6 with Giannis in street clothes feels like a coup. Then again, the Bucks simply making the freaking NBA Finals feels like a coup, regardless of how great they’ve been in seasons gone by. When Milwaukee embarked on its march through the East in 2019 and took the first two games from the Raptors, a Finals berth became my baseline expectation for the Bud era. I wasn’t surprised that they came up short in 2019–20, but I certainly am surprised this year. Now that they’ve finally achieved it, I’m still not ready to raise my expectations for a ring given Giannis’ health. But if they don’t do it this year, when will they? We’ve seen just how hard it is to even get there.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last series: A)

The primary component of this A relates to how Giannis maintains his body. While the Bucks training staff deserves a LOT of plaudits (see below), we all know how serious Giannis is in the gym. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that had he not spent years developing his superhuman strength—in this case in his quads, calves, and hamstrings—the very difficult-to-watch left knee hyperextension we all witnessed could have resulted in the serious injury we all feared. Such an injury can damage ligaments if the musculature around the knee isn’t as well developed, but I’m no medical doctor. Anywho, Giannis was outstanding in the three full games he played (26.5 PPG, 10 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.0 BPG this series) and while he struggled in the first half of Game 4, he clearly was getting going before his injury as he became aggressive and attacked Atlanta in the paint. Another comeback W looked to be in the cards that night. He even had a couple of respectable nights from the foul line to start the series. Here’s hoping we see him soon.

Khris Middleton: A (last series: A)

Do not tell me Khris Middleton isn’t a star. I really do not care that he struggled in Game 1 and 4 in losing efforts when the series was not truly on the line. I really do not care that he only shot 27.5% from three as his outside shooting has continued to flag this postseason (but what Buck’s hasn’t?). I really do not care that he had 6 turnovers in the first half of Game 6. Ok, fine. I do care about these things, but not much because this man scored 20 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3, outscoring an entire team (even as Trae Young played on a bum foot) to will his team to a comeback victory in an effort that would make MJ or Kobe proud. I do not care about those other transgressions because he put up 13 unanswered points as part of a personal 16-2 run in the third quarter of a closeout game. seizing control of Game 6 and coronating a Finals trip. These are things that NBA stars do and you cannot tell me otherwise.

Jrue Holiday: A (last series: C)

While two inefficient scoring outings in Games 3 and 4 (though he notched 12 and 9 assists in each) bookended sensational two-game sets on either side of the series, it’s hard to not be thrilled with Holiday’s performance in this series. His three-point stroke returned to reliability (37% on 46 3PA) and he sliced through Atlanta’s interior with ease to the rim for a good dozen beautiful finishes. I won’t say his defense on Young was good in Game 1, but in the next five games, there were no Hawks able to get much going offensively on Holiday. No Buck allowed a lower FG% on shots he defended than Holiday (39.7%) just as no Buck defended more attempts than Holiday (14.6 per game) in the series. The only nitpick I have is his foul shooting (13/21, including back-to-back misses in Game 6), and though I’ve never felt he’s quite as good as his 78.7% regular-season rate from the charity stripe, it’s not worth losing sleep.

Brook Lopez: A+ (last series: A-)

I recognize that Lopez was played off the floor a bit in Game 1 as Young abused the Bucks’ drop zone with floaters off pick & rolls, but I was advocating for his return late in that game as Atlanta stole the win on the offensive glass. With the proper adjustments to not drop him back as far plus letting him switch onto all positions, Lopez then became a force in the series at all areas of the floor. He had his best three-point shooting night in some time for Game 2 (3/5), he assumed Giannis’ interior scoring domination in Game 5 (playoff career-high 33 on 14/16 shooting inside 15 feet), and was a continual lob threat whenever on the floor. As critical as that all was, I think his defense was better, and not just for the 3+ blocks in the final two games of the series. Lopez essentially saved the W in Game 6 in the closing two minutes getting two key stops on Young drives to the hoop, not to mention his one-handed alley-oop on the other end to ice the win. He had multiple successful thwartings of the Hawks star point guard on the perimeter too. I’m confident that the Bucks would have lost this series without his contributions.

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

This wasn’t the banner defensive series for Tucker’s postseason (so far, anyway) but it’s not as though his efforts on Atlanta’s wings (Bogdanovic and Reddish) and bigs (Collins and Gallinarri) weren’t critical, since each of those Hawks had at least one night where they demanded a lot of attention. Ever switchable, he had many credible possessions guarding Young—both pre and post-injury—that took the pressure off Holiday and Giannis to keep them fresh on the other end. While Tucker was known for prolifically draining corner threes in Houston days, and it’s never a bad outcome for the offense when he has an open shot in the corner to end a possession, his jumper form (while it never looked good) looks awful as ever. It seemed largely broken this series outside of early in Game 4, but at least he finally made a big one late in Game 6 after missing his first six. Also, his finishing around the rim seems to be getting worse, but thankfully the Bucks seem to recognize this and keep a trailer behind him or sends someone to the dunker spot immediately when he gets close to the hoop for putbacks.

Bobby Portis: A (last series: D+)

We’ll all remember his hair-raising Game 5 for the rest of our lives, but Portis made an impact on the series in the manner he has all season immediately upon stepping onto the court in Game 1 after three DNP-CDs to finish out the Nets series. Though it wasn’t from draining threes (just 5/19 this series) as he often had in the regular season, he gobbled up rebounds and flashed his sublime touch around the basket as we’ve come to expect. It felt like everything he did each minute he was on the floor, even the little things, were all instrumental in winning this series. I’m not sure he’ll have the same opportunity for such exploits against the Suns and their elite defensive frontcourt of DeAndre Ayton and Jae Crowder (not to mention dangerous shooting forwards like Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson), but he’s never really let imposing bigs stop him once he enters games.

Pat Connaughton: A- (last series: B+)

Though he was invisible in Game 1, Connaughton was huge off the bench in the deciding Game 6 to go along with great minutes in the previous 4 matchups. Logging heavy minutes in those tight affairs and assuming the off-ball guard role in closing lineups, he had big moments on both ends to maintain leads with both timely triples (38.1% this series) and by forcing turnovers. As fellow regular season bench cohorts Tucker and Portis have transitioned into and out of the starting lineup, Connaughton remains the reliable high-performing reserve that every Finals team needs, capable of knocking down a big shot in big moments and being impactful nearly every game of a series.

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

It’s been a full month of cold shooting from the increasingly benched sniper after Hurricane Bryn devastated Miami in the first round. While most of Forbes’ three-point attempts feel like really difficult shots (though that was the case all regular season too), it’s not as though he’s incapable of such feats. In fact, he seems to usually hunt them out and convert such opportunities, tight defense and all. I doubt he’s had this long a sustained cold streak in years, so I won’t be shocked to see him bust out of it with a big game in the Finals. I won’t be shocked if he stays icy either, though.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo: C- (last series: B+)

Just a quick word on Thanasis, who played only 18 minutes this series though all but a few came when Game 2 was already in hand. I think his late-first or third-quarter defensive insertions are a solid idea when a stop can maintain a nice lead going into a break, but when he’s fouling as much as he did in Game 5 (3 in 3 minutes!), maybe it’s time to rely on Holiday, Middleton, or Tucker in those scenarios.

Jeff Teague: B (last series: C)

I won’t give him too much blame for the puzzling sequence of Game 1 where he guarded Young while Holiday was on the floor, but like most of us I threw my hands up even in the 2–4 minute stretches he’d enter for in the ensuing games... until Game 6. I again was ready to wring my hands, but big ups to him for not passing up open threes (as he’s wont to do) but making them, during a stretch where no Buck could buy a three to save their life. It was a great performance on his former home floor (maybe he should only play serious minutes at State Farm Arena) as if he were exacting revenge, but moreover, it seemed to spur the Bucks into finishing 16/36 from downtown after starting at 1/9 in the first quarter.

Mike Budenholzer: A (last series: B-)

With the Jeff Teague experiment validated on Saturday night (I’ll call it even after the Bucks hemorrhaged points with him on the floor in Game 1), let’s move on to all the honestly fantastic adjustments Bud made in the series, which are a huge reason Milwaukee is in the NBA Finals. First came not dropping Lopez as far back in drop coverage after Game 1. An adjustment that many fans called for that directly impacted Game 2, a wire-to-wire blowout where Trae Young crashed back down to earth with 15 points on 6/16 shooting after floatering the Bucks to death the game before for 48. Next came switching everything once Giannis was ruled out of the series, immediately from the tip of Game 5. Not just 1–4 as we’ve seen, but even through Lopez, who showed us all what many Bucks fans couldn’t see due to the constant zone dropping and his late-game exits for small lineups: Lopez can defend anyone one-on-one, even Young. Sure, Games 5 and 6 weren’t sterling defensive efforts and Young sat out, but you can’t ask for much more without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Each of these defensive adjustments, which either altered the base defensive scheme significantly or abandoned it altogether, wrestled control of the series firmly back to the Bucks and made Giannis’ loss pretty manageable. Plus, with the exception of Game 4 (put more of that blame on the players for lacking energy), Milwaukee’s half-court offense was quite solid the rest of the series and had little trouble generating good looks. Atlanta refused to allow fastbreak opportunities with their ceaseless take fouls, but this kind of success bodes well for late postseason series when transition opportunities are few and far between.

Suki Hobson and the Bucks training staff: A+++++++

Thanks for making the Game 4 loss look slightly more respectable As: Jordan Nwora (16 minutes), Elijah Bryant (16), Mamadi Diakite (14), Justin Jackson (3)

Knocking Capela’s Block Off A: Sam Merrill (9 minutes)

After two years of coming up short, here we are in the promised land. Does Milwaukee’s experience edge matter in the series ahead? Outside of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder (who have just one Finals appearance between them), will the lack of postseason minutes from Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, etc. affect them drastically when facing Middleton, Lopez, Holiday, and (especially) Tucker? Will three rounds of opponents missing a key star (and being down 2-1 to the Lakers before they lost Davis) expose Phoenix if/when Giannis returns? If/when he does, how long will it take him to regain his form, and how can Bud reintegrate him into a system that is purring along rather nicely at present? Can the Bucks win in Phoenix, historically (recall that they did not win a game there from 1987–2013 and have yet to win on their floor under Bud) one of their hardest road stops? These are the main questions I have for the NBA Finals. Given how well the Bucks’ top seven players (sorry Forbes) performed under heightened pressure against Atlanta, particularly in the wake of Giannis’ injury, they may just be up to the task. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.