The Milwaukee Bucks had it. They had it. Up 2 games to 1 over the Boston Celtics and up seven points at the end of the fourth quarter, at home, and with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead, the Bucks had it.
And then they didn’t.
You don’t have to look too hard to see what went wrong in the fourth quarter, because it was everything. Boston shot 16-for-19 from the field. Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford (the Celtics hero of the day) connected on fifteen of those shots, nine of which were assisted. Milwaukee’s vaunted defense that had carried them into Monday evening sputtered out, and the Bucks’ offense was nowhere near close enough to make up for it. Giannis missed four field goals, and Jrue Holiday missed all five of his attempts, and no one else (besides the ever-reliable Brook Lopez, who scored 10 points in the period) was able to get any scoring going.
Quarter four of Game 4 was the epitome of the argument for the Celtics winning the series: without Khris Middleton, Milwaukee simply doesn’t have enough juice to create scoring opportunities. The Bucks desperately miss his shooting, his playmaking, and yes, his mastery of conducting the Tough Shot Express. But it’s not as simple as “oh, they missed Khris, and therefore they lost.” It’s that without his versatility, the connective tissue that he creates on the court, the Milwaukee Bucks system struggles to function.
To be clear, Boston’s offense exploded in the fourth quarter. They hit shot after shot after shot, and some of them were defended as well as could be expected. The Celtics deserve credit for that, they seized their opportunities and executed when it mattered most. But up until that point, the Bucks defense was still holding up. In the first half, Milwaukee had a defensive rating of 97.9, and in the third quarter they managed to hold Boston to 96.3. In the first 36 minutes, the Bucks had stymied the Celtics and manufactured enough points to carry an advantage into the final stanza of Game 4.
But nothing lasts forever, and that includes defensive execution. It was evident in watching the fourth quarter that Giannis Antetokounmpo was positively gassed, which is saying something considering his reputation and conditioning level. The level of fatigue that Giannis played with – and through – is commendable...but his effectiveness clearly drops off after a certain point. He might be the Greek Freak, but he’s still human. And when that happens, Milwaukee has no one left to pick up the slack on offense...except Jrue Holiday.
Let’s talk about Jrue Holiday. Without him, the Bucks don’t win last year’s NBA Finals. Without him, their defense is worse. Without him, Milwaukee is worse off. None of that is in question here. What is in question is Jrue’s offensive execution, which has been a roller-coaster all series long, with more dips than climbs. In this series, Holiday has played 39.8 minutes per game (and the Bucks have needed every second of it), but his shooting has been abysmal. Jrue is scoring 21.3 points per game, but has needed 23.0 attempts to reach that mark. He’s shooting 33.7% from the field and 29.6% from behind the arc. It’s clear that Holiday’s effort levels on defense are still there, but when combining his contributions on that end with a Usage rating of 29.7, his offense simply starts to fall apart.
And that is where the Bucks miss Khris Middleton the most. There is no fallback option available. There is no effective isolation scoring that doesn’t involve Holiday or Antetokounmpo. Jrue and Giannis have to take on the brunt of the offensive creation because no one else is able to do it. George Hill took Jevon Carter’s place in the rotation; while we already knew that Carter wasn’t going to orchestrate the offense, we’re seeing that Hill simply might not be capable of it any longer. Pat Connaughton has never been an offensive hub, and Grayson Allen’s re-insertion into the starting lineup found very limited success.
So once again, when the Bucks are limited by injury in the postseason, going big might be their only hope. Brook Lopez, consistently underrated and overlooked, rescued the Bucks hopes last year when Giannis went down in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it might be time to go that route again. Brook has taken a whopping 30 shots across these four games, with Game 4 being his highest output with 17 points on 11 attempts. Boston has built themselves up as a team chock-full of Giannis defenders, but how would that defense hold up against Brooklyn Brook if he got the chance to take on a more prominent role in the offense?
We have to recognize that Lopez might be able to take on more in the short-term, but his circumstances are such that he has limits and might not be able to simply play more minutes. The only solution to that problem is Bobby Portis, aka Bobby Buckets, aka Bobby Bifocals, aka The People’s Champ, aka The Mayor of Milwaukee, aka the guy who played only 15 minutes in Game 4 and has the offensive chops to find scoring when Milwaukee is in a drought. He’s in the middle of a shooting slump this postseason (hitting only 30.8% of his threes) but at this point, the Bucks are running out of options.
Should Mike Budenholzer double back and go big again, re-emphasizing Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez in the offense? What path gives Milwaukee the best chance to give Giannis and Jrue some help, any help at all? With the series tied at 2-2 and returning to Boston for Game 5, the list of options grows short, and as that list is exhausted so too are the Bucks chances to return to the NBA Finals.