LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The scream sliced through a largely empty arena and put a dagger in the Milwaukee Bucks‘ season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had been on a tear to begin Game 4 of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat, scoring 19 points in 11 minutes, seemingly on a one-man mission to keep the team’s season alive. Then came an awkward step as he caught a pass while moving toward the basket early in the second quarter, a crash to the floor and a yelp as he clutched at his reinjured right ankle.
Eventually, Antetokounmpo was helped to his feet and off the court by two teammates before he briefly limped back onto the court to shoot a pair of free throws. After an intentional foul, he walked off the court, untucked his shirt and departed for Milwaukee’s locker room.
Yes, his teammates managed to hold off the Heat on Sunday, escaping with an overtime victory. But with Antetokounmpo unable to return for Tuesday’s Game 5, that win only delayed the inevitable end of Milwaukee’s once-promising season.
A second-round ouster is preposterously short of the expectations the Bucks had this season. They rampaged through the regular season, posting the NBA’s best record before the shutdown in March. They have the reigning Most Valuable Player in Antetokounmpo, who is soon expected to become the third player in NBA history to win the league’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season.
But the Bucks never looked right inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort — not during the seeding games, not during their first-round victory over the Orlando Magic and certainly not while being cast aside by Miami. As a result, every decision made to this point will come under scrutiny — both for why it didn’t work and for how it could impact what comes next.
The Bucks will offer Antetokounmpo a supermax contract when eligible later this year, a deal that could be worth $220 million — about $80 million more than he could get with another team as a free agent in 2021, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. But Antetokounmpo has made it clear that his priority is winning, and that’s something the Bucks haven’t been able to ensure.
If Antetokounmpo passes on signing the supermax, multiple sources are adamant that the Bucks won’t trade him. Milwaukee will have to persuade him to stay — and quickly.
ANTETOKOUNMPO HAS FIRMLY placed himself atop the NBA pyramid from October through April. He plays incredibly hard every night and had one of the league’s best statistical seasons, averaging 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in just over 30 minutes per game.
Although Antetokounmpo hasn’t played to that same level in these playoffs, his supporting cast has once again failed to deliver. That has been punctuated by one departure that haunted Milwaukee in this year’s postseason.
Last summer, Milwaukee was weighing whether to go into the luxury tax to re-sign Malcolm Brogdon, a talented combo guard who was the team’s only real option to both reliably break down defenses off the dribble and accurately shoot from 3. The Bucks opted to sign and trade Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, taking back the 24th pick in the 2020 NBA draft and two second-round picks rather than matching Brogdon’s four-year, $85 million deal.
“Was re-signing Malcolm an imperative?” Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry asked in a news conference before the season. “I think re-signing Malcolm was a luxury.
“Our view was that Malcolm is a phenomenal player. But for that amount of money, we thought we could have those dollars better spent elsewhere.
“And we’ll find out.”
The Bucks chose to give Eric Bledsoe a four-year, $70 million extension during last season — a move that effectively meant they chose him over Brogdon. Although Bledsoe is one of the league’s best defensive guards, earning a second straight All-Defensive Team selection before Game 5, he has repeatedly sputtered in the playoffs, including in this series, in which he shot 16-for-48 (33%) overall and 3-for-14 from 3-point range. Brogdon, meanwhile, flourished in Indiana and garnered All-Star buzz.
Against Miami, Milwaukee found out just how much it missed Brogdon’s skill set. The Bucks repeatedly struggled to break down the Heat’s rugged switching defense, and except for fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, Milwaukee didn’t have anyone it could consistently rely on to make plays in late-and-close situations.
The Bucks believed they could suitably replace Brogdon with Wesley Matthews, whom Milwaukee signed to a minimum deal last summer with a player-option for 2020-21. Although Matthews has been effective this season, Budenholzer didn’t play him down the stretch of Games 1 and 3 against Miami — games in which Jimmy Butler torched Milwaukee in the fourth — in part because his offense is limited mainly to catch-and-shoot jump shots.
But for all the focus on the weaknesses of his supporting cast, Antetokounmpo hasn’t been blameless in the Bucks’ postseason flameouts.
His struggles at the free throw line — which date to last year’s elimination by Toronto — remained a factor against Miami, as he shot 22-for-41 (53.7%) from the stripe. After being held to 12 shots in Game 1, Antetokounmpo went a dismal 7-for-21 in Game 3, including 0-for-7 from 3-point range after spraining his ankle in the first half.
The ongoing lack of a reliable midrange jumper — let alone a 3-point shot — remains the most glaring hole in Antetokounmpo’s game. Without that, the Bucks become exceedingly predictable down the stretch, often just throwing the ball to Middleton and hoping he could hit contested jumpers as Antetokounmpo struggled to make his usual impact.
“What has he added in the last two years?” an Eastern Conference executive asked of Antetokounmpo. “His 3-point shooting isn’t better. His free throw shooting isn’t better.
“I see him before games, and he’s working hard. But whatever they are doing, it ain’t working.”
WITH BOTH THE Atlanta Hawks and the Bucks, Budenholzer has proven to be one of the league’s best coaches at navigating the ups and downs of an 82-game season. He puts a precise system in place at both ends of the court, and his team runs it efficiently. He constructed a 60-win team featuring a group of very good, complementary players in Atlanta, and he did the same in Milwaukee around arguably the league’s best player, winning the league’s Coach of the Year award in both places.
Budenholzer has now lost eight of nine playoff games against teams with winning records. As this series played out, coaches, scouts and executives around the league hit on the same point: The Raptors and Heat asked more questions than the Bucks could answer, and Budenholzer refused to pivot.
“In the NBA, you have to have the ability to build foundation and build habits and build fundamentals, which Milwaukee does,” an NBA assistant coach said. “But you have to have versatility and different gears you can get to as part of your fundamentals to beat good teams.
“I don’t think Milwaukee has that, and Bud never did that in Atlanta, either. It’s always been, ‘We do what we do.'”
Budenholzer’s approach was on full display following Game 3. In his postgame news conference, he was asked if there were a need to make significant adjustments after Miami obliterated Milwaukee 40-13 in the fourth quarter.
“I think we won the last three quarters of the second game,” he said. “So [we won] six quarters in a row, but we’ve given up big quarters, the first quarter in Game 2 and the big fourth quarter in this one.”
That stubbornness — the belief that, in the end, the system will win out — is a defining trait of Budenholzer’s coaching career. It has proven wildly successful in the regular season but not in the playoffs.
Budenholzer also came under fire in this series for his unwillingness to give extended minutes to his All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Middleton. Antetokounmpo played an average of 36 minutes the first three games, and Middleton played 35. Both were taken out of the game in the fourth quarters of Games 2 and 3.
“It’s 48 minutes,” Budenholzer said after Game 3, when asked if he regretted not playing his stars more as his team melted down in the fourth quarter. “You gotta be ready for the last 12 … If you’re going as hard as these guys are in a playoff game, 35, 36 [minutes], I think that’s pushing the ceiling.”
In Game 4, Budenholzer’s tune finally changed, as Middleton played 48 minutes in Milwaukee’s overtime victory. By then, it was already too late.
AS WITH LEBRON JAMES and Kevin Durant before him, Antetokounmpo’s impending free agency has been a topic of conversation for years. As he is the rare player capable of single-handedly changing the fate of a franchise, teams have long been preparing to court him, should he become a free agent after next season.
Milwaukee will have to win. The team should be in position to push for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs again next season — something the Bucks didn’t have on neutral courts inside the bubble.
Although the coronavirus pandemic might have hampered Milwaukee’s chances this season, the havoc it has wrought on the league’s finances could oddly benefit the Bucks.
The expectation among several league executives is that next season’s salary cap will mirror this season’s $109.1 million figure. Although sources with both the league and the National Basketball Players Association maintain that there have not been concrete discussions about how to handle the NBA’s finances next year and beyond, the idea of keeping the cap the same for the 2021-22 season is seen as a realistic compromise.
Doing so would give teams certainty about their financial futures for the next 24 months or so and would allow for the league to get its financial house in order after a gradual return to normalcy, including having fans at games. It would also save players such as Antetokounmpo and other soon-to-be free agents from seeing the salary cap suddenly plummet — ruining the chances for many of them to be paid what they expected.
How the Bucks would benefit from this scenario is that Antetokounmpo will know exactly what the financial picture is when he becomes an unrestricted free agent — and he’ll know that he cannot get anywhere else the money he can get in Milwaukee. Still, there is an expectation around the league that Antetokounmpo won’t sign the extension.
Ask those around Antetokounmpo, and they’ll agree that he is singularly focused on winning. This year’s team, however, was unable to make it back to the conference finals. Although the Bucks have won plenty the past two seasons, they simply haven’t when it has mattered most.