What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ mark Medina was on hand for Game 2 between the Celtic and Raptors and breaks down Toronto’s frustration with the officiating.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer doesn’t like to analyze a game, especially after a loss, during the postgame press conference.
He prefers to watch film, break down what happened and then give conclusive answers.
But he offered this after Miami defeated Milwaukee 116-114 in Game 2 on Wednesday and took a surprising 2-0 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series: “We’ve got to be better. I’ve got to be better.”
Until tip-off of Game 3 on Friday, much of the focus will be on the second half of Budenholzer’s statement.
As much as the spotlight is on Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s also on Budenholzer and his staff because Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff have put the Heat in better positions offensively and defensively over the course of the first 96 minutes of this series.
In another chaotic bubble finish, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton made three free throws, tying the score at 114 with 4.3 seconds remaining, only to have Antetokounmpo foul Jimmy Butler as time expired. Butler made both fouls shots, and the favorite to win the East now needs to win four of the next five games to avoid another disappointing ending.
In the Heat series, the Bucks have been trapped by philosophies that produced regular-season success. The Bucks give up 3-pointers, but the Heat are making them pay for that decision. Miami outscored Milwaukee 51-21 on threes in Game 2 and has the shooters to continue that if Milwaukee doesn’t adjust to that area of defense.
And while limiting Antetokounmpo’s minutes during the regular season is a solid move, especially when the Bucks beat opponents by 10.1 points per game, Budenholzer needs to consider playing his MVP more than 36 minutes, especially now. The season is on the line in Game 3, and Budenholzer needs to counter Miami’s defense so that Antetokounmpo can dominate.
The Bucks right now clearly are not the same team that they were before the bubble. There might not be anything Budenholzer can do about that, especially for a team that is suffering after police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, almost two weeks ago.
But that’s not going to eliminate the criticism of Budenholzer’s postseason coaching.
For sure, players need to make plays, convert shots and not turn the ball over. Budenholzer didn’t miss those 38 shots, including 18 missed 3-pointers, didn’t turn the ball over 14 times and didn’t foul shooters.
But he makes the game plan, manages substitution patterns and in-game adjustments. And the buttons a coach needs to push in the playoffs haven’t been made.
Budenholzer, who replaced Jason Kidd in Milwaukee in 2018, turned the Bucks into a great regular-season team. They had the best record this season and last season, with Budenholzer taking them from 44 victories in 2017-18 to 60 last season to a team that was on pace for 63 victories before the season was suspended due to COVID-19.
But the kind of playoff success the Bucks seek is elusive. As the No. 1 seed last season, Milwaukee had a 2-0 lead on Toronto in the conference finals and lost the next four games. And while there’s no shame in losing to LeBron James, Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks were swept in consecutive seasons by James’ Cavaliers, including once when the Hawks had the No. 1 seed.
Now, the Bucks and Budenholzer are in serious danger of going home early in these playoffs, and Milwaukee’s future is at stake. Antetokounmpo can sign a max extension in the offseason, but if he doesn’t, he will be a free agent following the 2020-21 season. And if Budenholzer can’t get the Bucks out of this round or the next, his job could be in jeopardy.
This isn’t the first time Spoelstra has put together a great game plan, and it’s not like the Heat aren’t talented. But a coach like Spoelstra can make a good team great, and right now the question is, can Budenholzer take a great regular-season team and make it a great (even championship) team in the playoffs?
We’re about to find out.
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