Trouble in the Bubble for the Top-Seeded Milwaukee Bucks
The NBA is a star-driven league. It takes real, legitimate superstars to reach the pinnacle of the association. When you look at the list of past NBA Champions, there are few teams that don’t feature an identifiable star. The Celtics had Bill Russell, Larry Bird. The Lakers had Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Shaq and Kobe.
The list goes on and on, and as the NBA playoffs continue, it’s gotten me wondering what exactly does it take to get over the hump in the NBA? Does it take a truly transcendent superstar to win a championship? Sure it does.
Is having a superstar player the deciding factor in a team’s playoff run? It can be, but it also isn’t the end all be all. Ask the 2019-2020 Bucks, who are about to get swept out of the postseason by a Miami Heat squad that features a lot of great players (but none arguably at the same level of Giannis Antetokounmpo).
These aren’t all the factors that go into winning a title, but these are the factors that I believe are holding the Milwaukee Bucks (as they currently are constructed in 2020) from achieving their title aspirations.
Elevate your game in the playoffs
The most competitive, tough, and gritty basketball is played in the NBA postseason, and it’s also where we learn who the real stars are among the constellations that make up the NBA’s elite players. Guys like Michael Jordan have demonstrated there’s another gear to their games.
It seems like a no-brainer to elevate your game in the playoffs, but it’s easier said than done. James Harden and Paul George are just some examples of players that garnered the reputation of superstars that ‘choke’ during this time of the year.
Giannis has demonstrated his dominance in the postseason before. Tearing through the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons in 2019, it seemed as if Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were going to steam-roll their way into the NBA Finals. They then ran into Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Nick Nurse, and the Toronto Raptors who executed a perfect gameplan to nullify the league MVP.
Elevate your coaching in the playoffs
Same goes for the brightest bench bosses of the association. The best coaches have plays and lineup combinations they can go to which they haven’t utilized much, if not at all during the regular season.
The fact that Budenholzer’s three 60-win teams have folded (pending) in the playoffs is an increasingly worrying trend.
Do we give him a pass for getting swept in the east semis by LeBron James and the Cavs? Sure, it’s LeBron James we’ll give him that. Should Bud get a pass for dropping the series against the Raptors in 2019? No way. The Bucks were completely exposed in that series, despite gaining a commanding two-nothing lead that had many pundits calling out for the brooms.
The fact that every time a Budenholzer team runs into another team that completely hones in on their gameplan, and Budenholzer doesn’t have an answer, an adjustment, or the guts to just let his best guys play as much as possible in order to squeeze out a victory is perplexing. Granted, I don’t have all the answers as Coach Bud definitely knows his way around the X’s and O’s far better than I do, but at what point as a coach do you look yourself in the mirror and say “what we always do isn’t cutting it anymore.”
Role Players need to be big
Every championship team has one or more role players that step up to the plate and deliver some signature plays or moments throughout the postseason run.
J.J. Barea had an unforgettable 2011 finals against a Miami Heat team led by the big-three. Fred VanVleet had a son, and his jump shot suddenly could find nothing but the bottom of the net. Even guys like P.J. Brown, a player who most probably don’t remember had a clutch performance in a must win game for his team, seemingly out of nowhere.
For every Jordan, Pippen, or Shaq and Kobe, you need a guy like Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, to deliver in the moments when the opposition least expects it.
The Bucks’ supporting cast had performed well in the regular season, but in the playoffs the absence of a player like Malcolm Brogdon has become noticeable for the Bucks. Brogdon’s presence isn’t the sole factor for the team’s struggles, but someone outside of Middleton, Giannis, and even a player like Lopez, has to step up if this team wishes to be successful.
The Clock is ticking for Milwaukee
Down three-to-nothing in the playoffs, it looks like the Bucks are most likely exiting the playoffs early this year. Giannis is will be on the last year of his contract going into next season. There have been whispers around the league surrounding Antetokounmpo’s potential departure from the midwest with the caveat that he and the Bucks aren’t able to compete for a championship.
It’s clear that there are many issues that underlying for a team that had the best regular-season record in the league, and also likely boasting the league’s first MVP and DPOY in the same season since Hakeem Olajuwon. It’s even more clear that the postseason is all about matchups, exploiting those matchups, and making adjustments to try and even the playing field.