Mike Budenholzer Did What He Had To Do
12:03 PM EDT on July 21, 2021
The grand lesson from this (or is it these?) dysrhythmic NBA Finals is an important one that we will almost certainly forget soon if we haven't already, which is this: Conventional wisdom is mostly only conventional. It is rarely wisdom.
We found out over six monumental piefights that our instant assessments of nearly every player and both coaches were right until they were wrong, and they were wrong often because we are still addicted to the last thing we saw being the next great enduring revelation. We learned what adjustments truly mean, and that while big strategic changes can instantly and immutably alter a series' natural path, incremental tactical nudges that often take awhile to graft themselves onto the ongoing parade.
In other words, Giannis Antetokounmpo was a fraud until he was a category 4 hurricane, and Chris Paul reinvented the value of the mid-range jump shot until his left hand crabbed and then uncrabbed again, and Devin Booker was a revelation until he was revealed to be just one more very good but defendable player, and Khris Middleton was useless until he was quite useful, and Mike Budenholzer was an lumpendolt until he wasn't and Monty Williams was a zen master until Deandre Ayton was asked to face down Antetokounmpo, and Jrue Holiday was an offensive liability and a defensive prison guard complete with German shepherd all at the same time.
In short, this was that relatively rare series in which everyone was everything for awhile. Both teams took early yet squanderable leads. Both teams shot brilliantly until they shot dreadfully. Games were wonderful unless they were eyesores. The Suns and Bucks ended up being that rarest of rarities: the evenly matched series in which everything was revealed to be both right and wrong instantly and over time. The first three games were clinical, the last three were aesthetic brawls without fists. Those good folks who declared the series utterly non-riveting before it began ended up looking like morons because, weirdly, not all entertainment is scripted according to preconceived narrative arcs, and some of the best stuff is an unscripted mess if you're willing to let the thing play out.
Oh, and crying out of joy and despair and the repeated efforts of all involved. Much, much crying.
But while it’s pretty certain that Giannis will now be held in greater esteem than ever even though recidivists will keep showing Kevin Durant's foot, the one person who might have come out of this in much better reputational shape than anyone else is Budenholzer, the guy who looked like he should be wearing a Home Depot apron and showing you to the light fixtures aisle. He had been condemned as the win compiler who wasn't up to the intellectual rigors of spring basketball and therefore was declared the most flawed of all the Popovichian disciples, and while he may not come out of this as the next Spoelstra or Nurse, he is still smarter about this stuff than any of you. And what he knows and proved is that over a long series incremental tweaks can be as valuable as sweeping fiats. You cannot reinvent players, but you can put them in slightly better positions to succeed and then let them go and do it. Holiday was bad business until people stopped expecting to be a volume scorer, and Portis was a cipher until his tough-mindedness found a place to thrive, and even Antetokounmpo was scared of all the ghosts in his head until he found a way to assemble and corral them.
And Budenholzer managed to nudge and influence this imperfect but effective roster through its travails against another imperfect but effective roster. He didn't suddenly invent and unleash hell as much as he eased players into the rhythms they needed to display in a very odd series. He wasn't a mastermind, and this isn't to suggest that he out-Auerbached Auerbach. He did manage to get his team's defense to allow 100, 103, 119 and 98 points over the four wins, a drop of 14 points over the two losses, and somehow helped ease Antetokounmpo to a happier place at the free throw line. He helped influence games rather than tried to wrestle them to the ground, and if that means his work is underappreciated, it also means that he didn't screw them up, which is also coaching.
In short, Mike Budenholzer may look like a duffel bag with ears, and he may be the fifth most important reason why the Bucks overcame their pedestrian starts against Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Phoenix, but he stopped being perceived as an impediment and coached the games he was given. Of all the things people didn't and won't get about this series, he is among the most obvious. And like everyone else in Deervania, he gets a car in the parade, even after there were calls to run him out of town on about 15 separate occasions.