A casual observer couldn’t be blamed for taking the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round playoff victory over the Miami Heat, the very team that bounced Milwaukee from last season’s bubble playoffs, as a sign that the Bucks had started to figure some things out. The Bucks smushed the Heat in a four-game sweep, and on the surface their victories were convincing enough that one could even begin to think about how fun and competitive their second-round series against the Nets would be.
Well, about that. The Nets, who lost James Harden to a hamstring injury early in Game 1, now have a 2-0 series lead over the Bucks thanks to last night’s 125-86 victory. The Nets led by as many as 49 points in the game, and it was obviously over about mid-way through the first quarter. Anyone who was expecting NBA Finals–level intensity and competition in this series has thus far been treated to the same vibes you’d expect to find in a January Nets-Thunder contest.
If you are a wise blogger who works for a cool website, perhaps you saw some of this coming. The thing about the Bucks’ first-round series against the Heat is that the victories themselves obscured the fact that Milwaukee was still doing all the same self-sabotaging things that had led to previous postseason flameouts. The infamous Giannis Wall, a defensive strategy that involves the Bucks’ opponents simply forming a wall of players in the paint in order to absorb Giannis Antetokounmpo’s drives to the rim, had not finally been scaled. Antetokounmpo was in fact an inefficient scorer throughout those four games against Miami, and Milwaukee wasn’t doing anything novel on offense. Antetokounmpo was still slamming into that wall and getting dicey results; he also spent four games hounding Jimmy Butler out of games on the defensive end, and that made much more of a difference in the series.
The thing about trying to repeat that same strategy against the Nets is that Kevin Durant is not Jimmy Butler:
I really cannot stress this enough: Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler are different!
And while all of this was going on, Antetokounmpo was still, yet again, for what feels like the 47th playoff series in a row, dribbling into a wall of chests and arms before putting up some futile shot or slowly kicking the ball out to a shooter who was doomed to miss. If this was more frustrating or humiliating to watch unfold than it has been previously, that’s because the Nets ranked 22nd in defensive rating during the regular season. There’s no shame in losing to the Nets, sure, but you’re supposed to lose 140-129, not by being held to fewer than 90 points in a playoff game.
The most obvious source of blame for the Bucks once again wearing the stink of fraudulence is head coach Mike Budenholzer. This damn Mike Budenholzer! Unless something dramatic changes in this series, this will be the third consecutive season that will end with Budenholzer leading a highly successful, seemingly invincible Bucks team through the regular season only to end up standing on the sideline during the playoffs, blinking in disbelief, as his team gets rolled up into a ball and tossed into the wastebasket. His rotations are still bad, his offense is still way too easy to short-circuit, and even adding a playmaker like Jrue Holiday to the roster doesn’t seem to have given him many fresh ideas.
If this series continues down the course it appears destined to, one has to assume that this will be Budenholzer’s last season in charge of the Bucks. The guy simply has no plan. Maybe that doesn’t make too much of a difference in the grand scheme of things—it’s pretty hard to watch Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play perfect basketball together and conclude that any amount of coaching genius could slow them down—but he could at least try to come up with a less humiliating way to lose. Maybe there is no better option than to have Antetokounmpo dribble into the paint and get swallowed up by Blake Griffin over and over again, but there has to be one, somewhere in someone’s brain, that is more interesting to watch.