It has been less than a week since the Milwaukee Bucks won back-to-back games against the Atlanta Hawks to clinch their trip to the NBA Finals with Giannis Antetokounmpo watching from the sidelines. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday combined to score 110 points in those games. Brook Lopez looked a decade younger and reserves who scarcely saw the court only a round earlier against Brooklyn became key contributors. It was a complete team victory, the sort that proves that even MVPs can’t get a team that deep into the postseason on their own. Entering the Finals, Milwaukee’s supporting cast was the sure thing. Antetokounmpo, initially listed as doubtful for Game 1 with a hyperextended knee, was the question mark.
That question has since been answered. Antetokounmpo was sensational in Game 2, a 42-point masterpiece that will be lost to history because of Milwaukee’s loss. The Phoenix Suns lead the NBA Finals 2-0, but that is through no fault of Antetokounmpo’s. The Bucks have won his minutes in both games thus far. With their MVP on the floor, the Bucks outscored the Suns by one point in Game 1 and three points in Game 2. When he sits? They’ve been outscored by 27 points across two games. It’s a small sample, but even when compared to some of history’s worst on-off atrocities, it still rates as one of the most disastrous.
In the second round against Brooklyn, The Bucks grew so distrustful of their bench that Antetokounmpo played 50 minutes in Game 7. Perhaps if this series lasts that long, Mike Budenholzer will place that burden on his best player again. For now, though, it doesn’t appear to be feasible. Giannis is still recovering from that hyperextended knee, an injury that he might not have returned from yet if this were the regular season. The Bucks are going to have to survive something like 10 minutes per night without their best player if they are going to win the championship, but thus far, the supporting cast that was so good in closing out the Hawks has vanished off the face of the Earth.
So what’s happening in these minutes? How are the Suns destroying the Bucks to this degree? Well, the Bucks are certainly struggling offensively. The Bucks are scoring only 95.2 points per 100 possessions when Giannis is on the bench. That’s bad, but it’s not apocalyptic. Cleveland won the championship in 2016 despite scoring only 97.5 points per 100 possessions when James sat. Some offensive decline is to be expected when a superstar rests, and that is especially true for one as unique as Antetokounmpo. The Bucks play a completely different style when he’s in the game than they can when he sits because there is no stylistically similar reserve they can play in his place. As much as their role players have struggled compared to the Atlanta series, it is somewhat unrealistic to expect them to toggle between Giannis-ball and the way they played against the Hawks within a single game. Heliocentric offenses routinely have similar problems.
That isn’t to say that the Bucks don’t need more out of their supporting players, especially Jrue Holiday. It just isn’t a problem specific to these minutes. Milwaukee can bake some degree of decline into its offensive expectations when Giannis sits. The true problem here is coming on defense. The Suns are torching the Bucks to a virtually unprecedented degree when the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year isn’t in the game. In the 20 minutes and 32 seconds they’ve played without him, the Suns have scored 67 points. That’s an offensive rating of 148.9, more than 31 points better than any team in NBA history has averaged on a per-100 basis. Here’s how the Suns have done it.
The Suns aren’t shooting that well when Giannis is in the game. In fact, at 36.1 percent, they’ve been slightly worse than their regular-season averages. But when he’s out, they can’t miss. That’s explainable to an extent. Some of these shots genuinely are wide open:
Some of them have been flukes. Devin Booker misses his jumper here, but gets his own rebound. Bryn Forbes had left Cam Johnson to try to get the rebound himself, and by the time he realizes that he needs to scramble back toward him, it’s already too late:
But most of these shots are just the standard result of the way Milwaukee has played defense in this series. Two Chris Paul 3s in these minutes have been a direct result of Jrue Holiday helping off him. Holiday makes it back in time to at least offer cursory resistance, but Paul doesn’t need much space. He makes contested jumpers all of the time:
The Suns are a better shooting team than the Bucks. That will be true no matter who Milwaukee puts on the floor. But the gap here isn’t as enormous as it appears simply because no team in the history of basketball is this good at shooting. That extends beyond these high-variance 3-point shots. Phoenix has also shot 16 of 25 on 2-pointers in the minutes Antetokounmpo has rested. That’s going to regress somewhat as well. The Bucks just can’t rely entirely on that regression because even if the shots don’t fall as frequently, the Suns have done such a good job of generating the right kinds of shots that their offense is going to put points on the board no matter what the Bucks do.
The last Suns team to flirt with a championship before this one was coached by Mike D’Antoni and operated on a simple principle: seven seconds or less. D’Antoni believed that the best shots came in the first seven seconds of the shot clock because those were the precious moments it took opposing defenses to get set. This current Suns team has adopted that philosophy against the Bucks, and it has done so for a variety of reasons.
The Bucks have placed a premium on offensive rebounding in the postseason. They almost have to when Antetokounmpo leaves the game because of how vulnerable their offense already is. Second-chance points are more important when first-chance points are harder to come by. But that emphasis on offensive rebounding has given the Suns plenty of advantages off the many shots this Bucks offense is missing.
Any team can run off missed shots. Phoenix has been more deliberate than that. The Suns have recognized a very basic principle of analytics: Minutes and possessions aren’t quite as related as we’d think. Antetokounmpo has to rest a certain number of minutes, but the number of possessions that encompass those minutes can vary wildly. The more possessions the Suns can cram into those minutes, the more opportunities they’ll have to run it up on the Bucks. On that front, the Suns have made a concerted effort to run even off of made Bucks baskets just for the sake of maximizing the number of possessions they can squeeze into these bench minutes:
These aren’t traditional fast breaks. They’re expedited half-court possessions, shots the Suns could get in 20 seconds but are working to get in 10 instead. Those seconds add up, and they’ve allowed the Suns to grab every available point in their most valuable minutes.
The trouble with taking Giannis out of the game isn’t just his absence. It’s that someone has to actually replace him, and the Bucks didn’t build a roster designed to accommodate that. By trading most of their assets and depth for Jrue Holiday, they limited the sort of reserves they could pursue in the 2020 offseason. Losing Donte DiVincenzo to injury further strained Milwaukee’s depth, and the decision to trade Torrey Craig at the deadline didn’t help matters either.
The Bucks, at this moment, have four indisputably playable defenders: Antetokounmpo, Holiday, P.J. Tucker and Khris Middleton. This is a poor matchup for Brook Lopez, and that played out in Game 1, but his baseline is high enough that with the right four teammates on the floor, he can more than hold his own. But after him? Things get dicey very quickly. Chris Paul eviscerated Bobby Portis in switches during Game 1.
Pat Connaughton has fared slightly better, but he is still perceived as a target by Phoenix’s guards:
The Bucks have tried to scheme around that switch-hunting, but Phoenix has an answer for everything. Budenholzer knows that Portis can’t effectively switch or play drop-coverage, so he goes for broke on this play and has him hedge Paul off the screen. But Paul thinks too quickly for that, and hits DeAndre Ayton easily for a foul:
That extra layer of rim protection Giannis provides has been sorely missed as well, especially on switches. As dominant a defender as Holiday can be, he’s simply too small to deter Ayton at the basket without help that isn’t there:
This is the fundamental problem Phoenix’s offense poses for even the NBA’s best defenders: There’s no easy answer. Switch and their guards will destroy your bigs. Drop and they’ll kill you in the mid-range. Double and they’ll pass you to death. The Bucks are good enough defensively to hold their own when they have their five best players on the floor, but when there’s even a single target for the Suns to exploit, they’ve done so mercilessly. The Bucks weren’t built with alternatives. There’s nothing they can do about their imperfect personnel.
So what happens now?
The Bucks aren’t going to win the minutes that Giannis doesn’t play. That simply isn’t realistic. They probably aren’t going to play the Suns close to a draw either. But there’s a big difference between minus-3 and minus-13. The former gives Giannis a puncher’s chance to close the gap. The latter is an unfixable mess without extreme shooting variance.
There are steps the Bucks can take to try to limit the bleeding. Some more minutes with their five starters playing together would help. When Antetokounmpo, Tucker, Holiday, Middleton and Lopez have shared the floor in this series, the Suns are plus-9. All other lineups combined are minus-32, but that fivesome has spent only 21 minutes on the floor together in this series. Phoenix’s starters, by comparison, have played 52 minutes together. This is the NBA Finals. If ever there was a time to throw caution to the wind and just play your best lineups as many minutes as possible, it would be now.
In the minutes they do have to play without Giannis, placing a greater emphasis on transition defense would help. As badly as the Bucks want those second-chance points, they’re going to have to trust that their own shooters will improve through sheer variance if they plan to slow down the Suns. If nothing else, taking them out of transition would minimize the number of possessions the Bucks are forced to play without Giannis.
Ultimately, though, the Bucks simply need to play better. They are operating with meaningful roster and schematic disadvantages, but a team that can’t keep its head above water for a few minutes without a single player doesn’t deserve to be a champion. Milwaukee’s role players get the Bucks to the Finals. Now, they’re going to have to do their part to help them actually win it.