With a 94-100 loss in Saturday’s Game 6 in Toronto, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2019 season officially came to an underwhelming end.
The Bucks hadn’t been to a Conference Finals since 2000-01, and hadn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since that same year. With that in mind, in a vacuum a trip to the Eastern Conference finals looks strikingly like a season worthy of celebration.
It won’t feel like that right now for a horde of disappointed Bucks fans. Their team finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA (60-22); their generational star Giannis Antentokounmpo is poised to win his first MVP award, and head coach Mike Budenholzer is favourite to win Coach of the Year. On that basis alone, anything less than a Finals appearance should (and does) feel like an underachievement.
To lose 4 games in a row after going up 2-0 against a deflated Raptors outfit is a disastrous result for Milwaukee. Even more concerning for the Bucks hierarchy than the losses themselves though, is the manner in which they unfolded.
The Raptors’ series-winning defense, reduced to its most basic philosophy, was simple; clog the lane, force the ball out of Giannis’ hands (or in to a tough shot) and ensure that if they were beaten it would be at the hands of Milwaukee’s supporting cast.
Spoiler-alert: they were not beaten at the hands of Milwaukee’s supporting cast.
The stats are revealing. Giannis’ usage rate over the entire playoffs was 30.8%; relatively consistent with his regular-season usage rate of 31.1%.
Over the last 4 games of this series Giannis’ usage rate fell to 27.9%. He took just 25.8% of Milwaukee’s shots when on the floor, as opposed to the 34.0% he took in round 1 against Detroit and the 28.1% he averaged over the course of the regular season.
With Kawhi Leonard matched up directly on Giannis, and Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam helping off their direct opponents, Toronto were able to eliminate space in the paint and force Giannis in those twirling cross-body passes to the corner he’s become so adept at making. The positive for the Raptors in that case is obvious; instead of Giannis dunking or laying the ball up from inside 5 feet, the ball is now in the hands of someone like Eric Bledsoe or Brook Lopez on the outside – a much more manageable situation.
What the Raptors did in this respect was not revolutionary; far from it. The Celtics employed much the same strategy in round 2; against them Giannis was taking just 26.8% of his team’s shots when he was on the floor.
The stark difference though between last series and this series was the performance of Toronto’s defense and the lack of support (for lack of a better word) from Giannis’ so-called supporting cast.
By design, the Milwaukee offense revolves around Giannis almost entirely; he owns the key (as well as the lock, the door and really the entire house) to them getting the ball through the hoop.
However, that’s not to say the Bucks necessarily rely on him to score the ball individually every time he touches it. That’s why they’ve stacked their team with shooters in every available position; the first option is to have Giannis ram the ball down an opposition’s throat, but failing that he can kick it out to any one of 4 shooters positioned on the outside.
Against the Celtics the reason the Bucks won in 5 games was pretty simple; those shooters hit their shots. Khris Middleton and George Hill both heaved the rock at better than 47% from three, while each of Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Malcolm Brogdon and Pat Connaughton all went at an average of at least one made shot from long distance per game.
In all, 6 Bucks averaged better than 10 points in the eastern semis. The Greek Freak, despite at times looking overwhelmed in the face of Al Horford’s interior defense, still put up 28.4 points and was unstoppable for reasonable chunks of the series.
Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Kawhi Leonard is a different beast to Al Horford.
In 35 possessions per game matched up against Horford, Giannis averaged 15.6 points on those possessions. According to the NBA’s Second Spectrum, that’s 5.5 points higher than what he would generally be expected to have.
In the first 5 games of the conference finals, in 26.2 possessions per game matched up against Leonard, Giannis averaged just 5.2 points – 19.2 WORSE than he normally would.
That is a remarkable statistical anomaly, and consequently Giannis averaged just 22.7 points per game against the Raptors. He’d been averaging 27.4 points per game in the playoffs prior to this series.
The contingency plan for Milwaukee in the event that Giannis’ impact is nullified is that their outside shooters step up to cover his relative absence on the offensive end.
They did not. At all.
Khris Middleton – a guy who made the All-Star game this year on the back of 18 points per game on 44% shooting from the floor – scored just 82 points in the entire series.
Eric Bledsoe – a guy who literally just signed a $70 million contract extension to be Milwaukee’s point guard for the foreseeable future – shot the ball at 29.4% from the floor and 17.2% from three.
Nikola Mirotic – a guy who was supposedly the perfect three-point shooting complement for Giannis – hit six threes all series and had a net rating of -13.7.
George Hill – despite a brilliant offensive postseason overall – was torched by both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet (of all people) on the other end of the floor.
That said, to put the blame squarely on all the Bucks players not named Giannis is unfair. The Greek Freak shot 60 free throws in the series and hit just 35 of them. He was a 73% free throw shooter in the regular season, but hit just 58.3% of them in the conference finals.
In a close series, if he makes another 8 free throws (to accord with his regular season average) arguably the Bucks are through to take on the Warriors for a shot at the championship. They at least push the series to 7.
The free throw shooting is really an auxiliary issue though; if Giannis has the transcendent work ethic he appears to, he’ll be in the gym all summer and will probably shoot the ball at 85% from the line next season.
The real concern for Milwaukee is that this may have been the closest they’ll get to a perfect formula, and it still wasn’t good enough.
This game style they’re playing is reliant on two things; Giannis scoring in the paint, and shooters hitting from the outside. Those two are not mutually exclusive – if Giannis isn’t scoring in the paint it’s harder for them to hit from outside, and vice versa.
The shooters didn’t hit shots from outside in this series, and that’s fine. It happens to even the best shooting teams, and make no mistake, this squad that’s been assembled in Milwaukee is one of the all-round best shooting rosters in the league. The fact is, though, they’re going to have to work incredibly hard to keep it together.
Middleton has a player option, but is likely to enter free agency and will cost an enormous price to keep on the back of his All-Star status. Brook Lopez is a free agent and worth infinitely more than the $3,382,000 he’s on currently. Brogdon is a restricted free agent and likely to be courting offers from all over the place. Mirotic is a free agent and will be paid through the nose by a team looking to add a versatile shooting big-man.
It’s tough to see the Bucks improving their roster going in to next season. If their shooting gets worse (which seems inevitable), it means Giannis will be forced to shoulder an even heavier offensive load.
What this Raptors series taught us is that maybe, just maybe, that load might be slightly too heavy for even the freakest of Greeks.
Written and produced for Sportstips.com by Eddie Dadds