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The Bucks Played It Safe And Made The Wrong Kind Of History

Now that it’s over, let’s be clear about what we just saw: The Miami Heat’s series win over the Milwaukee Bucks was more than a stunner. It was perhaps the most lopsided upset in the history of the NBA playoffs.

For good reason, the Bucks were expected to make a serious run at a title. For much of the year, they were on a dominant, 70-win pace, boasting the league’s best defense and a soon-to-be two-time MVP who has been compared to a modern-day wing version of Shaq because of how unstoppable he is inside the paint.

Yet it all came crashing down. Again.

Last year’s conference finals loss, after Milwaukee jumped out to a 2-0 lead over Toronto, was surprising. But at the same time, those Bucks ran into a robot-led buzzsaw. Plus, a title might have been asking too much, too soon from the club, which had gone almost 20 years without so much as a playoff series win.

Being ushered out an entire round sooner — in a five-game gentleman’s sweep, and as the favorite — deserves far greater scrutiny. And when put under the microscope, this series was one for the history books. Never before had an NBA club with such a vast winning-percentage deficit — Miami won 60 percent of its games; the Bucks won almost 77 percent of theirs — won a best-of-seven series in five games or fewer.1 At least until now.

There were many circumstances that may have contributed to Milwaukee’s hasty exit: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s injury in Game 3 and ugly reaggravation in Game 4, the oddity of the bubble, the team’s focus amid the strike for racial justice it led a few weeks back. But the easiest thing to pinpoint is the sheer matchup problem Miami presented.

If last year seemed frustrating, with trying to score on the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam, this series was just as challenging — if not worse. Getting by defenders like Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Bam Adebayo and Andre Iguodala was never going to be easy. The Heat’s abundance of long, rangy stoppers allowed them to throw multiple bodies on Milwaukee’s two best players, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The Heat aggressively walled off the paint with those bodies, and their ability to quickly send help when Giannis did see daylight was an enormous factor in the series. (Last year, Toronto gave up 0.84 points per Bucks drive when a help defender was present, per Second Spectrum. Miami was even stingier in this series, surrendering just 0.83 points per drive in those cases.)

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra deserves credit for having his club fully prepared to take away one of the Bucks’ bread-and-butter plays — the Giannis-Middleton pick and roll, which Milwaukee used to throttle Miami during the regular season.2

By contrast, it took Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer too long to make what seemed like easy adjustments in the series. The most obvious, which undoubtedly infuriated Milwaukee fans: his seemingly hard-line approach toward how many minutes he would allow his relatively young stars to play, saying he didn’t want to push them near or above the 40-minute mark. (Two ironies here: First, that the Raptors — in a 2-0 hole — dramatically regained momentum in their series after giving three of their best players extended minutes. Second, the Bucks themselves finally squeezed out a win in Game 4 after Middleton, who was forced into playing hero ball for a change, and two other starters logged 40 minutes or more in an overtime victory.)

But the schematic differences, and the slowness with which Budenholzer reacted, might have been more meaningful than the minute allocations. Miami was always going to be a tough cover for the Bucks, given how Milwaukee orchestrates its drop defense with Brook Lopez. Yet early on, the club needlessly had its guards going over screens to defend a poor jump-shooter in Butler — something that made a drop scheme harder to run properly. And as Miami cashed in on the Bucks’ coverage — the Heat took 40 triples a game and hit on a respectable 37 percent of them — Budenholzer waited a bit too long and seemed to commit a bit too half-heartedly to having his defenders switch the Heat’s pick and rolls.

Then there was the Milwaukee offense, which now has a clear answer to “Do we really need Malcolm Brogdon?” — an answer that we’ve said for a while now might not become clear until the games were worth a bit more.

The Heat essentially opted to sell out in hopes of slowing Antetokounmpo down. In Game 1, that resulted in Giannis scoring just 18 points on 12 shots, while the Bucks’ perimeter shooters feasted (16-of-35, including Antetokounmpo’s 2-of-5 from three). But when Giannis bounced back with 29 points in Game 2, the outside shooting (7-of-25) cooled off considerably, leaving the club in a 2-0 hole. It blew Game 3 with a historically bad fourth quarter. And even when the Bucks won a battle in Game 4, they ultimately lost the war when Antetokounmpo left after tweaking the ankle again.

What haunted Milwaukee, among other things, was starting point guard Eric Bledsoe’s inability to shoot — an absolute killer in a series when a defense is banking on just that. Bledsoe, whose role became even more important in the wake of the team deciding not to keep the well-rounded Brogdon last summer, shot 18 percent (4-for-22) on jumpers in this series, according to Second Spectrum. You may recall that he had a brutal performance in the Raptors’ series last season, too, when he shot just 24 percent (9-of-37) on such attempts.

For how solid Bledsoe was in the regular season, and despite how special his defense can be, there’s a fair argument to be made that he’s simply not a consistently strong enough offensive player to go forward with in postseasons. The name you’ll hear thrown around as a possibility to replace him is Chris Paul, who has a pricey deal but is on an Oklahoma City team that may be ready to fully pivot toward its youth movement.

Truth be told, given the precarious nature of Antetokounmpo’s future — he can become an unrestricted free agent after next season — just about everything should be on the table.

For more than a year now, we’ve watched this Bucks team handle things conservatively: from letting Brogdon go, to its loose drop scheme with Lopez, to not having the Defensive Player of the Year defend a 40-point scorer down the stretch, even down to its minute allocations for a 25-year-old. But with the ultimate “prove it” year coming up, it might be time for Milwaukee to take a significant swing. The last thing the Bucks can afford to do now is strike out looking.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. Before this, the Golden State Warriors’ sweep of the Washington Bullets in the 1975 NBA Finals ranked as the most lopsided series upset, in terms of regular-season winning percentage. The 1986 Rockets’ win in the Western Conference finals over the Showtime Lakers and the 1995 Rockets’ series sweep over the Orlando Magic in the Finals are close behind.

  2. It’s these kinds of innovative game-to-game shifts in strategy for which we recently highlighted Toronto coach Nick Nurse.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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