The Milwaukee Bucks have taken a lax approach to playing their best players big minutes, but it’s time to throw that tactic out the window in the NBA playoffs.
How far can you go when you refuse to adjust even the most basic elements of your strategy in the NBA playoffs? Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer appears to be bent on finding out.
If there’s one thing Budenholzer is known for, it’s crafting a strategy that dominates in regular season play. Against opposition that is accustomed to playing against a more traditional switching defense, for example, the Bucks drop-defense can be challenging to adjust to on a game-by-game basis for opposing teams, especially inferior ones. When you’re facing the Sacramento Kings in January, they’re walking into a schematic buzzsaw, let alone the fact that the Bucks have the best player on the floor just about every night in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
However, once the playoffs come around, things are different. Teams know what the Bucks are trying to do, and playoff opposition almost seems like the kryptonite to everything they like to do. The Miami Heat shoot a lot of 3-pointers, and they shoot them well, and the Bucks give up a lot of 3s by default. Looking further down the line, the Boston Celtics are a tremendous mid-range shooting team, and drop-coverage yields plenty of mid-range opportunities.
Being rigidly dogmatic like the Bucks tend to, they don’t have the experience in fluid switching and swarming defense like teams like the Toronto Raptors, for example.
Scheme aside, you can get away with a lot simply by having the best player on the floor. Schemes might not be optimal and adjustments might not be made, but in the NBA, having the biggest start in the game will take you a long way.
Why won’t Budenholzer play Giannis Antetokounmpo more minutes?
The thing is, and what Budenholzer is perplexingly conflicted about, your best player actually needs to play in order to capitalize on this advantage.
The Milwaukee Bucks blew teams out at a near-historic level this season, and as a result Antetokounmpo barely broke the 30-minute per game mark. While you would imagine that in the playoffs, where every game matters, Antetokounmpo’s minutes would skyrocket to the top of the rankings. If not in the first round against the Orlando Magic who were drawing completely dead, then certainly against the dangerous Miami Heat.
Antetokounmpo averaged just 31.7 minutes per game in the first round, which is fine because the Magic never stood a chance even after winning Game 1. What’s concerning is that in the second round against the Heat, Antetokounmpo is finally going to have his minutes stretched out for the first time this season.
He’s averaging 36 minutes through two games, both losses. While he got into some foul trouble with four in Game 2, the Bucks lost a close game by two points, and Giannis was on the bench down 10 points with seven minutes to go.
What is Giannis being saved for? With a Game 3 loss, there’s no tomorrow for the Bucks. Can he simply not go for 40+ minutes? Is there a physical cap on the minutes he can put forth, or is Mike Budenholzer truly so rigid in his methodology that even to seize victory from the jaws of defeat, he can’t find the rationale to play his best player for 39 minutes rather than 36?
I get why Budenholzer wants to maintain the integrity of his defensive strategy, but there’s no justification for kneecapping his own team by refusing to stretch out his best player.
These are the NBA playoffs, and for Bud and the Bucks, it’s time to see what Giannis Antetokounmpo is really all about.