Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Retooled Milwaukee Bucks learn lessons in hope of postseason run behind Giannis Antetokounmpo

The idea of building around a superstar is hardly new methodology when it comes to an NBA roster.

Seeking out the perfect fit with complimentary stars and adequate role players is one of the biggest challenges for franchises attempting to make the leap from a perennial playoff team to a genuine championship contender.

The Milwaukee Bucks are the perfect example in today's game, with GM Jon Horst and the Milwaukee Bucks front office shuffling the decks with regularity in order to find the perfect blend around back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks entered 2020-21 with an impressive 116-39 record over the previous two regular seasons. That domination failed to translate to the playoffs, with a blown 2-0 lead in the 2019 Conference Finals against Toronto and a spectacular flameout in five games against Miami in the second round of the 2020 playoffs, leaving a sour taste in their mouth.

Carrying largely the same core rotation for the previous two seasons, it was clear changes needed to be made. Some obvious, some around the fringes, but Horst and the Bucks went to work.

The Jrue Holiday trade

Priority number one for Milwaukee entering the offseason was finding a way to upgrade the point guard position.

A key piece in the Bucks' regular-season dominance, Eric Bledsoe crumbled in three consecutive postseasons, prompting the Bucks to throw all the chips on the table.

Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-round picks and two pick swaps left Milwaukee in exchange for New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday and the 60th overall pick that would eventually be used to draft Sam Merrill.

Widely regarded as one of the best individual defenders in the league, the pieces required to secure Holiday's services raised some eyebrows around the league, particularly when combined with the reality that Holiday could have opted out of his contract for the following season, leaving the franchise desperately low on viable assets.

Seen as an obvious upgrade, questions around Holiday's ability to be a difference-maker in the postseason for this team were valid outside of one noteable series against Portland, with the 30-year-old appearing in just 30 playoff games across his career and only 12 since 2012.

"If you can't handle pressure you probably shouldn't be in this line of work, to be honest with you," Holiday told reporters on his first media appearance as a Buck.

It took precisely one game for that quote to ring true, with Holiday drilling a go-ahead triple with 1:10 to play in the season opener in Boston in what was just one of a series of big-time shots made by the dynamic 2-way guard across the season.

Against Miami in the first round, Holiday took turns in stifling Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Kendrick Nunn, making the Heat's life miserable on offence. Down the other end, Holiday was in total control, using his uncanny ability to glide through traffic at his own pace in combination with his brute strength to consistently come up with timely buckets. In four games, the Bucks were an insane +98 in Holiday's 145 minutes on court.

Perhaps more relevant than any number that can be delivered is the fit with Antetokounmpo and 2-time All-Star Khris Middleton. Of the ten 3-man lineups that played at least 500 minutes for Milwaukee during the regular season, the trio posted the best net rating (+12.7). Against Miami in the first round, the trio's Net rating exploded (+34.0 in 72 minutes), while Holiday featured in the top nine 3-man lineups to have played a minimum of 40 minutes in the sweep.

Is Holiday is enjoying the opportunity to return to the postseason spotlight?

"This is why we play, man. This is why we play the game. Moments like this, games like this, this opportunity. This is why I'm here, I want to feel this moment, the pressure and all that. This was a fun first game but we've still got work to do," Holiday said after Game 1.

So far, so very good for Milwaukee.

Playoff caliber shooting

When attempting to assess the cause of the Bucks' struggles in the postseason, it's hard not to find yourself staring at the shooting numbers.

Across series losses to Toronto and Miami over the previous two seasons, the Bucks capitulated behind the 3-point arc, with the method of spacing the floor around Antetokounmpo only an impactful strategy if you actually hit shots.

Player 2019 ECF vs. Toronto 2020 2nd round vs. Miami
Khris Middleton 12-32 (37%) 11-33 (33%)
Pat Connaughton 4-9 (44%) 1-7 (14%)
Eric Bledsoe 5-29 (17%) 3-14 (21%)
Wesley Matthews NWT 5-15 (33%)
Marvin Williams NWT 2-10 (20%)
Nikola Mirotic 6-31 (19%) NWT
Ersan Ilyasova 5-18 (27%) DNP

The numbers do not make for pretty reading, with Horst tabling one of the team's primary objectives for the offseason prior to the 2020 NBA Draft.

"Consistent shooting. High-level shooting that translates into the playoffs," Horst said.

In acquiring Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis in free agency, the Bucks went some way to ticking that box, with both players drilling open threes at a high clip throughout the season.

Regular season 3P% Regular season wide open 3P% vs. Miami 3P% vs. Miami wide open 3P%
Bryn Forbes 154-341 (45.2%) 70-138 (50.7%) 16-33 (48.5%) 8-13 (61.5%)
Bobby Portis 74-157 (47.1%) 47-84 (56%) 6-13 (46.2%) 1-2 (50%)

Forbes in particular caused chaos against Miami, exploding for 22 points in Game 4 and 5, burying a combined 13 long-range bombs across the two outings.

"One thing that Jrue and the other guys do a good job of is telling me to be ready. I never need to tell them to pass me the ball, they're aware I'm hot, he knows, all those guys do," Forbes said after Game 2.

"[Miami] did that pretty much every game we played them this year, they stuck to the same game plan. I kinda knew what to expect and then when they started doing the full-court press there were so many open shots."

Added toughness

Not every deal made has been a home run for Horst.

Signing veteran point guard D.J. Augustin to a 3-year, $21 million deal in the offseason was one of those that didn't work out.

Rather than dwell on the mistake, Horst flipped Augustin and his contract along with the rarely used D.J. Wilson plus a pick swap for the playoff hardened P.J. Tucker and Rodions Kurucs (who has since been waived).

Horst then filled the backup point guard spot by signing Jeff Teague, a familiar face to Budenholzer from his days in Atlanta.

A physical, tough defensive presence, Tucker fits into the switchable Milwaukee defence like a glove, giving them another versatile option to throw out on the defensive end.

"We dogs. That's all we talk about. That's all I ever talk about. We gotta be dogs. People's perceptions of us and what people think in the past, we're erasing all of that," Tucker said during the series with Miami.

Tucker's value will be put to the test against the Nets, with the 36-year-old likely to see time on Kevin Durant and James Harden during the second-round series. With regular starter Donte DiVincenzo out for the season with an ankle tendon injury, Holiday hinted at Tucker's insertion in the starting lineup for Game 1 against Brooklyn.

"Sad to see Donte out for the season but we've got somebody like Tuck who can step into that starting role and really making an impact playing against James who he played with for five years. I think having that experience in the starting lineup helps us out a lot," Holiday told reporters.

Brooklyn Brook

Of all the new faces to enter the Bucks rotation since the end of last season, one familiar face is playing an unfamiliar role in Milwaukee colours.

A beast in the paint for a decade in Brooklyn, Brook Lopez bought into the five-out spacing that Milwaukee dished out in the first two seasons under Budenholzer.

While an impactful strategy with the 7-footer's transformation into an outside shooter remarkable, the Bucks have gone back to basics since the all-star break, taking the big man back to his roots as a dominant force down low.

PPG 3PA/PG FTA/PG
Pre All-Star Break 10.8 4.4 1.7
Post All-Star Break 13.9 3.6 2.4
1st Round vs. Miami 15.8 2.0 4.0

Rather than play to the opposition and allow Lopez to be defended by a smaller player on the perimeter, Budenholzer and the Bucks have decided to punish teams who dare go small against the Antetokounmpo-Lopez combination.

This strategy has gone into overdrive in the last month. Including the first round, Lopez has now scored 15+ points in nine of his last 15 appearances. a mark he only reached 15 times in his first 59 games of 2020-21. In those nine performances of 15+ points, Lopez has connected on just three shots from beyond the arc.

Learning lessons

The Bucks were utterly dominant during the past two regular seasons, which ironically could have masked their rather obvious deficiencies.

Lacking shooting and versatility, the Bucks became victims of their own consistent dominance.

When you are so dominant, why change? A second postseason failure appears to have sparked the creativity required to navigate a successful postseason.

A meeting with Durant, Harden and Irving could provide the ultimate test. These aren't the same Bucks as years gone by, but now it's time to find out if they are up to that significant test, with a shot at redemption in the Eastern Conference Finals the reward.

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