Milwaukee Bucks Lead Way in Disturbing Top-Team Trend: Playoff Meltdowns

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Getty Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

In the highlight-centric NBA, where today’s technology splashes offense all over one’s tablet or phone screen, fans have been clicking onto Playoff Jimmy Butler’s clutch brilliance, Devin Booker’s 47-point closeout game and Trae Young’s 30-footer.

But for the people who make a living in the league, the focus is more on Milwaukee’s collapse, Phoenix’s brush with trouble and the fact the Celtics‘ inability to handle prosperity forced them into a Game 6 trip to Atlanta. And they weren’t pulling any punches in conversations with Heavy Sports.

“It’s amazing to watch grown-men professionals play like flustered little kids,” said one GM.

“The mindset changes with the lead and the score,” said a former head coach still involved with the league. “Everybody’s going to slow the game down. It just becomes a much, much slower game, trying to use clock. We saw the Clippers almost beat Phoenix because of that. We saw Milwaukee lose two games because of that. We saw Boston do it against Atlanta, even in the games they won. Ten- and 15-point leads aren’t what they used to be, that’s for sure.”

The Bucks had the best record in the NBA and leads of 15 points in Game 4 and 16 to start the fourth quarter in Game 5 before losing both to 8-seed Miami and getting banished from the playoffs. The Suns survived against the star-less Clippers to advance, and the Celts seemed intent on making things hard on themselves.

When it was mentioned that Butler appeared to foul Pat Connaughton to get open for his bucket that forced overtime, the ex-coach said, “Yeah, they definitely could have called a push-off on that, but the thing is that the meltdown of Milwaukee was so much more substantial. I mean, those guys were taking terrible shots. You could just tell the tension that was there. They were getting tight, and the pressure was getting to them. Just melting down under the gun.

“It happens. Look at Phoenix; they were up 15 with five minutes to go (in Tuesday’s Game 5), and three minutes later the Clippers have a chance to tie, but (Russell) Westbrook misses that layup. If he makes that, who knows what happens? So the Celtics aren’t the only ones is the point. It’s a common thing in basketball. When you’re behind, the basket’s bigger because you’re just shooting with no fear. And when you’re ahead, you’re trying to protect the lead. But I thought the shot selection by Milwaukee was atrocious.

“With Boston, hell, they were throwing the ball all over the place. But it still took some crazy, crazy shots to beat them. Yeah, Trae Young has made those kind of shots before, but sometimes you have to tip your hat. The offensive turnovers were what got Boston into trouble. Just really dumb stuff. Jayson (Tatum)’s sloppy pass against the double-team. Those mistakes cannot be made in the crucial time of the game.”

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo Exposed in Round 1

He went on to criticize the Celtics for slowing the pace, thus going away from the quicker game that has made the Hawks look like the No. 7 seed they are. But even for the teams that play slower as a rule, it invites comebacks.

“You’ve got to keep playing,” he said. “You can’t put it in slow motion as early as teams are doing it right now. It’s hard to watch. Chris Paul does it, and Chris Paul’s really good at it. New York does it, too. Jalen Brunson’s good at it like Chris Paul is. They just dribble the air out of the ball, and then with eight seconds (on the shot clock) they’re trying to make a play. New York did the same thing.

“The only thing that saved them from a meltdown was their offensive rebounding,” he said of the Game 5 close-out win over the Cavaliers. “Mitchell Robinson just got an offensive rebound almost every time they missed (11 of his 18 rebounds were on the offensive glass), and that killed Cleveland.”

Another league source from the bench lit into the Bucks and their plan.

“The playoffs expose your weaknesses as a team,” he said. “Like last night with Milwaukee, their shooting is not great. Giannis’ shooting was exposed. He kept trying to shoot. They had numerous possessions in a row where they did not get a good shot. The thing is, they know how to fix that, but they didn’t do it.

“When they beat Phoenix in the (2021) Finals, they started putting Giannis as the screener early in that series. He would set the screen, and then he would get the ball in the middle of the paint, where he just had to make the pass or the little shots. It was easier for him to get to the rim. I would have had Giannis in the paint setting screens for my other good players and then rolling. That forces the defense to make a tough choice, and Giannis doesn’t have to drive through three guys or take an outside shot. It’s hard to stop him once he’s inside, and he can also beat you with the pass if you crowd him.”

‘Panicking Is Probably Not the Right Thing to Do’

The source went on to warn against overreacting this offseason … but then he took aim at their defensive scheme.

“Obviously they’re still a very good team. I think panicking is probably not the right thing to do,” he said. “I think their team is really good. (Khris) Middleton’s health is a big question mark, and (Brook) Lopez is getting older but is still decent. I just don’t like how they play. Staying in drop coverage just killed them. They gave up so many wide-open shots. I think that’s what singlehandedly got Jimmy Butler going. Anybody that set a screen with the guy Lopez was guarding got an open jump shot. I think he can help you, but putting him exclusively in drop coverage so he can protect the rim is crazy. I don’t think it works against a lot of teams.

“I don’t know if they HAVE to do anything, maybe tweaks here and there. But they let Miami come alive in that series. Miami hadn’t been playing good basketball for a long time, but Milwaukee gave them life with their defensive plan and just taking bad shots. Milwaukee got them going. Kyle Lowry woke up, and he’s been dismal all year. But, again, (the Bucks) are in that drop coverage, and he just comes off a screen and shoots. I think it’s terrible defensive game planning. Horrible. Especially once you see them get going.

“Like it’s one thing to try to play your normal defense that’s helped you, and people look at the analytics, but then you’ve just got to go, ‘OK, we cannot let Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson and Max Strus and Jimmy Butler beat us like that — even though a lot of times you can get away with it against Jimmy, but he’s different right now, playing at a high level with a lot of confidence. You’ve got to change your coverage, even if you’ve got to take Brook Lopez out of the game.”

While he clearly put a lot of Milwaukee’s exit on Mike Budenholzer, he backed off when asked if it put the coach’s job in jeopardy.

“I certainly don’t blame Mike for that loss last night, because I could see the players melting down,” he said. “They were choking. It’s just that simple. I don’t know what you can draw up if your best players can’t make shots. And they had open shots.”


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