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Mike Budenholzer May Have the Upper Hand on Chris Paul

The much-maligned coach’s defensive adjustments have put the Bucks defense a step ahead of the Point God … for now

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The same Mike Budenholzer who previously coached the Bucks to a single vision of basketball strategy opened these NBA Finals with creative matchups and a dramatic departure in defensive scheme. It didn’t work, but the Bucks kept moving—first steering back toward their base defense with some slight modifications and then ironing out who should play, when they should play, and with whom they should play. The story of Milwaukee’s playoff run could be told through course correction: a clean sweep of the Heat team that beat them a year ago; a seven-game comeback after an awful 0-2 start against the Nets; and a conference final in which Milwaukee dropped the first game, lost Giannis Antetokounmpo to a hyperextended knee, and still made its way to the Finals.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that after Chris Paul went carte blanche in Game 1 for 32 points and nine assists, the Bucks—despite their stubborn reputation—would adjust as they have all throughout their playoff run. And so even as Antetokounmpo rampaged through the Suns’ interior defense, wiping out entire city blocks on his way to some of the most dominant performances in Finals history, the Bucks made a breakthrough on the other side of the ball by doing something that none of the Suns’ other playoff opponents could: make Chris Paul turn the ball over.

The glaring flaw of Milwaukee’s initial defensive strategy wasn’t that it allowed the future Hall of Fame point guard too many opportunities to take bread-and-butter midrange jumpers, but that it was a style of coverage Paul barely felt at all. It was too easy for him to dial up a Brook Lopez switch and then take his time, easing through possessions while Lopez stood back on his heels. Budenholzer and his staff scrapped that scheme going into Game 2 and answered Paul’s dominance by putting Jrue Holiday in a state of constant pursuit.

The series has been different ever since. On Phoenix’s second possession of that game, Holiday picked up Paul so early and so aggressively that he had to turn to protect his dribble and effectively post Holiday up just to get the ball across the half-court line. Paul couldn’t go a few steps without his shadow lunging at the ball, disrupting his rhythm. Even consecutive screens didn’t help; Holiday wedged himself between Paul and the first, completely neutralizing its impact, and then chased him over another, causing the best point guard of his generation to dribble the ball off his own foot:

“[I’m] really just trying to speed him up, and trying to get him as tired as possible,” Holiday said after Game 3.

Two of Paul’s three highest turnover games of the entire 2021 playoffs were his last two: six giveaways in a closely contested Game 2 and four more in a Game 3 that was far enough out of reach that Paul played only 34 minutes. It was entirely out of character—the Point God severed from his divine providence. Some of the power of Paul’s playmaking comes from the fact that he wastes nothing; in the 16 years he’s been in the league, a Chris Paul team has finished outside the top 10 in turnover rate (read: the top 10 lowest turnover rates) only once according to Cleaning the Glass. Phoenix ran one of the cleanest offenses in the league this season and overwhelmed its first three playoff opponents with similar precision. That’s the power of Chris Paul. The influence he aims to exert over every possession begins—and, in effect, ends—with ensuring that a shot goes up. His career is as much a work of basketball savvy as it is a triumph of administration. Some former teammates have seen that style as micromanaging. Paul’s record would tell us it’s unquestionably efficient. Regardless, a defense finding ways to consistently turn Paul over amounts to hitting him where he lives.

There wasn’t any one formula to how Milwaukee bothered Paul’s dribble and picked off his passes, except for more accurately reading his intentions. Paul isn’t a player who can be pinned down for long; his feel for the game is too sophisticated and in tune to the butterfly effects of how a teammate sliding over a few feet would have completely changed the outcome of a possession. Yet in the heat of the past two games, the Bucks were able to periodically get ahead of him, diving into some of Paul’s passing lanes before he had even fully committed to using them. You just don’t see defenders pick off routine passes from Paul like Holiday did here:

Or find defenders who are plugged in to the way Paul sees the floor well enough to take away what an all-time point guard thought to be a sure layup:

Even when the Bucks didn’t force a turnover, their pressure complicated possessions—like when Paul waved off an inbound pass due to Holiday’s hounding, leading to Bridges bringing the ball up and quickly losing it to P.J. Tucker. There is no perfect form of defense against a team that moves the ball as well as the Suns, but the way Milwaukee has defended Paul has challenged the order he tries to impose. The points scored off turnovers in this series has gradually inverted from a healthy Suns advantage (16-10) in Game 1, to practically a draw (16-15, Milwaukee) in Game 2, to a huge boost for the Bucks in Game 3.

“We were able to get stops,” Middleton said. “That allowed us to play a lot faster, a lot freer.”

Milwaukee needs those easy conversions in transition a lot more than Phoenix does. The Bucks probably won’t have enough steady offense to win this series without them. It’s a reversal of the advantage Paul’s teams typically enjoy and another valuable way for Milwaukee to apply pressure. Holiday breathing down Paul’s neck on every pick-and-roll forces Paul to consider every dribble he takes more carefully, but the Bucks scoring consistently with opportunistic fast breaks, Antetokounmpo’s rim runs, and enough ball movement in support can make Paul feel the stakes of a possession. It can snap a great player out of his zone just long enough to realize where he is and what he’s playing for and disrupt his perfect focus by zooming his perspective out to 10,000 feet. It can force a brilliant micromanager to feel the weight of an entire career.

No edge is too small; championships have been decided and legacies built by as little as a few ill-advised minutes for Anderson Varejao. Paul will still score and run good offense because that’s what he’s done his entire life, not least of all throughout this incredible playoff run. Yet the Bucks have shown a capacity to push a painstaking superstar outside himself, far enough at least to see a flicker of daylight between the player Paul is and the mistakes he doesn’t usually make.