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Mike Budenholzer Could Benefit From Embracing Steve Kerr’s Strategies

The star-focused small ball that has made the Warriors great in the postseason could help the Bucks recover from a tough start to the second round

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mike Budenholzer could learn from watching Steve Kerr. On Sunday, in Game 1 of his second-round series, Budenholzer stuck with the plan he used in the regular season, and Boston ran Milwaukee out of their gym in a 112-90 blowout. Meanwhile, Kerr threw everything his team did in the past eight months out the window and got Golden State a 104-100 win over Houston. The best way for the Bucks to get back in their series is to copy the Warriors: bench the traditional big men, shorten the rotation, and lean on the stars. Elite talent isn’t enough to win a championship. A coach has to know how to use that talent and adjust to the way the game changes throughout the playoffs.

Kerr typically goes smaller upfront over the course of the series, saving his small-ball lineups until he absolutely needs them. He didn’t start Draymond Green at the 5 until Game 6 of their first-round series with the Clippers, but Kerr started his quicker lineup in Game 1 against Houston and never looked back: Green’s primary backup at center on Sunday was Kevon Looney, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward. Either Looney or Green played at the 5 for 43 of 48 minutes on Sunday, limiting Andrew Bogut, a 7-footer without the speed to extend up the court, to one quick stretch at the start of the second quarter. The result was that Golden State could play a more aggressive brand of pick-and-roll defense than most teams.

As a result, James Harden and Chris Paul didn’t get as much space coming around screens as they did in the regular season. The Warriors were playing five good perimeter defenders, so there was always at least one player coming out to meet Houston’s guards with a hand in their face. Golden State’s ability to play small has helped it knock Harden out of the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. In Game 1, the Warriors held Harden and Paul to 14-of-37 (37.8 percent) shooting from the field and 10 assists against nine turnovers, and held their supporting cast to shooting 7-of-25 (28.0 percent) from 3.

Kerr’s goal was essentially to avoid what happened to the Bucks on Sunday. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward made a killing in the pick-and-roll, taking advantage of the Milwaukee big men’s dropping back in the paint and giving them room to operate when they were coming around screens. The two combined to shoot 17-for-29 (58.6 percent) from the field and handed out 16 assists against six turnovers. Their supporting cast shot 10-for-23 (43.5 percent) from 3. But what really stretched the Bucks’ conservative defensive scheme past its breaking point was Al Horford’s ability to pick-and-pop at the 5. Horford is why people think Brad Stevens is a genius: He’s an elite defensive center who can make plays and shoot 3s like a guard, creating matchup nightmares for opposing teams. His playing time has spiked in each of the past three playoffs, which has, in large part, allowed Boston to outperform its regular-season record.

Milwaukee had the best record (60-22) and net rating (plus-8.6) in the NBA this season, but their defense had an Achilles’ heel that was going to be exploited at some point in the playoffs. The key to Milwaukee’s success has been the partnership of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo on both ends of the floor. Lopez, a center who shoots 36.5 percent from 3 on 6.3 attempts per game, does wonders opening up the floor for Giannis on offense. The two work together just as well on defense, with Lopez walling off the paint and Giannis roaming all over the floor as a help-side defender. The problem is what happens when they have to face a team like Boston, which can spread the floor with five 3-point shooters. There was no one for Lopez to guard when his man set a screen, and he’s not quick enough to defend outside the paint.

The obvious adjustment for the Bucks to make in Game 2 is to move Giannis to center and play pick-and-roll defense more like the Warriors. In Game 1, Budenholzer kept Giannis in the paint when his man set screens, even though he has the physical tools to switch the screen and stay in front of any player in the league. Milwaukee has the personnel to play its own version of the Lineup of Death, with Giannis (6-foot-11 and 242 pounds) at the 5 and Khris Middleton (6-foot-8 and 222 pounds) at the 4. It’s not like that lineup would be at a size disadvantage against Boston, which started Horford (6-foot-10 and 245 pounds) and Marcus Morris (6-foot-9 and 235 pounds) upfront in Game 1.

But implementing that lineup would be a dramatic change for Budenholzer, who prefers to play more conservative coverages in the pick-and-roll. Bud plays two smaller versions of Lopez off his bench in Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova, both of whom can be targeted in space by Irving and Hayward. Trading for Mirotic at the deadline might have been the worst thing to happen to Milwaukee, because his presence has marginalized D.J. Wilson, a promising second-year forward who has the speed to stay in front of smaller players on the perimeter. Wilson went from a key rotation piece to getting DNP-CDs over the second half of the season. He would give the Bucks far more defensive flexibility than any of the older big men ahead of him in the rotation.

Budenholzer may prefer more subtle adjustments, counting on improved execution and more disciplined rotations to eliminate some of the open 3s the Celtics created in Game 1. The Bucks will almost certainly play better on offense in Game 2 no matter what he does: In Game 1, Giannis shot better from 3 (3-for-5) than he did from 2-point range (4-for-16), while Lopez and Eric Bledsoe combined to shoot 2-for-10 from the field. Budenholzer has had incredible success playing one style of basketball all season, and he may need more than one bad game before he’s willing to alter his philosophical approach to the game.

The issue for Budenholzer is that the difference between the way NBA teams play in the regular season and the playoffs has never been larger. Golden State couldn’t start the Lineup of Death for nine months. Green and Looney would wear down from the strain of banging with bigger players in the paint. The Warriors typically keep traditional big men on their roster to buy time in November and December before committing to going small in May and June. DeMarcus Cousins might have changed Golden State’s approach had he stayed healthy, but his absence streamlined their rotation and allowed them to go back to small ball. It has been the most effective strategy in the past few postseasons: All four teams in last year’s conference finals (the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs, and Celtics) played smaller and more versatile centers as compared to league norms.

Players with defined weaknesses become an issue the deeper a team advances in the playoffs. Every minute of playing time is precious against an elite team. Taking out his big men wasn’t the only change that Kerr made to his rotation in Game 1 against the Rockets: He gave the resultant extra minutes to his stars. All five members of the Lineup of Death played far more than they did in the regular season:

Lineup of Death Players’ Minutes

Player Game 1 vs. Rockets Regular Season
Player Game 1 vs. Rockets Regular Season
Kevin Durant 43 34.6
Klay Thompson 41 34
Draymond Green 40 31.3
Steph Curry 37 33.8
Andre Iguodala 34 23.2

One of the biggest problems for Golden State this season was creating offense when both Durant and Curry were on the bench. Those lineups had a net rating of minus-9.9 in 794 minutes in the regular season, and minus-27.1 in 35 minutes against the Clippers. So, Kerr made sure that one of the two was always on the floor against the Rockets. Giving his superstars more playing time meant his offense didn’t go through any prolonged slumps, while his defense didn’t have as many weak links to attack. Looney and Shaun Livingston were the only Warriors reserves who played more than 10 minutes on Sunday.

Budenholzer wasn’t nearly as aggressive with his rotation. He played seven players at least 24 minutes in Game 1 and played Giannis for only 34 minutes, keeping him out for three different stretches in the first three quarters. Giannis is a 24-year-old with nearly superhuman athleticism who should have enough energy to play the entire game. LeBron James routinely played all 48 minutes in important playoff games at the same age. He even did it in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston last season. One of the easiest ways for a superstar to add value in the postseason is to never come out of the game.

The Kerr playbook isn’t a silver bullet. The Warriors narrowly escaped in Game 1 even with their coach burning through an entire series of adjustments. The Bucks may not have enough firepower without the injured Malcolm Brogdon, and his absence means they don’t have as many options when they go small. Budenholzer will have to get creative. Having the most versatile superstar in the NBA doesn’t matter if his coach doesn’t take advantage of his versatility. There is another level that Giannis can reach. Kerr would use him as a hybrid of Draymond and Horford for 45-plus minutes, which could be the pitch the Warriors give him when he reaches free agency in 2021. That’s the best formula to win in the playoffs. If Budenholzer doesn’t use it, someone else will beat him with it.