The Bucks are getting an education in the Eastern Conference finals. For all their talent, they are a young team without much playoff experience and with a lot they don’t know about themselves. This is the first time they have really been tested. Milwaukee had the best record and net rating in the regular season and went 10-1 in their first 11 playoff games. They won so easily that they could afford to make a lot of mistakes. Their margin for error is gone after losing three straight to Toronto. They will be fighting for their lives in a road Game 6 on Saturday. It will be a clarifying moment for the franchise.
The big adjustment the Raptors made after falling behind 0-2 was putting Kawhi Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Everything the Bucks do on offense is based around their superstar’s ability to score over one defender or find an open 3-point shooter when the defense sends help. Kawhi is one of the only players in the league with the quickness to stay in front of Giannis and the strength to push him out of the paint and prevent him from living at the rim. Giannis is shooting 11-for-31 from the field (35.5 percent) in the 131 possessions when Kawhi has been his primary defender. He’s not making many plays for his teammates (four assists and five turnovers) or getting to the foul line (three made free throws), either.
Toronto has controlled the tempo of the game and kept Giannis out of transition, where he’s unstoppable. Milwaukee uses its defense to power its offense by allowing Giannis to push the ball up the court himself on stops, collapse the defense, and find shooters running into open 3s. He hasn’t been getting those same chances over the past few games; Kawhi has been scoring so easily that the game is staying in the half court. It’s hard to run after a made basket. Kawhi had a legendary performance in Game 5, with 35 points on 11-for-25 shooting and nine assists against one turnover. Everything went through him on both sides of the ball. For the first time all season, the Bucks don’t have the best player on the floor.
Giannis, one of the most gifted players in NBA history, has always been able to dominate with his talent. His combination of driving, passing, and finishing ability for a player his size (6-foot-11 and 242 pounds) makes him almost unguardable. This is one of the first times in his career that his shaky jumper has hurt him. He’s been working on it. Giannis shot a career-high number of 3s in the regular season (25.6 percent on 2.8 attempts per game), and he’s taking even more (32 percent on 3.6 attempts) in the playoffs. He’s still no Kawhi, though. It doesn’t matter if the Bucks push Leonard out of the paint. He can score from anywhere.
Becoming a better shooter is an adjustment Giannis will have to make in the offseason, not before Game 6. Milwaukee has to make smaller tweaks on offense to make life easier on him Saturday. One solution would be to use him more in the pick-and-roll to get Kawhi off him, which would allow him to get back to his biggest strength: making plays in space. Giannis is the rare 7-footer who could be the ball handler or the screener in the two-man game, but Kawhi can still fight over the screen and force the ball out of his hands when Giannis is the former. It’s easier to free him up when he’s setting the screen.
The question for Milwaukee becomes who should be the ball handler. Eric Bledsoe is the starting point guard, but he’s a streaky shooter and decision-maker who has been inconsistent in the playoffs. The Bucks have been better on offense with George Hill, a knockdown 3-point shooter who moves the ball and doesn’t force the issue. The Raptors are daring Bledsoe to shoot: They are leaving him open on the perimeter and going under every pick-and-roll that he runs. He’s averaging 10.6 points per game on 28.8 percent shooting and 3.6 assists per game in the series, and shooting 15.4 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts. Coach Mike Budenholzer will need a quick hook for Bledsoe if he struggles in Game 6.
Milwaukee’s best options to run the pick-and-roll with Giannis are Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon. Middleton, a 6-foot-8 forward, and Brogdon, a 6-foot-5 guard, are well-rounded players who can shoot off the dribble and create open shots for their teammates. Unlike Bledsoe, they can punish the defense for going under the screen and space the floor when they are playing off the ball. The defense can’t afford to leave Middleton (37.8 percent from 3 on 6.2 attempts per game in the regular season) or Brogdon (42.6 percent on 3.8 attempts per game) open. Hill can do only so much: He’s a 3-and-D player who is better as a spot-up shooter and secondary playmaker than as an offensive initiator. Brogdon and Middleton have to ease some of the burden on Giannis.
Middleton has been up-and-down in the series. He went from scoring 30 points on 11-of-15 shooting in Game 4 to six points on 2-of-9 shooting in Game 5. Part of the issue is that he relies on making a lot of tough shots off the dribble: He doesn’t have the explosiveness to create a lot of separation, get to the free throw line, or dominate around the rim. But there is more that Milwaukee could be doing to free him up. Middleton would benefit just as much as Giannis from playing more in the pick-and-roll and counting on the defensive attention that Giannis draws to create more open shots for himself.
Brogdon hasn’t had as many chances to affect the series, having come off the bench in the first four games after returning from a plantar fasciitis injury that kept him out for months. He moved into the starting lineup only in Game 5. The Bucks need him at 100 percent in Game 6. He has been the difference-maker against the Raptors. The Bucks have a net rating of plus-12.6 in 116 minutes with him and minus-11.5 in 86 minutes without him. Brogdon fills a lot of holes in their lineup. He gives Milwaukee a third shot creator next to Middleton and Giannis, while also spreading the floor and guarding one of the best players on the opposing team. He has been their best defender on Kawhi, holding him to 12-of-35 shooting (34.3 percent) in 110 possessions as the primary defender.
The most important adjustment that Budenholzer can make in Game 6 is to lean more on his best players. Milwaukee has been dominant (plus-34.9 in 52 minutes) when Giannis, Middleton, and Brogdon have all been in. They just haven’t played much together because Brogdon has been coming off the bench in Budenholzer’s 10-man rotation. The three played only 11 minutes together in Game 5. Budenzholer has to be as ruthless as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse in Game 6. Nurse’s rotation is down to eight. He’s not afraid to take out guys who aren’t playing well. He played Danny Green, who has been in a shooting slump all series, only 16 minutes in Game 5. Budenholzer needs his best lineups on the floor at all times. He should always keep at least two of Giannis, Middleton, and Brogdon in. None of them played even 40 minutes in Game 5. All three will need to reach that threshold in Game 6. Giannis may have to play even more.
The Bucks have to pull out all the stops Saturday. One of the trump cards that the Cavs had with LeBron James was his ability to play all 48 minutes in a closeout game. He never came off the floor in their win over the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, even though he was a 33-year-old who needed to conserve his energy on every possession. Giannis is only 24. He should be able to do the same. We just don’t know if he can because Budenholzer has never asked him to. Giannis has played more than 40 minutes only once in the playoffs, when he logged 44 in their double-OT loss to the Raptors in Game 3. Kawhi, in contrast, played 52 minutes. Nurse was coaching with the desperation of someone who knew his season was over if he lost.
Budenholzer has not been in that position with the Bucks. He hasn’t had to make any major adjustments to his rotation or style of play, a luxury few coaches get in the playoffs. The postseason exposes every hole on your team. One of the reasons that teams without much playoff experience tend to falter is that they don’t know what their weaknesses are, or how to respond to teams who exploit them. Budenholzer has lived a charmed life in Milwaukee, much like Steve Kerr in Golden State. Both took over a ready-made team and made one crucial adjustment (Budenholzer brought in Brook Lopez, Kerr started Draymond Green) to get them to the next level in their first season. But Kerr was very flexible once he got to the playoffs in 2015, making major lineup changes once he fell behind against Memphis and Cleveland. Budenholzer will have to be, too.
The playoffs should be a learning experience. The question headed into Game 6 is whether Budenholzer has learned the right lessons about his team. It will be even more important for GM Jon Horst and their front office, who have to make some big decisions in the offseason. Five of their top seven players—Middleton, Brogdon, Lopez, Hill, and Nikola Mirotic—will be free agents. The Bucks probably can’t keep all of them. They gave Bledsoe a four-year, $70 million extension in March, but he isn’t nearly as important to their playoff success as either Middleton or Brogdon. Those are the two players they need to keep around Giannis in Game 6. Milwaukee is best when all three are in. The tragedy would be if the Bucks didn’t give them a chance to all play together before they get broken up.