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The Bucks Are Hitting the Playoff Wall Again

Milwaukee spent the offseason retooling its roster to get the team over the postseason hump, just for the Nets to take a 2-0 series lead in Round 2. Is there still time for Giannis and Co. to right the ship?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As good as the Bucks’ defense is—ninth in the NBA in points allowed per possession during the regular season, the top defensive rating in Round 1 by a mile—Milwaukee was never going to shut down the Nets’ nuclear offense. To beat Brooklyn, you’ve got to score with Brooklyn, and while Milwaukee doesn’t have as menacing and multifaceted an arsenal as the Nets, it does have one awfully effective weapon: a 6-foot-11, 242-pound battering ram, one that’s averaged 28 points per game on 56 percent shooting over the past four seasons by repeatedly pounding opposing defenses.

Giannis Antetokounmpo did a lot of battering in Game 1, shooting 13-for-16 in the paint and scoring 34 points in all sorts of ways: on the roll after setting a screen, slicing to the rim from the post, finishing lobs in transition, cutting off the ball, driving downhill, hitting Dirk-style one-leg fadeaways, you name it. But that sort of dynamism—and, more importantly, its direct application to overwhelm a Brooklyn front line that shouldn’t be able to match his strength and athleticism—largely disappeared in Game 2. The Bucks’ chances of competing went with it.

The Nets were ready for the two-time MVP on Monday, lying in wait. From the Bucks’ opening possessions, primary defender Blake Griffin bodied up Giannis on his post-ups and drives. Help defenders like Kevin Durant and Bruce Brown dug down and slid into place to make sure he never saw a clear path to the rim. Brooklyn didn’t always build a three-defenders-with-arms-outstretched-across-the-foul-line wall, but the intent remained clear: make the league’s most ferocious rim attacker settle for turnarounds, fadeaways, and pull-ups; live with the makes; and if he does drive, send him to the foul line to earn points there. (Through two games: 2-for-10 from the stripe. Woof.)

This is the sound of settling:

Antetokounmpo’s first shot at the rim on Monday didn’t come until the 7:44 mark of the second quarter. (And when it did, it was essentially an accident, born of a missed free throw tapped right back into his hands.) With Giannis mostly misfiring from midrange, the Bucks had no rim-attacking presence to put pressure on Brooklyn’s defense; a Milwaukee team that desperately needs to press its size and strength advantage inside in this series didn’t attempt a single shot in the restricted area in the first quarter.

In a related story: By the time Giannis finally got to the rim, the Nets already had a 20-point lead.

Brooklyn never trailed on Monday. A 19-6 late-first-quarter run gave the Nets a 17-point lead heading into the second quarter, and from there they sprinted to a 125-86 annihilation that stands as both the Bucks’ second-worst postseason defeat ever—the nadir came against Chicago in 2015, when Giannis body-checked Mike Dunleavy Jr. on his way to an early exit—and by far the most lopsided playoff win in Nets franchise history.

Plenty of pundits headed into the weekend calling this second-round series The Real NBA Finals. Now, after Giannis and the Bucks squandered a chance to steal home-court advantage when James Harden reaggravated his hamstring strain 43 seconds into Game 1, and after watching them get completely undressed in Game 2, we’re wondering whether the Nets really are going to skunk the league on the way to the Larry O’B … and whatever happened to all that revamping and retooling Milwaukee spent the season working on.

It wasn’t just lip service: The Bucks did change things. They used the regular season as a laboratory, altering the geometry and philosophy of their offense and switching up their defensive scheme. They remade their roster—chiefly with the trade for Jrue Holiday, but also with smaller deals for veteran reserves like Bryn Forbes, Bobby Portis, and P.J. Tucker—and saw all of those additions pay dividends.

They worried less about winning the East’s no. 1 seed or having the league’s no. 1 net rating, and more about having answers to the kinds of questions with which the Raptors and Heat stumped them the previous two postseasons. And it worked! The Bucks drew Miami, their bubble bête noire, in Round 1, and after surviving a pulse-pounding Game 1, they stomped the Heat out in a four-game sweep that looked—and surely must have felt—like an honest-to-God exorcism.

That’s the thing about exorcisms, though: Getting rid of the demon that’s plagued you for eight long months is great, but you can’t let a new demon just waltz in right afterward. The Bucks figured out how to beat the Heat, but they’re not playing the Heat anymore; the Nets pose different problems, and on Monday, Mike Budenholzer’s team looked intent on pursuing a primrose path to solving them. Too many Milwaukee possessions in Game 2 seemed, well, possessed—stricken by a misplaced desire to beat the Nets at their own “hunt a mismatch and go to work one-on-one” game.

The Bucks ranked third in the league during the regular season in the share of their offensive possessions that came in isolation, according to Synergy Sports, and there are moments when that works: when Holiday dusts a lumbering big off the bounce, or Brook Lopez dislodges a reedy swingman for a half-hook, or Khris Middleton raises up over the top of a smaller point guard. Even so, though, going iso-for-iso with the Nets—a team that, even without Harden, can rely on Durant and Kyrie Irving to generate pristine looks against virtually any defender—just isn’t a recipe for success:

“I think for us, we saw them hitting shots and we just became a little bit too selfish, and we tried to do it ourselves,” Holiday told reporters after the game.

It all added up to Milwaukee playing wildly out of character. Case in point: Giannis—who shot 33.8 percent on pull-up jumpers this season, and shot 6.3 percent from long range in the sweep of Miami—walking into three head-scratching pull-up bombs, all with 14 or more seconds left on the shot clock.

That’s not a battering ram; that’s a pool noodle. And if it’s the best weapon the Bucks can muster against the Nets, then Milwaukee will be headed for a third straight earlier-than-hoped-for postseason exit, the resumption of some very unpleasant conversations about Budenholzer’s future, and plenty of uncertainty as to what the roster around Giannis and Holiday might look like next season.

Especially if KD (32 points on 12-for-18 shooting and six assists in 33 minutes without needing to play a second in the fourth quarter) continues to handily win the superstar showdown and look absolutely unstoppable in the process …

… and if Kyrie (22 points, six assists, four 3-pointers in 34 minutes) can continue to absolutely torch the Bucks’ drop coverage with pull-up daggers …

… and if complementary pieces like Griffin (averaging an efficient double-double while making Giannis work), Brown (defending multiple positions, cashing floaters, and crashing the offensive glass), and Mike James (4-for-8 from 3, six assists without a turnover, active defense) keep lapping their Milwaukee counterparts.

Quieting the drumbeat for future changes will require some dramatic ones in the present tense. Chief among them: figuring out a way to jump-start an offense that scored 115 points per 100 possessions against the Heat, but that has managed only a measly 97 points-per-100 through two games against a Brooklyn defense thought to be among the worst in the postseason field. (Getting Middleton uncorked—he’s now 13-for-43 from the field and 3-for-13 from 3 in this series, with only two free throw attempts in 70 minutes—would be a huge help.)

A change to the starting lineup seems sensible. Brooklyn’s basically ignoring Tucker, who’s attempted only seven shots in 50 minutes so far, and he’s, um, not exactly locking down Durant. Lopez has had some success inside, but the Nets seem perfectly fine with him eating up possessions on the interior or firing from the perimeter so long as they get the chance to attack his drop coverage with pull-up napalm on the other end. (Ditto for Portis, whose minutes have been ugly.)

It’s time for the in-case-of-emergency adjustment: shelve the centers, move Giannis to the 5, and slot in another wing who can shoot to try to loosen things up. But that strategy comes with questions, too: How effectively can the Bucks downsize with Donte DiVincenzo lost for the postseason due to an injured tendon in his ankle? Can Pat Connaughton knock down enough shots and make enough plays for the strategy to be viable? Can Forbes, a legit flamethrower whom Brooklyn is hunting on defense every chance it gets, hold up enough defensively for his shooting to matter?

It’s time for Budenholzer and the Bucks to find out the answers, for Holiday to make clear once again what an upgrade he is over Eric Bledsoe, for Middleton to shake it off, and for Giannis to refuse to allow Blake Griffin to guard him. Six games into a postseason that was supposed to be different, the Bucks are once again hitting the wall. If they can’t break through it this time, it might not be long before everything in Milwaukee comes tumbling down.