Let’s get this straight right off the top: The Milwaukee Bucks did not choke in their crushing Game 5 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night, a game which they led by as many as 17 points. They got beat by Kevin Durant, who is so much better than the best the Bucks have to offer that it doesn’t even matter that Kyrie Irving is out and James Harden is basically down a leg.
Durant, even by his standards, was preposterous on Tuesday, finishing with 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks to become the first player in history to record a 45-15-10 playoff game. Along the way, Durant shot 70 percent from the field. He played all 48 minutes, the first player to do so in a playoff game since LeBron James in 2018.
“He’s the best player in the world right now,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said of Durant, and he’s not wrong. Every lazy narrative out there that Durant somehow was, or is, incapable of carrying a non-stacked team looks about as bad as Mike Budenholzer at the moment.
Words simply cannot do Durant’s greatness justice. To think he’s coming off a torn Achilles tendon is baffling. This is insanity what he’s doing, though to be fair, when you watch him play, you wonder how you ever could’ve thought he would be anything other than great upon his return. The game is just stupidly easy for him.
All of that said, a few things must be said about the Bucks. In particular, about Giannis and Budenholzer. One played his heart out, but his considerable talent and commendable motor, effort and pride notwithstanding, he’s just not that guy, which we’ll get to shortly. The other might’ve just coached his way into the unemployment line. This was an all-time sideline debacle.
I can’t fathom, for starters, how Budenholzer didn’t have Giannis, supposedly one of the best defenders in the world, guarding Durant in money time. Instead, the dude was stuck on Joe Harris, who was a statue in the corner as Durant went to work on Khris Middleton and P.J. Tucker.
This is a strange trend throughout the league right now. The best defenders rarely match up on the best scorers. We saw Doc Rivers put Danny Green on Trae Young in Game 1 of the Sixers-Hawks series while Ben Simmons roamed around helplessly. Young cooked Green. The Sixers lost. Since then, Doc has made the adjustment, putting Simmons and Matisse Thybulle on Young, and the Sixers won Games 2 and 3 and have restored home-court advantage heading into Game 5 on Wednesday.
You wonder what took so long.
Now Gianis is saying he wants to “take on the challenge” of guarding Durant in Game 6. That’s nice. It might well be too late.
There are, on paper, reasons for keeping these top defenders off the best scorers. On the ball, they’ll likely fall victim to a ball screen anyway. Their versatile talents are often best utilized in a free-safety capacity, roaming around in search of the right time and place to make their impact felt. Indeed, modern NBA defense isn’t about one matchup. It’s about all of them and how you move from one into the other. It’s more about your weakest link than your strongest.
Still, there are times to take the old-fashioned challenge. Giannis might not have the foot speed to stay with the shifty Durant, but he’s the only guy with the length to give him a prayer of at least bothering his shot. This was ace-up-your-sleeve time for Milwaukee. Giannis is supposed to be an ace.
“I try it,” an Eastern Conference coach texted CBS Sports on Tuesday night when I asked him why these great defenders are often kept off the greatest scorers. “It’s interesting others don’t.” I then pressed the coach for what he made, in particular, of Bud’s decision to keep Giannis off Durant down the stretch of Game 5.
“LOL,” he wrote. “Dumb.”
Harsh as it sounds, that word sums up much of what Budenholzer’s Bucks stood for Tuesday night. Not only was Budenholzer not using GIannis on Durant; he wasn’t even doubling him with other guys. Can you imagine letting the best one-on-one player in history play … one on one … as he’s spit-roasting your entire organization right in front of your eyes?
Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s offense is a mess. They are isolating WAY too much, treating Middleton and Jrue Holiday as if they’re Durant. When the ball moves and there’s some semblance of pace to their half-court offense, Milwaukee gets good shots. But they bail out with average shots at just about every turn.
The players deserve plenty of blame for that shot selection, but at some point, this is on Budenholzer. He’s the architect of this. He has been stubborn with his defensive schemes in the past, and now he’s just sitting by letting his offense generate garbage look after garbage look while hiding behind the “make or miss league” guise.
No, it’s not a make-or-miss league. That’s what Mark Jackson used to say, and there’s a reason he’s broadcasting games and not coaching them. When you’re missing shots in the NBA, more times than not, it’s because you’re taking the wrong ones. If you think Giannis settling for fadeaway jumpers from the post in crunch time is a 50-50 proposition, you’re delusional.
Bud has to step in when the Bucks are not even trying to attack Harden, who was a wounded gazelle out there and somehow just got left alone by the lions. Instead, the Bucks tested Durant, the best defender on Brooklyn’s team. When Giannis did go at Harden, it was, as in the case of the aforementioned fadeaway, in the post, the one place where Harden’s strength can allow him to hold his ground without having to move in space on that bum leg. These are ludicrous strategies, or lack thereof.
While we’re at it, let’s look at Milwaukee’s minutes distribution. Bud has long been maddeningly unwilling to play his best players big minutes, but what he did on Tuesday bordered on criminal. Durant played every second because Steve Nash knew how important this game was. James Harden can hardly move and he played 12 more minutes than Jrue Holiday, who was supposed to be the missing championship link. In reality, Holiday has looked a lot like Eric Bledsoe in this series, but he still has to play more than 34 minutes in a game like this.
But Bud can’t, and shouldn’t, get all the blame. Again, Holiday has not been even close to good enough. Brook Lopez is out there getting diced to pieces. Middleton is doing exactly what Brooklyn wants him to do in settling for one-on-one contested jumpers. But at the end of the day, Milwaukee’s shortcomings, at this point in time, are tied most directly to Giannis. As I said at the top, he’s just not that guy.
It’s a different kind of criticism than that which has been deservedly reserved for Budenholzer. At least Giannis is trying to do something. He just isn’t good enough to do it. That just has to be said. Back-to-back MVPs don’t mean a thing when you are lacking even a single go-to move in the half-court and you can’t shoot a lick.
This isn’t some new development. Smarter-than-you coaches and analysts will continue to tell you about all the things guys like Giannis and Ben Simmons do because they’re sick of you talking about the things they can’t do, but it’s the things they can’t do that matter most in the biggest moments.
Blake Griffin has given Giannis fits this series. Blake Griffin.
Credit Griffin for sticking his nose in there, but honestly, it’s not that hard to guard Giannis. He going to put his head down. He’s going to barrel to his right. He doesn’t have one counter move once you cut off that highly predictable foray. He can’t shoot, so you sit back and anticipate the drive. He’ll force a few 3s every game for good measure. If you foul him, he can’t shoot free throws.
You just can’t survive on bull-in-china-shop offense in the postseason. You can’t rely on getting into the open court. The Sixers couldn’t generate anything down the stretch of their loss to the Hawks on Monday because they don’t have one single natural shot creator.
We talk a lot about Simmons’ scoring aggressiveness, or lack thereof, and mindset is definitely more a part of his equation than Antetokounmpo’s, but we too easily leave out the actual fact that Simmons just can’t do the things so many people want him to do. It’s not a decision. It’s a limitation. You don’t go into an NFL playoff game and ask Tim Tebow to start throwing the ball all over the field. He’s not good enough to do that. Similarly, you can’t ask Simmons to just start scoring. You have to accept his limitations.
We need to have the same conversation about Giannis. He is not that guy. He has more MVPs than Durant but he is not even close to Durant. Or LeBron James. Or Steph Curry. Or Kawhi Leonard. Or Nikola Jokic. Or Joel Embiid. He is not a guy you can just turn to and say “win this game for us.” He is out of his depth. He can’t do the one thing you have to be able to do to be a superstar in today’s game. He can’t shoot. And everything trickles down from that. In basketball, for all our nuanced analysis, it really can be that simple.
Sure, the numbers look great. Giannis went for 34 points and 12 rebounds on Tuesday. He shot 14 for 22 from the field. He made four of his seven free throws. He was 2 of 4 from 3. But listen, the guy was shooting 13 percent from 3 in the playoffs, on almost five attempts per game, coming into Tuesday’s game. He was 51 percent from the free-throw line. He is what he is. At least for now. He is a circumstantial star. When he gets the ball in the right place, in the right way, he is unstoppable. But he can’t dictate his own terms. He is at the mercy of the game. The defense.
And for as long as that’s true, the Bucks have to play great on the margins to compensate. They have to shoot the heck out of the ball when Giannis is getting walled off. Middleton and Holiday have to be big-time creators, rather than settling for pull-up jumpers, because their value lies so heavily in their being able to plug Giannis’ holes. Budenholzer had to put everyone in the right place. He has to play his best players big minutes. He has to at least give him team a fighting chance.
Steve Nash made plenty of his own mistakes on Tuesday. He was running offense though Harden too much when he was no threat to do anything, and it cost Durant touches on some crucial possessions.
But Nash has Durant, the curer or all sins. If Giannis were Durant, Budenholzer could get away with some of the stuff he does, too. But Giannis is not Durant. He is not that guy. As harsh as that sounds, that’s the truth. And it’s the main difference in this series.