The Milwaukee Bucks squandered a major opportunity in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday night. The Nets lost James Harden right at the start of the game due to a hamstring injury, but that didn’t stop them from stomping all over the Bucks in a 115-107 victory that wasn’t as close as that final score says. Still having Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving obviously increases the margin for error, but Milwaukee didn’t help itself to open the series.
After sweeping away the Miami Heat in dominating fashion in Round 1, a lot went wrong for the Bucks in Game 1 against Brooklyn. It certainly didn’t help that the Bucks shot 6-of-30 from 3-point range and 11-of-19 from the foul line. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday combining to go 13-of-42 isn’t conducive to winning.
But Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer also didn’t help himself with rotations and minutes distribution, and he needs to realize he must fully unleash Giannis Antetokounmpo in order to have a chance against Brooklyn. While Irving played 45 minutes and Durant played 40, Giannis only played 35. The Greek Freak had 34 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in those minutes.
The Bucks did lose those 35 Giannis minutes by seven points, but a closer look reveals how they did well when they actually played their best players together:
Giannis, Jrue and Khris only shared the floor for 20 minutes. We were +7 in that span.
Kyrie and KD shared the floor for 38 minutes.
Yes the team shot horribly but this is unforgivable and Bud is very largely to blame for this game…
— Adriaan #FireBud (@GeneralPancake_) June 6, 2021
The Giannis/Brook/Jrue/Khris 4-man unit was +6 in 14 minutes tonight. With how badly Jrue and Khris shot, too.
— Anthony Doyle (@Anthonysmdoyle) June 6, 2021
Unleashing Giannis doesn’t just mean playing him more minutes, but also playing all the best players together for as much as possible. Budenholzer’s rotation decisions drew criticism in the playoffs last year, and it happened again in Game 1 on Saturday night. Jrue Holiday led the Bucks in minutes with 37.
Here’s how Bud justified his decisions:
Budenholzer on the minutes: "They all want to play 48 minutes. But we just gotta keep them competing, keep them where they can execute. Giannis never wants to come out, Khris, Jrue. But we got a deep team, we gotta take advantage of it. Keep ‘em ready, keep ‘em fresh."
— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) June 6, 2021
It’s somewhat understandable to want to play the long game over the course of a series, especially with Harden’s injury leaving the Nets’ situation in question. If Harden misses time, KD and Kyrie will be forced into playing monster minutes, and perhaps they wear down as the series goes on. Fresher Bucks stars could take advantage.
Still, wasting an opportunity like this is disappointing. There’s no guarantee Milwaukee wins Game 1 if the stars all play 40-plus minutes, but now we’ll never know. The regular season is the time to limit minutes so guys can go big in the playoffs.
Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green also had some critiques for the Bucks on their usage of Giannis. Green doesn’t like how predictable Milwaukee can become with Antetokounmpo as the pick-and-roll handler in a seven-game series against another elite team. Green wants to see them mix it up more and do as much as possible to get The Greek Freak on the move and into the paint so he can dominate.
Given Dray’s basketball IQ, Budenholzer would be wise to listen to his suggestions. It will also be interesting to see if we ever see Bud go to Giannis at the 5 for stretches. The Nets can match up with that, but the Bucks can be extremely dangerous in that look and it’s another way to get Antetokounmpo more minutes.
We’ll see what adjustments the Bucks make for Game 2 on Monday.