Not Mike Budenholzer’s best series
Plus: Lakers-Grizzlies, Cavs-Knicks, and Warriors-Kings
BY DAVID THORPE
On today’s TrueHoop Podcast Jarod Hector and David Thorpe discuss:
How good is Jimmy Butler?
Do the Bucks need a new coach?
NYC is going crazy for the Knicks. How far can this team go? How good is Mitchell Robinson?
The Cavaliers have work to do this offseason.
The Grizzlies blitzed the Lakers and saved their season. David says the longer this series goes, the better it is for the Grizzlies.
Warriors are now up 3-2 on the Kings, and Jarod says we’ve seen this movie before. David isn’t ready to count out the Kings.
Who are the five best players in the playoffs?
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The Bucks should have known the garbage they were running offensively was bound to fail at some point.
Giannis Antetokounmpo just kept driving into traffic. The Bucks could have run pindown-seal actions for Giannis; they could have screened for him or had him screen away. There was no shortage of options they could have tried to get Giannis easier shots. Nevertheless, there was Giannis backing down or posting up a defender. When he did drive, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo did a great job of taking away angles. Anytime Giannis got the ball on the perimeter, the Heat would simply pack the paint and beg him to shoot. You know why? He can’t shoot.
Whether or not Giannis was hampered—he finished with 38 points and 20 rebounds—the Bucks could have tried to increase the lead they had for much of the game. Instead, they made a very milquetoast choice and played Wesley Matthews, one of the league’s worst offensive players, down the stretch. They just don’t have the offensive firepower to win that way against this opponent.
Henry Abbott and I once debated whether the Bucks could ever win if Giannis couldn’t learn to shoot. They did once, but it turns out that was an aberration. He was able to play bully-ball against the Suns in the 2020-2021 NBA Finals, but they couldn’t bully this Heat team. The Bucks acted like Khris Middleton was Khris Middleton from four years ago, yet this Middleton is not that Middleton. Jrue Holiday’s unwillingness to take big shots came out late in this game, too: He made a crucial turnover late, passing off a pick-and-roll when he should have shot it. After the game, Giannis said Holiday was tired from guarding Jimmy all night—another area where the Bucks could have been more creative.
Ironically, this Heat team isn’t big, but they’re burly. Kevin Love is burly. Kyle Lowry is burly. Adebayo is strong. Butler’s a monster. They built a wall, and Giannis had no clue, and the Bucks ran zero offense.
The Heat had an offensive game plan. Butler doesn’t get 56 one game and 42 the next without a solid plan. In crunch time, when the Bucks tried to top-block him on some staggered screens, Butler noticed and backdoored Holiday for an easy and-one.
Then Holiday trailed him to prevent that cut, and Butler simply curled inside and scored over the smaller guard.
Then Jimmy Buckets set two screens, rolled after the second one and scored again.
Finally, Holiday, sick of seeing Butler kill it in the paint, went under a screen, giving Butler plenty of time to take a 3 and nail it.
That’s 10 points in two minutes, all asking Butler to read defenders and make great choices. All night long, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra found the counter; Butler executed it while Budenholzer looked like a deer in the headlights.
Before Butler’s game-tying layup, Budenholzer removed Brook Lopez. After that shot, the Bucks failed to take a timeout, and inbounded the length of the floor, with half a second left, to a non-shooter.
The Bucks front office has to acknowledge the work Budenholzer has done: Their players have gotten better (though, mostly Giannis); Brook Lopez went from afterthought to All-Star; they won an NBA championship. All that said, the lack of innovation, or even fundamental basketball, in the postseason has turned the prime of the world’s best player into just one Finals appearance. This series aside, that alone is reason enough to fire Budenholzer.
The Bucks need to overhaul their offense completely. Lopez is a two-level scorer and a good passer who allows them to run Giannis from the inside. Grayson Allen and Pat Connaughton are good shooters, and they should have been in the game late. They could run an offense like Golden State’s Cuisinart or adopt what we’ve seen this year in Sacramento. Of course, they could imagine an offense that looks similar to the one that currently leads all playoff teams in scoring and 3-point accuracy and is second in offensive rating: the Heat.
The trick here is to dismantle the “give-it-to-Giannis-and-let-him-do” mentality. Using the world’s most dominant one-on-one player so much means the defense is never surprised. It’d be one thing if the Bucks were James Harden and the Rockets going up against the peak-dynasty Warriors. Losing to one of the best teams ever is one thing. The Bucks just got beat by a team that got stomped at home by the Hawks in the Play-In Tournament—and we haven’t even mentioned the absence of Tyler Herro!
That, friends, is a bad omen; to lose a gentleman's sweep is even worse.
When you listen to Giannis talk about his game, you get the impression that he feels he’s supposed to overwhelm you with his sheer physicality and ferocity. While this has worked in the past, it doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of playing in a more complex offense. A simple offense works well in the regular season because it’s easy to master. But there’s going to be sand in the engine once you reach the postseason. Year after year, it’s been the case: The Bucks have no other gear.
Of course, it’s not Budenholzer’s fault his team missed 17-of-45 free throws (62 percent for the game). Any of those 17 would have ended the game in regulation. Everyone’s concerned about this timeout Budenholzer wasted, but you don’t need a timeout if you know you can run a good action. The truth is, the Bucks had this game, even with all the missed free throws. They just failed to run stuff, and it was incredibly disappointing.
Something has to change. I’d change the head coach.
Budenholzer is an outstanding program builder, but he’s been in Milwaukee too long. He’d likely get hired again soon. The Pistons should consider a pitch to his agent immediately, if they haven’t already.
For one, he’s from the same division, so he’s intimate with the roster and the Bucks’ tactics. He’d also help the Pistons play better basketball on both ends. Budenholzer is the wrong coach for the Bucks to push ahead, but it’s a mistake to think he can’t build a winner—as his stints in Milwaukee and Atlanta have shown.
You’re probably thinking that, with the Bucks and Cavs both out, the Celtics have a much easier path to the Finals. First, though, the Celtics have to win Game 6 in Atlanta; they don’t want a Game 7. It’s naive to think any of these teams are sure things at home—that’s what a parity-drunk league has produced. Secondly, much hinges on the health of Joel Embiid. If he is good to go, that’ll be a seven-game series against the Celtics. Thirdly, no one watching these games would think that the Heat are going to be an easy opponent—after all, they have arguably the best player in any one game.
The Warriors would not be a six-seed had Gary Payton II played for them all year. This news isn’t earth-shattering. We’re just starting to see last year’s Warriors. Steve Kerr said as much following their Game 5 win.
Payton II just knows how to play, and he brings difference-making physicality, athleticism, and confidence to every rotation.
Kevon Looney is everything we always thought he was here at TrueHoop. He had 22 rebounds last night. The Warriors made some defensive adjustments, too. Looney was getting killed early in the series by dropping more to protect the rim, and it wasn’t effective. He seems to be playing up more now, allowing him to contest more shots, and he was terrific.
Andrew Wiggins was amazing. His athleticism defensively and his ability to hit big shots gives the Warriors a tangible edge. His ability to pressure De’Aaron Fox led to that crucial turnover down the stretch. Fox is used to blowing by his defender, but he knows he can’t do that with Wiggins. Sometimes it’s enough to just make a ball-handler feel more uncomfortable than normal. Wiggins does that to nearly every opponent he faces. He’s as quick as any of them, and is often taller and longer.
Draymond Green is simply unbelievable on defense. Much of what Green does escapes the box score, but this play above—plus a key charge taken late—demonstrates his brilliance.
On the other hand, gaffes also plague the Warriors. A game after Stephen Curry called a timeout the team didn’t have, Green and Jordan Poole made terrible mistakes on take-fouls. I always say, “There are no rookie mistakes, only mistakes.” Green and Poole have five rings between them and still make errors. The Kings, far less experienced, had 19 turnovers.
Look, the playoffs aren’t about making impossible shots, but whether you have someone who can make tough shots often. Three times in the fourth quarter, Stephen Curry made incredible shots where the ball hit the rim and/or glass three times. (Middleton was once that guy for the Bucks; Butler is that guy for the Heat.)
Anyone who suggests this series is over, though, just isn’t watching. If I’m Kings head coach Mike Brown, I’m showing my team three-to-five clips of the millimeters and milliseconds that cost the Kings this game. I’d tell them: I don’t know if we’ll win Game 6, but I know we can put ourselves in position to win by 10 if the Warriors fall off. If they play well, it’s a coin flip. We were right there. They struggled to guard us, and we can get the shots we want most of the time. We just need to be a little more patient.
The key will be developing contrasting strategies so you can continue to force Curry and the Warriors to make tough shots. When the Warriors adjust, the Kings have to try something different, and then hope the Warriors miss those shots. When you’re not focused on details, you give up easy shots. No team survives that. The biggest factor in playoff basketball is attention to detail. Illegal screens and blatant charges mean you’re not reading the game properly.
The Warriors are not the juggernaut they once were. The Kings could absolutely force a Game 7. The prevailing thought is, “The Warriors are home; they’ll take care of business.”
But the truth is, the Warriors are barely scraping by here. Getting past the Kings would be a big deal.
The Knicks are for real
I was concerned about the Cavs’ defensive rebounding in this series. Post All-Star, they were 29th in defensive rebounding percentage—they weren’t dead last in second-chance points allowed this season because they did so well defending the second shot. But that stat is based on games versus 29 other teams, not New York. The Knicks had a top-five offense this season, and just fucking destroyed them.
The Cavs gave up 17 offensive rebounds in Game 5—11 to Mitchell Robinson—a number they reached three times in the series. You cannot win if you cannot get the ball. As I said on Zach Lowe’s podcast, I believed this series was a battle between the two Mitchells: Donovan and Robinson. The Knicks had a plan for Donovan; the Cavs had no plan for Robinson, who played like he was inches taller and pounds heavier than Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.
Mobley is going to be a superstar one day, but he struggled with the powerful and impassioned big men from the Knicks. Allen was almost a no-show, to the point where I wonder if we will soon read breaking news about an injury. He was simply not a factor on the glass or as a rim protector.
The Cavs waited way too late to play with their hair on fire. When there’s a chance to play crazy hard, though, you have to do it every chance. The Knicks played that way the entire series. The Cavs played that way for the last four minutes of Game 5. Too little, too late.
The Knicks have bought into head coach Tom Thibodeau’s mantra of toughness. Josh Hart is always six inches from your face. RJ Barrett has found real confidence. Jalen Brunson is hard as nails. However, facing the Heat, the Knicks have a problem: Julius Randle, after missing the second half of Game 5 with an ankle injury. That’s not good.
On the one hand, the Knicks are probably breathing a sigh of relief that Giannis is out of the playoffs. But guess what? Jimmy Butler is no picnic. He’s a much better shooter, for one—and, as we’ve said, at least you know what you have to do defensively against Giannis. Spoelstra will dial up some great and consistent actions. Can the Heat keep sinking shots at this rate? If so, I give them the edge—especially considering Randle’s ankle.
The Lakers still have a shot
LeBron is incredible, but the flame is flickering. That’s not a knock on his ability to control a game so much as his ability to maintain elite physicality every play. There are only so many times a night he can dial the intensity to the max. You can see it in his often settling for 3-pointers, and his tiny-for-him number of fouls drawn. He can’t attack relentlessly anymore, and he’s hit just three of his last 28 3-point attempts.
Over his career, LeBron has attempted almost twice as many free throws as 3-pointers. In this series, he has taken 28 free throws and 36 3-pointers. (And it’s not because he has been hot—he has only hit six.) That’s just how age works—as a Wizard, Michael Jordan didn’t often attack the rim with abandon. LeBron’s expending a ton of energy on the defensive end, and he’s making patented plays offensively. I have been preaching all year about how talented the Lakers are—and that was before they upgraded the bulk of their roster at the trade deadline.
No surprise that the Lakers have a Budenholzer disciple as head coach. Darvin Ham keeps it simple. But the Lakers have a cutter in Jarred Vanderbilt, a smart player in Troy Brown Jr., and a talented offensive player in Rui Hachimura. D’Angelo Russell, starting to make an impact, is a good pick-and-roll player who’s hit back-to-back-to-back 3s in two straight games. Add in Austin Reaves, and the Lakers have plenty of looks even in such a simple offense.
Both teams are facing the same pressures at this point. The Lakers certainly do not want to go back to Memphis, so they’ll have to be locked in and ready to fight on every possession.
The Grizzlies overwhelmed the Lakers in Game 5, but to think that LeBron is going to have another 5-for-17 game means you don’t really understand LeBron. That doesn’t mean we’ll see an incredible LeBron, but I wouldn't bet against it.
However, if the Lakers are down 10 in the fourth quarter of Game 6, don’t expect Warriors-level moxie. There’s a comfort in knowing what that team has accomplished, and these Lakers just haven’t played together much. Of course, if LeBron is having an amazing game, the Lakers will feel great. If not, it won’t just be me wondering how much age has taken from the king.
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