MILWAUKEE — Throughout the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has been asked if he would follow his other coaching brethren these playoffs and tighten his rotation. Bud’s answer, invariably, has been, ‘Nah, we’re good.’ This is what got them here and this is what they’re going to do.
Bud’s rotation goes nine deep at a minimum and he runs players in and out of the lineup, shuffling through various combinations until he finds the ones that click. His substitution patterns begin earlier than most and the Bucks don’t panic whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo takes his rest.
That depth has already paid dividends throughout each round of the playoffs. It got them through an opening-round sweep against Detroit without one of their key players in Malcolm Brogdon, and it carried them through a second round wipeout against the Celtics when reserves like George Hill and Pat Connaughton went nuts on the C’s.
That depth was on display yet again In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Raptors as the Bucks erased multiple double-digit deficits and raced home with a 108-100 victory. Brook Lopez was the obvious focal point with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks, while Brogdon’s 15 points off the bench were vital in keeping them in the game early on.
“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that are capable, that can contribute, that are confident on both ends of the court,” Budenholzer said. “I think it speaks a little bit to the character of the group. They just stick with it. I think it’s become a little bit of a theme in the playoffs. I think eventually hopefully we feel like if we stick with what we’re doing, good things will happen for us.”
When it came down to winning time, the Bucks closed the game on a 10-0 run over the final three and a half minutes. They were faster and fresher. They were tighter and more connected than Toronto.
If these playoffs have revealed anything about the Bucks, it’s that there’s a tremendous advantage in having waves of players who can contribute in ways that are both readily obvious when scanning the box score and buried beneath the minutiae of numbers.
While Lopez and Brogdon carried the scoring, Connaughton grabbed six rebounds and Hill had four assists and four steals. Khris Middleton helped out on the boards while teaming with Brogdon to limit Kawhi Leonard to just two fourth-quarter points. Go up and down the rotation and you can point to things both big and small that contributed to winning.
“Yeah, we just don’t quit as a unit,” Lopez said. “We keep hounding, keep hounding, keep hounding and grinding, and then we finally got there. There’s no quit in our team. I don’t think it’s really in our DNA at all, in any of our guys.”
More than any team left standing, the Bucks are a product of their system as well as their star. In their case, it’s a singular star — Antetokounmpo — as opposed to a galaxy of elite talent. What makes the Bucks the so damn tough to beat is that around that star orbits a constellation of versatile role players, each capable of providing that secondary or tertiary scoring option on any given night.
“I mean, they’ve got [Eric] Bledsoe and Hill, and Connaughton, Brogdon. They’re like four of the same guy,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse noted before the game. “So, it’s like a collective of four fast athletic guards. You’ll see all of them at times racing in from the corner, picking off a long rebound, kicking over, and there’s another three that you thought you already stopped them on.”
It’s that total team concept that allowed the Bucks to overcome a night when they shot just 40 percent from the floor and missed 33 of their 44 3-point attempts. Rather than get discouraged by their poor shooting, Budenholzer implored his guys to keep firing away.
“I think it’s just embedded in the team,” Lopez said. “We have trust in one another that we can all take and make shots if we’re open, and honestly we’re frustrated with each other if we don’t shoot it when we’re open. If we have a good shot, we’ve got to take it.”
It also allowed them to win on a night when Gianns was merely very good as opposed to transcendent. Of course, for Antetokounmpo that took the form of 24 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists. We should all be merely that good.
And while his numbers may not have been as eye-popping as usual, Antetokounmpo rarely forced the action. That speaks directly to the trust he has in his teammates and the confidence they have in what they’re trying to accomplish.
“It says a lot, and it definitely feels amazing,” Antetokounmpo said. “Even though I don’t play well, the team is able to respond, to hold their own. Guys are coming off the bench playing the right way and being a plus for the team. It feels good to be able to come every night and try to put my body on the line and give everything I’ve got for us to win a game. I didn’t have a great game, but at the end of the day, my teammates had great games and were able to get this win.”
The upshot in all of this is that Bucks stole a game from the Raptors that was right there for Toronto to take. But that’s the thing with Milwaukee. You never know how the Bucks are going to beat you, only that they’re going to do it together.