As Eastern Conference evolves, will Bucks finally find playoff success?

Vincent Goodwill
·6-min read

The warning signs are there for the Milwaukee Bucks, if you want to see them.

They seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the time — although that could merely be hyperbole.

Losing five straight games at home with the playoffs less than a month away doesn’t bode well for a team with the “show me” label, especially after its general manager, Jon Horst, exuded so much confidence hours before a 128-127 overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns.

Of course, the details allow for a view that doesn’t come from 30,000 feet. Giannis Antetokounmpo caught a cramp in overtime after blocking a Devin Booker layup, and not having a two-time MVP on the floor certainly changes the math even before a controversial call on Booker with milliseconds remaining.

The call, light but sure contact from P.J. Tucker to Booker, will likely be upheld in the two-minute review. It feels a little similar to the call against Antetokounmpo in the Bucks’ Game 2 loss in the Orlando bubble to the Miami Heat.

Ticky-tack, but letter of the law.

Of course, Chris Paul is a maestro and Booker is a tough-shot maker so one night can be written off. Jrue Holiday was hounding Booker before Tucker came over with the foul, and merely shrugged his shoulders at the call.

“For one, this is what it’s gonna be like, when the season is over. It’s a playoff atmosphere,” Holiday said. “That’s why we’re here. We learn from it. Losing games like this hurt in the moment but definitely something you can learn from.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo with the ball in his outstretched hand as Jae Crowder reaches in for the foul.
Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, is fouled by Phoenix Suns' Jae Crowder, left, during the first half of their game on April 19, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

The laws in the Eastern Conference have changed, if you haven’t noticed, and it could actually benefit the Bucks in the long run.

What will win in these coming playoffs? If it’s star power, the Brooklyn Nets have the market cornered, but it’s more an assumption it’ll happen because the actual evidence hasn’t yielded much.

Injuries, paid time off and lack of continuity have gotten in the way.

If it’s the most dominant player going inside-out, then Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers can raise their hands, but that has to be seen to be believed — especially if we’re holding the microscope to a more accomplished Milwaukee Bucks team.

They are serious, though, and have personnel capable of winning even if the questions (here’s looking at Ben Simmons) are blaring and obvious.

The Bucks benefit and not, perception-wise, from familiarity.

In some ways they look the same, if only because they’ve reached the point where we’re not looking at them. We check the standings and the box scores, see the familiar names doing their usual thing, shrug our shoulders and move along.

Of course, it’s not the same old personnel who dominated the regular seasons the last couple years, but it’s easy to dismiss the subtle changes in philosophy. Before, they would bludgeon teams with their depth, every player capable of making a play quickly and it would often overwhelm lesser teams, leading to quick runs and easy finishes.

But in the playoffs, it’s less about how deep you go and more on your best seven. Yes, Tucker committed the unfortunate foul in overtime, but he and Bobby Portis add an element of toughness that goes beyond the traditional Bucks makeup.

“Based on what we've done the previous two years, we decided to take a different approach,” Horst said. “And really, at the end of day, all we have is minutes and money. And we decided to put our most minutes into our most money instead of trying to be 12 or 13 or 14 deep. In terms of playoff competitive deep. Let's have the best seven or let's have the best eight.”

Head coach Mike Budenholzer comes into focus here, as someone whose seeming dedication to Plan A prevented a counter in playoff situations. The Bucks stuck with him but challenged him and his staff to improve. Horst called it “awesome,” pointing out the in-season improvement from a middle-of-the-road defense to now a top-six unit as a testament.

“We want to win at the highest level, and we're willing to do anything we can to do it,” Horst said. “And when the motivation in the mindset is not one of selfishness or lack of flexibility, it's a true, genuine kind of partnership where you work together and try to figure out ways to do it better.”

One can easily write off the last couple playoff flameouts as anomalies — being in the wrong place at the wrong time against Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors when that team found itself in the nick of time, and being a bad matchup against the switchable and uber-prepared Miami Heat. It wouldn’t have been all-out stagnation to simply say “run it back,” but full panic would’ve erased the positives they’ve established as a regular-season juggernaut.

But the conference is ever-evolving, with star power clustering far away from Milwaukee but close enough to be a threat.

Trying to pry high-priced stars in the effort to chase what Brooklyn has assembled would’ve arguably taken too much luck, too much time this front office didn’t have. But Holiday is a definite upgrade over the playoff-skittish Eric Bledsoe, and the massive contract team ownership recently handed him is a departure from the strategy that saw Malcolm Brogdon leave via free agency.

Since his return from COVID-19, Holiday has been as advertised, averaging 20 points with six assists, nearly five rebounds and shooting a blistering 45% from 3-point range. Khris Middleton didn’t make the All-Star team this go-round, but continues to develop as a dependable second option and tied the game with a triple over Booker before the last possession.

Keeping Antetokounmpo in the fold long-term is San Antonio-esque, a reference Horst made Monday morning in a media session. It seems that keeping stars is a year-to-year, month-to-month proposition regardless of contractual status, and both sides have enough to prove in the coming months to the other.

Horst knows he’s walking a fine line, of building a consistent program capable of contending annually without boxing himself into a corner of salary cap hell or getting too fat on regular-season successes.

Even before things got hairy in overtime, there was Antetokounmpo, tripping over his own feet on the last play of regulation as he tried to bull his way to the basket against Deandre Ayton. That movie has been seen before, and although he has made modifications to his game, there’s still some postseason PTSD that must be exorcised.

Horst has credited the coaching staff for their own changes, which came under fire the last two postseasons. He believes his team is much better prepared for adversity, ready to fire a counterpunch as opposed to staggering when an opponent takes their best shot and hits back.

The playoffs will prove to be unconventional yet again, more anomalies on the way. But the Bucks are hoping they’ll be on the good side of such rarity this time around.

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