• Cody Kluge

Bucks Let a Finals Berth Slip Away

Courtesy of Claus Andersen/Getty Images.

It’s been almost 50 years since the city of Milwaukee last saw their Bucks play in an NBA Finals. And on May 17th, 2019, a dream 50 years in the making seemed like it just might come true for many fans in Brew City. The Bucks had just defeated the Toronto Raptors by 22 points, extending their winning streak to six games. They led the Eastern Conference Finals 2-0, and were just two wins over a five game span away from earning a trip to the NBA Finals.

Two days later, the Bucks would come out flat-footed in Toronto. Despite a rare off-game from Giannis Antetokounmpo, the team would scrap and claw to force overtime, and eventually a second overtime, without even grabbing a lead since the early minutes of the game. After finally going up 105-103, Giannis would foul out, and the Bucks would fall from there, narrowly missing a chance to go up 3-0 and effectively end the series.

After getting blown out in Game 4, pressure began to set in for the Bucks. However, they still had the home court advantage as the series shifted back to Milwaukee for Game 5. The Bucks would hold numerous leads during the fifth game, but once the fourth quarter hit, Kawhi Leonard took over once again for the Raptors, and Milwaukee simply had no answer.

Panic set in even further as the Bucks had officially given up their series lead, their home court advantage, and now would have to win two games against a team that just caused them to lose three straight games for the first time all year.

Many gave the Bucks little chance in Game 6, but they would come out strong. Holding a lead throughout the first half, the Bucks hit the halftime locker room up 50-43. They would go on start the second half in inspired form, building a 76-61 lead with about two minutes left in the third quarter. Hope was alive in Milwaukee…until the Bucks worst 14 minute stretch of basketball all season would occur.

The team would allow a 26-3 run to Toronto, which opened up an eight point lead for the Raptors. Despite closing the gap several times down the stretch, the Bucks didn’t have enough to come back, scoring just 18 points in the final 14 minutes of game time. What had seemed like a done deal just eight days before had turned into a nightmare as the NBA’s best regular season team had lost four straight to officially end their season.

While the Bucks still had a tremendous year, better than most had projected for them, it is still a bitter ending for the team. They certainly aren’t the first team to blow a 2-0 series lead, and won’t be the last. But how did this juggernaut collapse over a four game stretch? Many factors contributed to their sudden and painful demise, but there were some very specific reasons this team will be watching the Finals from home.

It always begins with the star, and so, the first reason lies with Giannis. The Raptors deserve a ton of credit for the defense they were able to play against the budding superstar, and obviously the Bucks wouldn't have gotten so far in the playoffs without the stunning play of their Greek Freak; nevertheless, there were obviously instances where Giannis appeared timid over the last few games of the series. Perhaps his unsure body language was a result of fatigue, a troublesome ankle that he rolled again in this series, or even a mental struggle at the free throw line. Giannis shot just 47% from the charity stripe over the last four games, and it was hard to imagine the fans in Toronto (even Nick Nurse’s personal masseuse, Drake) did not get into his head.

The last four games just did not feature the same Giannis we had seen earlier in the postseason, and it led the Bucks to a four game slump.

Reason two would be Eric Bledsoe. After a solid regular season in which the Bucks would give him a new contract extension in March, Bledsoe failed to show up in the playoffs once again, especially in the Conference Finals. Despite a solid 20-point effort in Game 5, Bledsoe would score in double digits just one other time during the series, shooting an abysmal 29% from the field while failing to finish at the rim numerous times. Combined with some frustrating turnovers, Bledsoe was often sat in favor of George Hill, who continued to shine in the postseason. For this Bucks to operate at optimal capacity, Bledsoe has to be playing his best basketball; for the second year in a row, he failed to do so in a crucial playoff series, and his team lost. It is frustrating for many fans, and Bledsoe will have to prove himself next year in order to ensure that the Bucks don’t experience some crippling buyer’s remorse.

The third reason is the bench. One of Milwaukee’s strongest assets during their 60 win season was their underrated bench unit, which also shined through the first two series of the postseason. It is worth noting, however, that the entire bench is not at fault. As mentioned, Hill played a fantastic series. Ersan Ilyasova provided some good minutes on both ends of the floor, and Malcolm Brogdon played well in the second unit while getting back to game-speed over the first four games of the ECF.

But the Raptors' bench just played better. They outscored the Bucks bench in their four victories, with guys like Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet playing out of their minds.

Meanwhile, the Bucks saw limited production coming from the pine. Pat Connaughton carried the confidence of a budding star in the first two playoff series, but scored just 17 points total in the ECF. Yes, Brogdon being back limited his minutes, but he did not provide quite the same spark he had the rest of the season.

The other notable player you think of when discussing the Bucks bench is Nikola Mirotic. Now, Mirotic did actually start the first four games, but still wasn’t playing starters minutes. The man brought in at the trade deadline to provide floor spacing and three point shooting did not do that at all in this series. He shot just 6-31 (19%) from deep, and often was exposed on the defensive end. After playing nine minutes early in Game 5, Mirotic did not see the floor the rest of the series, ending a somewhat disappointing second half of his season.

The final reason was experience. When you look at Toronto’s roster, they have plenty of guys who have been there and done that on the NBA’s biggest stage. Kawhi Leonard is a Finals MVP, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green have Finals experience, and Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have played instrumental roles during multiple deep post-season runs. The Raptors always had the edge in experience going into the series, and it shined through in the biggest moments. The Bucks seemed a bit panicked after being blown out in Game 4; after losing Game 5 at home, panicked may have been an understatement.

The Bucks allowed Toronto to take them out of their game, and instead of adjusting, they instead became frustrated and stubborn (that's right, we're looking at you, Coach Budenholzer).

It is a good teaching lesson for Giannis and the rest of this Bucks squad, most of whom will hopefully be back in the cream and green next season; overall, a 60-win season that led to the best record in the NBA and an Eastern Conference Finals berth has to be considered an excellent campaign, and will be looked back on as one of the best the franchise has seen. But for right now, a series collapse in which the Bucks were thoroughly outplayed just two wins away from the NBA Finals has left a sour taste in the mouths of many around Milwaukee.

Statistics Courtesy of Basketball Reference

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