What Exactly Happened to the Bucks in the Bubble?
What exactly happened to the Bucks in the Bubble?
The 2019-20 NBA season started about as well as it could for the Milwaukee Bucks. Despite a sluggish 2-2 record out of the gate, the Cream and Green went on a tear, and were on pace to win 70 games past the season’s halfway mark.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo continued to grow, setting career highs in the scoring department while maintaining his exceptional play on the defensive side of the court – he was named 2020 Defensive Player of the Year. His partner in crime, Khris Middleton, was again a consistent No. 2 weapon, earning his second consecutive All-Star nod.
Meanwhile, Eric Bledsoe played the first half of the season at such a high level that came up in the All-Star conversation. And what really separated the Bucks from a lot of teams was their depth off the bench. Guys like George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, and Kyle Korver were all big contributors, and helped to make this team unstoppable at times (in the regular season).
But by March, with the Bucks facing a tough part of their schedule and dealing with a Giannis injury, Milwaukee lost three straight games. As the world went on pause because of COVID, the Bucks had a few lingering questions. With play finally resuming in Orlando, though, the club looked to regain form and win its first championship in over 50 years.
Just a few weeks after arriving at Disney, the Bucks were sent packing by the Miami Heat in just five games in the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Milwaukee fans and folks around the NBA alike were stunned.
What went wrong for the Bucks in Bubble?
First things first, Milwaukee simply didn’t look right. With a four-month break, the contenders had all momentum stalled and erased. Guys were not able to work out together, and many, such as Middleton and Antetokounmpo, admitted to not having access to a hoop at times during the shutdown.
Losing home-court also hurt the Bucks massively. Every team had to deal with this, but the Fiserv Forum was sold out on most nights, often a buzz at seeing Giannis play among other stars. The energy that was in that arena night in and night out was tough to match, and the Bucks thrived off of it. Milwaukee was 30-5 as the home team this year. Losing home-court was another huge issue for the Bucks.
For whatever reason, though, the Bucks simply weren’t up to task any way you slice it. After a big win against the Celtics in the Bubble, the club went 2-5 to close out the remainder of the regular season.
Then, they would struggle against a depleted Orlando Magic team who didn’t feature much outside of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. The Magic’s Game 1 win was a shocker, but most just assumed it was a blip on the radar for Milwaukee. The Bucks still did not look dominant, but they did scrape together four relatively comfortable wins.
Here come the Heat
Milwaukee met Miami in the second round of the postseason. The Heat had two big wins against the Bucks during the regular season. This team was one of few, and perhaps the only team, that had the Bucks’ number all year long.
Jimmy Butler dominated the fourth quarter of Game 1, a sign of things to come. Milwaukee was in an early hole, and thanks to some questionable officiating and a last-minute Giannis foul in Game 2, the Bucks were quickly down 2-0 in the series. Perhaps the heavily-favored Milwaukee team shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place.
Game 3 saw the Bucks looking poised to grab a win. Milwaukee blew a double-digit fourth quarter lead, landing the club on the wrong side of a 3-0 series deficit. Yes, the Bucks managed to eek out a Game 4 win, but soon thereafter, Milwaukee was bounced from the 2020 Playoffs.
First and foremost, the Heat deserve a lot of credit. They are well coached by a two-time NBA champion in Erik Spoelstra, and he had that team ready night in and night out. Jimmy Butler played like a consistent All-Star throughout the series.
Miami’s complimentary pieces were phenomenal, and could be the reason they make the NBA Finals. Goran Dragic could not miss a shot all series. Bam Adebayo was phenomenal at both ends, and nearly perfect at the free-throw line throughout the five games. Tyler Herro developed into a budding star before our eyes, while Jae Crowder shot the best he has from the perimeter in some time. Even guys like Duncan Robinson and Kelly Olynk had strong moments in the series. Needless to say, the Heat were just impressive.
Blame the Bucks
As good as the Heat played, the Bucks failed. For Milwaukee, things start with Giannis. Unfortunately, he simply wasn’t his dominant self in the bubble, especially against the Heat. In Game 1 he was just 4-12 from the charity stripe. In Game 2, he scored 29 - his highest scoring output of the series - but dished out only three assists. In Game 3 he shot 7-21 from the field. His three-point shooting was miserable all series long. For a man who often feeds off energy, he just couldn’t get it going at Disney.
Meanwhile, both Middleton and Bledsoe had their tough moments in the Heat series too. This clutch dagger from Middleton in Game 4 is perhaps the lone highlight from the Bucks second and third most important players.
Bledsoe did have a nagging hamstring issue. But buy and large he was ineffective all postseason. For a guy who seems to let down in the playoffs every year, that is not going to get it done.
The Bucks’ complimentary pieces weren’t great either. Starters Brook Lopez and Wesley Matthews were actually decent, especially on the defensive end. But George Hill – who led the NBA in three-point shooting in the regular season – never seemed to find his footing in the Bubble. Nor did Donte DiVincenzo, who was a huge part of the Bucks’ rotation. Pat Connaughton and Kyle Korver had moments early in the playoffs but quickly faded as well. Ersan Ilyasova and Robin Lopez barely even saw minutes against the Heat.
This underscores the biggest issue of this series: head coach Mike Budenholzer’s inability to make meaningful adjustments. The “let it fly” system has worked well the past two regular seasons, but has failed in the playoffs. It was clear the Heat, like the Raptors last year, game planned to stop Giannis, and Coach Bud failed to adjust the offense. Putting Brook Lopez in the post, playing more through Khris Middleton, or playing bigger lineups with Ilyasova or Robin Lopez were all options Budenholzer never attempted.
Meanwhile some of his use of players was curious. Notably, he often left Matthews on the bench in the fourth quarter, who was maybe the best defender on Jimmy Butler. He also gave little playing time to the backup bigs mentioned above, as well as guys like Connaughton and Brown. Yes, rotations are tightened in the playoffs, but the Bucks had a deep team which should have been a competitive advantage.
Overall, it was a heartbreaking way to end the season for the Bucks. A lot went wrong for them, and everything went right for the Heat. A few years ago, this would have been a successful season in Milwaukee. But with higher expectations now, the season is seen by many as a failure. Now, the questions have begun, as has one of the most important offseasons in franchise history.
Statistics Courtesy of Basketball Reference