The Milwaukee Bucks are the champions of the Eastern Conference — check the newspaper, it says it right there. Whereas the last two years ended in disappointingly early exits, this year the Bucks finally maintained their regular season mojo beyond Memorial Day. They exorcised the Ghosts of Playoffs Past by sweeping the Miami Heat; they outlasted the Brooklyn Nets over seven breathless games, and ended Trae Young’s reign of impish terror. Giannis Antetokounmpo proved that he’s not Mykonos Kidd-Gilchrist, Kool-Aid Man-ing his way through the walls of opposing defenses over the course of one of the most dominant and well-rounded playoff runs in NBA history. Khris Middleton outdueled Kevin Durant in an elimination game, and Trae Young in a close-out contest while Jrue Holiday provided a muscular steadiness. Look into the Deer District and watch thousands of milk-bred Milwaukeeans lose their minds while the Bucks almost look like a team of destiny.
On the court, though, the Bucks are a truly maddening team. During the last two postseasons, the Bucks have been embarrassingly felled by their uncreativity and schematic rigidity — they’ve bull-rushed through the regular season only for opposing defenses to render their offense impotent, simply by not letting Antetokounmpo forcefully trebuchet himself at the rim. And during this vindicating run to the Finals, the Bucks have clearly learned from their past and have been, uh, uncreative and schematically rigid.
The main difference now is that the Bucks’ deficiencies are merely weird and embarrassing rather than fatal. Antetokounmpo no longer sabotages every offensive possession by being a bad shooter, but no other superstar malfunctions so regularly–in these playoffs alone, he’s been stonewalled in crunch time by a one-legged James Harden and airballed a boggling number of free throws. Despite adding Jrue Holiday and diversifying their defense by a skosh, this team is the same artless brute that flamed out in 2019 and 2020 — it’s now just inflicting enough brutality to offset its own artlessness.
Accordingly, there’s a nagging feeling that the Bucks haven’t so much won the Eastern Conference as much as they avoided losing it while the bracket crumbled around them. In the second round, Brooklyn Nets handily won the first two games and then James Harden’s and Kyrie Irving’s legs turned to sashimi. Against the Hawks, the Bucks were saved from ignominy when Trae Young suffered a bone bruise. The Sixers grimly succumbed to their own bramble of neuroses and headcasery, ripping themselves in two like Rumpelstiltskin before they could face Milwaukee. There’s virtue and skill in having a mostly healthy roster full of guys who aren’t apocalyptically yipped … but there’s just no romance.
As such, the Bucks’ 118-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of The Finals represented the full breadth of the Bucks Experience. To start the game, the Bucks were competitive and coherent, imposing their size and athleticism on the more deliberate Suns. From the opening tip, the Bucks switched every screen, blunting the Suns’ ball movement and daring Paul to create his own shot over rangy defenders. Marking a departure from the Bucks’ usual drop coverage, the ziggurat-chested PJ Tucker and Brook Lopez ably switched every Chris Paul-Deandre Ayton pick-and-roll and hectored Paul into a scoreless first quarter.
Perhaps even more important, Antetokounmpo was overwhelming in the first half of his return to action after his knee bent backwards during the Conference Finals: he dunked through Deandre Ayton’s chest; he chased down Mikal Bridges with Lebronian fury and grace. Although the Bucks only managed to play the Suns to a 45-45 draw for the game’s opening 20-ish minutes, it was easy to envision what the Bucks can be: a churning vector of long arms repelling actionpressure away from their basket and funnelling it towards their opponent’s.
Yet, by the end of the third quarter, the Suns buried the Bucks in a mausoleum of their own stubbornness. Knowing that the Bucks would volunteer a hapless defender on any pick-and-roll, Paul repeatedly called for screens from Brook Lopez’s and Bobby Portis’s defensive assignments. On 14 of his 16 nearly identical third quarter points, Paul got Lopez or Portis switched onto him and promptly placed them in a stand-mixer. Whereas most coaches would make an adjustment if they watched their team give up 14 points to a single player in a single quarter running a single play, Budenholzer isn’t like those other guys.
Mike Budenholzer, more than just about any coach, has solved regular-season basketball. Come playoffs, Budenholzer coaches as if he’s forgotten that he’s the coach. Over the last three seasons, the Bucks racked up the NBA’s best cumulative record by playing cynically inflexible basketball geared towards optimizing shot selection or whatever that’s incompatible with the demands of the playoffs. Like a lazy job applicant making minimal changes to a recycled cover letter, Budenholzer sets a game plan before tip-off and then goes head empty, just vibes. Kevin Durant torching a smaller defender? It is what it is. Trae Young abusing drop coverage? Somebody ought to do something about that. Paul flaying the same big men over and over again? Hmm, that’s a thinker.
And herein lies the central, eternal frustration with the Milwaukee Bucks: they have the personnel to adopt any style and they still unfailingly play with all the imagination of a tech company’s sans-serif logo. The Bucks overflow with skill and length and athleticism and you can pound sand if you think they’re going to do anything cool with it. To watch a Bucks game is to watch a minor-key version of Uncut Gems in real time —they can save themselves from themselves but they won’t.
In this sense, regardless of what you thought about the Bucks coming into the Finals, you were right — they’re a truly elite squad who are also maybe a bunch of clowns who should get off my TV forever. The Bucks defy characterization, paving a liminal space between Finalist and fraud. There will forever be a gap between what the Bucks can achieve (era-defining dynasty) and what they will (something well short of an era-defining dynasty). The mystery remains whether the Bucks and Antetokounmpo can make it count.