The Milwaukee Bucks have a pulse. Khris Middleton, with 35 points and 15 (!) Rebounds, the most of the game, finally looked like the mid-range killer that he is, while Giannis Antetokounmpo was a transitional thunderclap that wreaked havoc like a man rolled all night.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined to shoot 20 of 50 from the floor, and the Nets only generated 85.6 points per 100 possessions in Thursday’s 86-83 loss. That’s the second worst offensive rating they’ve had all season. (They were less effective in a loss on March 24 against the Jazz, in a game where Tyler Johnson, Jeff Green, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Joe Harris and Bruce Brown were the five starters).
All that said, the fact that Milwaukee escaped with just a three-point margin of victory is concerning. They have no choice but to view Game 4 as someone else must win. Here are some more thoughts on everything that just happened:
Finally, Mike Budenholzer stopped playing
In the biggest game of his season and one of the most crucial games he has ever been able to coach, Mike Budenholzer did not replace Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 3 until there were 53.4 seconds left in the first quarter. This was notably out of step with Antetokounmpo’s normal substitution pattern: Aside from the humiliating Game 2 loss—when he first left the game with 2:21 on the clock—The solid mainstay of the Bucks franchise will generally take a quick hit right around the midpoint of the first quarter and then re-enter shortly before the second quarter begins.
Has been like this in every playoff game of the Budenholzer era, a routine talking point that understandably frustrates and confuses those who don’t understand why a fit and healthy 26-year-old can’t play more than 40 minutes while the opponent’s older stars do just that.
But in Game 3, the Bucks held a 30-9 lead when Antetokounmpo first sat down. He finished with 43 minutes, his third highest total in a playoff game since Budenholzer became his head coach. And the necessary desperation was felt elsewhere, with Middleton clocking in at 44 minutes and Jrue Holiday only resting 2.5. (With Holiday on the bench to start the second quarter, Bud reacted to Irving’s strong save on Middleton by immediately inserting his blocking base into the game.)
For the Bucks to win this series, those three will have to carry a huge load, in monstrous minutes. This list is … not deep.
Brook Lopez: The Gift and the Curse
Speaking of not being deep, Budenholzer’s decision to ride Brook Lopez in the fourth quarter with his season on the line was precarious, especially as Durant began attacking the big man’s patented knockdown coverage with a jump off the rebound after the next. . .
The Nets took advantage of Lopez’s stiff legs with a barrage of tall pick-and-rolls, mostly with KD, but Irving ate, too. Bruce Brown was very successful as the rolling screener on these plays in the first half, hitting the Bucks with his giant-killer float.
Rather than go small and move Giannis at five, or even ask a faster Bobby Portis to deter open jump shots from one of the best jump shooters in basketball history, Bud kept Lopez on the court. and rolled the dice, playing percentages that he apparently felt were in favor of his team. Call it stubborn if you want. (Got it.) But in this specific game, it worked.
López was acquitted in the final stretch. Not only did he make one of the most important defensive plays of his career, running one step at a time from the sideline to the rim with Brown to upset what would have been a layup lead with five seconds to go, but in the last few possessions he got a few feet higher on the ground to make Durant or Irving’s chin-ups much more difficult than they were earlier in the game.
The air gap was tight, and in a couple of late possessions when the ball ended up in Brown’s hands, Lopez put up some stiff competition on those same floats that suddenly didn’t fall. He also helped get out on the court to remove what could have been three wide-openings by Harris (who threw 11 shots and missed 10), then ran back to block Brown’s shot in the paint.
When the Bucks have the ball, nobody in the Nets cares about Lopez, and the Bucks don’t give them any reason to. He scored three points and couldn’t even space the floor in countless Antetokounmpo units that found three or four black jerseys in the paint. Lopez only took one offensive rebound and, despite being protected by much smaller defenders for most of the game, not once did he throw any of them to the post.
He blocked six shots and moved as well as anyone could ask for when the Bucks needed him most. But perhaps this performance is best viewed as Lopez’s last stand. If Milwaukee does win an NBA championship or even make it to the Finals, its starting center is less and less likely to be on the court in the minutes that matter most.
Three points from Giannis …
… I need to stop. He took eight of them in this game. Seven did not enter. They were all out of the dribble. They were all gross. Why they keep happening is one of the biggest mysteries in these playoffs.
More coverage of the NBA playoffs:
• Trae Young and the art of drawing faults
• Monte Morris is the unsung hero of the Nuggets
• What’s the best possible matchup in the NBA Finals?
• Chris Paul buries depleted Nuggets roster in Game 2 win
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.