Last Saturday, the Milwaukee Bucks lost their first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. The series went to seven games, with neither team able to take a road victory. Many had expected the Bucks to knock out the second seeded Celtics due to Boston’s injury woes, but after a second straight first round exit for Milwaukee, everyone can learn from what happened. Here are five major takeaways from the series:
1. The Bucks need a new coach.
Coming into the series, the odds were about even for a matchup between a great Celtics team that was hobbled by injuries and a full-strength Bucks team. Basically the only thing that evened out the scale for the Celtics was coaching.
Joe Prunty took over for Jason Kidd midseason, and did a respectable job with a 21-16 record. Still, most of the time it appeared that Prunty was an extension of Kidd’s system and nothing had actually changed. The offense routinely stalled and broke down into isolation jumpers, and the defense only saw some minor adjustments.
Rotations and minute allocations were still terrible, and that trend continued into the playoffs. In Game 2 the Bucks were thoroughly beaten, while Prunty experimented with everything and used all 13 of his players. In Game 7, as if he had learned nothing from the last six games, Prunty once again emptied his bench early in the game.
The Bucks lost Game 7 in what was essentially a blowout, and by the end of the game Prunty had tried 16 different lineups. Throughout the series, he demonstrated a lack of patience while the teams’ defensive schemes imploded with liabilities like Shabazz Muhammad and Jason Terry often sharing the floor.
Bucks management has suggested that Prunty would be given a fair chance for the vacancy at permanent head coach, but after this series they would be insane to give him any real consideration.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo can carry the franchise, but he needs some help.
The Greek Freak performed well individually, but it wasn’t enough to push the Bucks through to the second round. He averaged 25.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, and was the best overall player on either team. In Game 6, he took over in the fourth quarter to help the Bucks avoid elimination and take the series back to Boston.
The problem is, Giannis could have done a lot more. Whether it was a lack of aggression or an offensive system that doesn’t run through him (likely a combination), he didn’t get as many shot attempts per game as was typical for him. In the regular season, he averaged 18.7 attempts, but that number dropped to 17.3 in the playoffs.
If the Bucks ran an offensive system that actively put the ball in his hands, it’s likely that Giannis could have more of an impact in this series. It’s worth noting that Eric Bledsoe was close behind him in shot attempts per 36 minutes, despite shooting 44.4% overall.
For Giannis to be effective, he needs players around him who fit with his play style. A ball-dominant point guard with shooting deficiencies like Bledsoe is always going to be a challenge to fit into an offensive scheme that revolves around Giannis. The Bucks have some major roster decisions to be made this summer.
3. Khris Middleton is incredibly underrated.
Coming into the series, I expected that the series could hinge on the play of Khris Middleton, who seemed to disappear in the Bucks’ last two playoff appearances against the Bulls and Raptors. I was dead wrong, as the Bucks lost despite Middleton being unconscious for the entire series, and the second best player in the matchup behind Antetokounmpo.
In the series, Middleton averaged 24.7 points per game on 59.8% shooting, including a ridiculous 61.0% on threes. For comparison, he had shot 38.8% in the playoffs prior to this season. He was deadly in fourth quarters, in which he shot 13-16 on three-pointers for the series. In Game 1, he gave us one of the greatest shots in Bucks history, along with an epic Gus Johnson reaction:
To put his over-achievement in context, Middleton still has one more year on his contract, and will be paid just $13 million next season. For what Middleton brings to the Bucks, he is an absolute steal and a refreshing contrast to some of the unfavorable salaries on the team.
The Bucks could realistically keep Middleton as a legitimate second or third option to Giannis Antetokounmpo, or they could use his attractive salary as trade leverage to land another superstar. Either way, the Bucks have a huge asset in Middleton.
4. Jabari Parker can be good… when he wants to.
Parker did not have a good start to his first career playoff series, only hitting one shot in 25 minutes of action. He looked lost on defense, making crucial mistakes that allowed Boston to go on long runs.
He aired his grievances to the media after an ugly Game 2 showing, expressing frustration with the limited minutes he was given. This was a different attitude than what we were used to seeing from Parker, who usually came off as humble and determined.
However, Parker’s fortunes reversed when the series went back to Milwaukee, and he immediately made an impact off the bench. In Game 3 and Game 4, he scored 17 and 16 respectively, and was a combined +27 over those two games. After starting 1-7, he shot 49.1% for the rest of the series.
Despite the turnaround, Parker’s public frustrations with minutes and lack of effort bring up troubling concerns about his character where there were none before. It’s quite possible that he will come off the bench if he is brought back next year, but will he be able to handle such a role for the long-term? If Parker wants to have a future with the Bucks, he needs to show that his focus is on team success, not individual playing time.
5. Thon Maker still has potential.
After a discouraging slump plagued him throughout his sophomore year, Maker burst onto the scene when the series moved back to Milwaukee, where in games 3 and 4 he totaled 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 10 blocks. This was a stark contrast from the Maker we had seen all year, who saw a noticeable dip in production from his surprising rookie season that culminated with a strong performance against Toronto in the playoffs.
Maker seemed to relish in the energy of the BMO Harris Bradley Center in games 3 and 4, and came out with relentless energy, especially on the defensive end.
It seems that when Maker is giving 100 percent effort, he’s an absolute force, as evidenced by his strong display in the playoffs, both this year and last year. To me, this begs the question, why wasn’t his effort at 100 percent during the regular season? Very few of his second year performances even came close to the version of Maker we saw against Boston in games 3 and 4.
Could it be that something about the style of the game or pace of action in the playoffs turns Maker into an exponentially better player? Boston was pounding and pushing their way inside all series, and one would think a highly physical environment works against a player with a thin frame, but not for Maker.
It has long been suggested that once Maker adds some bulk, he’ll turn into a legitimate stretch five who can rebound and defend against NBA centers. The Bucks have to decide what to do with Maker depending on if and when that happens. Right now, Maker at least has some trade value, but in a few years that might not be the case.