Get all your news in one place
100’s of premium titles. One news app. Zero ads. Just $10 per month.
Sports Illustrated

Giannis Antetokounmpo Needs More Help From the Bucks

In the hours after the Bucks got eliminated Sunday, it would have been easy enough to look at the reigning NBA champions and think that all they needed was a healthy version of All-Star Khris Middleton in the mix to repeat this season.

It’s tempting to think that, and it might even be true. But we’ll never know. Middleton, hobbled by an MCL sprain he suffered in the first round, couldn’t go against the Celtics, who delivered a 108-81 knockout punch to Milwaukee in Game 7.

In a way, the series was hotly contested, as it obviously went the distance. But in other ways, its outcome felt fitting. Boston’s Game 7 romp felt like a dam breaking.

The Celtics had held double-digit leads in the fourth quarters of Games 4, 5, 6 and 7. Had they won Game 5—the one in which Jrue Holiday made a pair of incredible defensive plays in the final minute to swing the contest—the series might have ended in six. (Boston had the lead inside the final two minutes of Game 3 as well, before losing it, and got one final opportunity to tie things on the final play with one of the crazier game-ending sequences you’ll see on an intentional missed free throw.) All told, the Celtics largely dominated the back end of the series, leading for 74% of the possible minutes—107 out of 144—in Games 5, 6 and 7.

The Bucks’ flaws that laid themselves bare in this series are the ones that need addressing. Pointing out the obvious: Milwaukee desperately needs someone beyond Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday who can create his own shot here and there.

Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

Without Middleton, Holiday’s shot attempts per game this round were up by nearly 55% from the regular season, taking a seismic leap from 14.2 field-goal tries to averaging 22 per contest, but only scoring 21 points per night with them. It all resulted in Holiday having a dismal 41.2% effective field goal rate in the conference semifinals, the second-worst mark among the 15 players who took at least 15 shots per game in the second round. (Only Dillon Brooks, who helped try fill the void left behind offensively by Ja Morant, had a lower rate.)

Antetokounmpo more than did his part, logging three 40-point games—including the NBA’s first 40-and-20 postseason game in two decades—to average almost 34 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists to go with a block and a steal per game against Boston.

But the process of handing either he or Holiday the ball every play and asking them to make something happen grew to be too much—especially in an amazingly physical series, where both men had challenging defensive matchups as well, in trying to slow down Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

A handful of role players brought almost nothing to the table at the end of the series, making it more likely that we see some of bench revamp this offseason.

Grayson Allen—fresh off shooting almost 41% from three in the regular season and torching the Bulls in the first round—went ice cold and was a disastrous fit in this series. It was a bit surprising that Mike Budenholzer continued to start Allen with how badly he shot on this stage. (Him being a -24 by halftime of Game 6—when the team had outscored Boston by 14 during his time on the bench—was eye-opening, and should’ve rendered him more time on the pine.) The Celtics were comfortable helping off of Allen, and he couldn’t make them pay, making just 31% of his shots and just 20.8% of his tries from deep over the seven games.

Backup point guard George Hill scored just five points in the series over the five games he appeared in, with no points at all in any of the final three contests, giving Boston another player it didn’t have to concern itself with from a defensive standpoint.

Bobby Portis, who could opt out of the last year of his contract to sign elsewhere, also was disappointing. After connecting on better than 41% of his shots from deep over the past two regular seasons, he hit just 22.7% in the conference finals at a time when the Bucks could have used someone—anyone—to step up and replace Middleton’s scoring. It also didn’t help that Portis’s limitations on defense are what they are. Playing him, and at times playing center Brook Lopez—who can occasionally extend out to the three-point line defensively, but is far more comfortable in the team’s drop scheme—means Milwaukee is going to often be a step slow in contesting along the perimeter.

While the Bucks couldn’t make things count from outside, Boston often did. Al Horford had an enormous Game 4, with a playoff-career high 30 points and five makes from three. Derrick White made big play after big play to help take Game 6. And Grant Williams had the biggest game of his life on Sunday to take the series, hitting a career-high seven triples.

The takeaway here: Milwaukee could use a big man or a backup big who has better range and recovery on defense, so opposing offenses can’t carve up the Bucks from outside. (While Serge Ibaka is no spring chicken anymore, it was somewhat puzzling to not see him log any minutes in a series like this one.) In watching the Boston series, the summer before last came to mind. Aside from securing the services of Holiday, and locking in Antetokounmpo into a supermax extension, the Bucks appeared to land Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanovic. And then, as the reports started surfacing and getting a bit weird, it was clear they hadn’t landed him. (They’d later get dinged for violating the league’s tampering rules in that case.)

Someone like Bogdavovic would have been a godsend in this Boston series. He can handle the ball, and do enough to get his own shot, which relieves pressure on a club’s other top scorers. He’s a shooter that no defense would be bold or dumb enough to leave wide open.

The Bucks will always have last year’s title. But if they’re going to add to that hardware, general manager Jon Horst may need to get creative—both by finding ways to bolster a roster that already carries one of the league’s highest payrolls, but also to build out the depth of the squad, just in case its necessary for a knockdown, dragout series like this just-finished one against the Celtics.

Milwaukee has the best, arguably most dominant player on the planet. Antetokounmpo turns 28 later this year, and should have his prime to get back to this stage and beyond. But the front office needs to capitalize on every potential opportunity from here on out to ensure its trophy case becomes a bit more full in the years to come, with such a transcendent talent.