Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were shocked. The betting favorites to win the 2023 NBA title went home in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs, suffering through a painful 4-1 series loss to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat.
Antetokounmpo, the two-time NBA MVP and 2021 NBA champion, was forced to answer difficult questions after the Bucks became the sixth No. 1 seed to get bounced in the first round. One reporter asked Giannis if he considered the Bucks’ season a failure. The Greek Freak paused for a few seconds before delivering an impassioned response.
“It’s not a failure,” he said. “It’s steps towards success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years. He won six championships. The other nine years, he was a failure? (No.) So why do you ask me that question? It’s the wrong question.
“There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days. Some days you’re able to be successful. Some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn. Some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Some other people are going to win. And this year, somebody else is going to win. Simple as that.
“We’re going to come back next year, try to be better, try to build good habits, try to play better. Not have a 10-day stretch of playing bad basketball. And hopefully we can win a championship. So, for 50 years, from 1971 until we won in 2021, that we didn’t win a championship, it was 50 years of failure? No, it was not. It was steps to it. And we were able to win one. Hopefully we can win another one.”
By the end of the postgame press conference, Giannis gave a brutal but honest assessment of the Bucks’ stunning early exit. “They were playing to beat us and we were playing to win a championship”, Antetokounmpo said. “We were a little bit ahead of ourselves, to be honest.”
The rare admission from Giannis was refreshing and alarming. How can the Bucks — a team loaded with veterans with championship pedigree and armed with an MVP still in his prime — could look past the Heat in the first round? Did they think they could just jog past the Heat and expect them to advance? Did they think they had a free pass to the conference finals?
All those questions seem like valid explanations on why Milwaukee is out of the playoffs. But the largest share of the blame goes to head coach Mike Budenholzer.
Budenholzer put on a clinic on what not to do as a coach. Budenholzer treated the Heat series like the regular season. He made incremental adjustments and left his players on an island. Budenholzer was severely outcoached by Miami’s Erik Spoelstra. He also made shockingly terrible coaching decisions in the most crucial moments.
Antetokounmpo wished he could have spent more time guarding Heat superstar Jimmy Butler, but “out of respect” to Budenholzer, he played good soldier and accepted whatever the game plan was which was have Jrue Holiday stick with Butler and play drop coverage behind Holiday. “You gotta let the coach make that adjustment,” Antetokounmpo told reporters. “We have our best defender on [Butler]. There are conversations with Jrue [Holiday]. Whenever he gets tired, I can take him, but he’s so competitive. He plays so hard. He wants to take the challenge.”
Butler had a superb series, averaging 37.6 points in the five-game series and finishing with a game-high 42 points in Game 5. He had 56 points in a pivotal Game 4. Antetokounmpo did his best to keep the Bucks in the fight. He finished with 38 points and 20 rebounds in Game 5, but was an abysmal 10-for-23 from the free throw line.
The Bucks’ problems started in Game 1 when Antetokounmpo hurt his back after a hard fall. The Heat went on to steal Game 1 and Giannis missed the next two games due to the injury. The Bucks’ overly cautious approach to Giannis’ injury cost them both games in Miami, and the series was 3-1 in favor of Heat heading back to Milwaukee.
Facing elimination at home in Game 5, the Bucks blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and fell apart in overtime in a 128-126 loss. Milwaukee was held to only 16 points in the fourth and looked out of sorts. Budenholzer could have helped his team but settling them down, but he was just as shaky as his squad.
Budenholzer made three egregious mistakes down the stretch. With the Bucks clinging to a two-point lead with 2.1 seconds remaining in regulation, Budenholzer took out 7-foot center Brook Lopez — a candidate for NBA defensive player of the year — and decided to “match” the Heat’s small lineup. Guard Pat Connaughton ended up under the basket to contest the alley-oop play to Heat superstar Jimmy Butler, who made an incredible circus shot to tie the game at 118.
The second major Budenholzer flub was not calling timeout after Butler’s layup. The clock stopped at 0.5 when Jrue Holiday inbounded the ball. The Bucks had a timeout left, but Coach Bud decided to pocket it. Maybe he was saving it for the next game.
Then, the final nail on the Bucks’ coffin, thanks to Coach Bud, came on the final possession in overtime. Down by two with under 10 seconds left, Giannis grabbed a missed free throw and dribbled up the court. He ran into Butler and was forced to give the ball up to Khris Middleton, who tried to make a move to the paint but was cutoff. Middleton flipped a pass to Grayson Allen, who just checked into the game and looked ice cold. Allen panicked as he passed up a 3-point shot and drove to the basket as time expired. The Bucks were able to get a shot up on the most important possession of the season.
Milwaukee had a timeout remaining but Budenholzer chose to pocket it yet again. He just watched his team implode. These are mistakes you make at the grade school level, high school level, AAU level. But not in the NBA. Budenholzer has been in the NBA since 1996. He worked as assistant for Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, he was head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and now the Bucks. He has been named NBA coach of the year twice. There are no excuses for his coaching blunders in the 2023 playoffs.
At the end of the day, if a game is a blowout it’s on the players. If a game is close, it’s on the head coach. Budenholzer failed his team and the Bucks must take a hard look if Coach Bud is the right guy for the job.
“Mike Budenholzer’s status as Bucks head coach is very much shaky, there are questions across the organization,” NBA insider Shams Charania reported. Budenholzer has two years and $16 million left on his contract.
Few coaches can match Budenholzer’s 69.3% regular-season winning percentage (271-120) over the last five seasons. The Bucks had the best record in the NBA in three of them. But in each of those seasons they didn’t reach the NBA Finals, and three times they exited before the conference finals.
“There’s some losses for which there’s just no going back,” said ESPN insider Zach Lowe on his podcast. “You cannot [bring] back the same team.”
Lowe said league insiders are extremely skeptical that Budenholzer can return as head coach of the Bucks after this collapse.