Many were critical of Mike Budenholzer before the Milwaukee Bucks won the 2020-21 NBA Championship The criticisms ranged from how he manages his player rotations to the noticeable lack of adjustments in the squad when his Milwaukee Bucks were struggling.
In the NBA Finals Budenholzer dispelled that perception, and the modifications he made pushed the Milwaukee Bucks to their first ring since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still called Lou Alcindor. What were the changes he made, and were changes offensive, defensive or both?
Game 1 of the NBA Finals
Mike Budenholzer's drop coverage allowed Chris Paul to score 32 points in the Phoenix Suns' 118-105 victory through an array of mid-range and deep jumpers when Brook Lopez camped around the basket -- leaving Paul with a favorable matchup he could exploit with minimal help defense.
Chris Paul grabbed that opportunity by the scruff of the neck, and it seemed the Phoenix Suns would roll to their first NBA championship. Paul's 6-7 shooting in the third quarter, where he scored 16 points and made all three of his shots from behind the arc, was definitively the deciding factor. He hit shot after big shot, and also had nine assists. Devin Booker was a problem for Milwaukee's defense as well -- scoring 27 points. What changes offensively and defensively would Mike Budenholzer make?
Devin Booker scored 31 points, Chris Paul 23, and Mikal Bridges 27 in the Phoenix Suns 118-108 win.
Offensively, Giannis Antetokounmpo was more utilized in the pick-and-roll, putting big pressure on Phoenix defensively. His 42 points and 15 rebounds were just too much for a young Deandre Ayton to handle.
He scored many of his points in transition -- he led the league in transition points -- yet something was different about the Milwaukee Bucks' approach on both ends in Game 2. Jrue Holiday was more involved. His usage rate increased from 19.9 to 23.3 from Game 1 to Game 2. He was picking up Chris Paul earlier, and despite the loss for the Milwaukee Bucks, Mike Budenholzer was beginning to figure it out. Chris Paul had 10 turnovers in the first two games, mainly because of Jrue Holiday's stifiling defense that gave Chris Paul zero wiggle room whenever he guarded Paul.
Mike Budenholzer, the 2015 and 2019 NBA Coach of the Year, moved Brook Lopez further out on the perimeter, went to a small ball lineup that attacked the rim whether it was Giannis or anyone else, and Milwaukee began to dominate the Suns in the paint.
The Milwaukee Bucks outscored the Phoenix Suns 457-420 in games 3-6 after going down 0-2 to clinch the NBA title. Giannis' usage rate was a crazy 36.3 in Game 3, while Khris Middleton scored 40 points for a 36.5 usage rate in Game 4.
Shortening his bench yet adding Bobby Portis' unapologetic rage, love of the game and passion to the series really propelled the team. Pat Connaughton was big in spots either on the perimeter or sneaking in for offensive rebounds. His athleticism allowed him to get to 50/50 balls that ate away at any Phoenix Suns momentum. Chris Paul led the Suns to an overall NBA ranking of 4th in turnovers with 12.4 a game. The Milwaukee Bucks forced 53 turnovers in games 3-6, and Chris Paul had 14 himself in that span.
Milwaukee Bucks legend Giannis Antetokounmpo
It must be said that Giannis Antetokounpo was the biggest reason why the Milwaukee Bucks are NBA champs. His Game 6 log of 50 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks is one of the best in NBA Finals history.
The Finals MVP was simply not going to be denied this shot to become an NBA champion. Giannis wanted it more than anyone else. He wanted it more than his teammates, and yes, even his head coach -- who leaned heavily on Antetokounmpo, despite it being proven that he is not averse to making necessary adjustments.
Mike Budenholzer makes adjustments
Whether he was compelled to change his coaching style on the fly because of how much Giannis or his Milwaukee Bucks teammates wanted it, or the palpable threat of his firing, what was evident in the NBA Finals is how the Gregg Popovich protege switched on a dimes . As a result, the Milwaukee Bucks were the last team standing in the NBA this season.
That Budenholzer figured it out should help him adjust more readily and help him win more big games in the future. He is 375-262 in 8 years of coaching in the NBA, and is now a Milwaukee Bucks NBA champion. Narratives of coaches persist until they don't, and Mike Budenholzer doesn't need to confirm anything next season. The modifications to his offense and defense were noticeable and definitely no fluke.