NBA Finals on ABC: How can the Milwaukee Bucks learn from their Game One defeat?

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Following a crushing 13-point defeat in Game One of the 2021 NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks are in dire need of a boost. As a team, they shot well from the 3-point line and managed to outrebound their opponent, yet the Phoenix Suns looked like they were in complete control of the game from start to finish.

Ahead of Game Two, which you can watch on KAPP-KVEW (ABC) at 6:00 p.m. PST on Thursday, July 8, Milwaukee needs to do some soul searching. The team stuck to its gameplan and performed relatively well offensively, but couldn’t contain the scoring outburst of Phoenix’s top three players—Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton, who combined for 81 points on 56% from the field and a perfect 20-for-20 from the free-throw line.

At times, the Bucks played excellent defense through an entire possession just for one of those three players to score a tough bucket near the end of the shot clock. At the highest level of the sport, this is sometimes inevitable. With players performing at this level of their craft, you can play perfect defense for a full position and still end up allowing a bucket. A great example of this was the performance by Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis, who came off the bench for 14 minutes and got attacked by Phoenix’s guards despite standing his ground on defense.

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Heading into Game Two, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer needs to consider abandoning the switch. Paul and Booker, who are two exceptional shot-creators with a knack for hitting mid-range jumpers, actively sought larger defenders off of screens. By drawing taller, lumbering players like Portis and center Brook Lopez to the perimeter, Booker and Paul would break them down with a string of dribble moves and either get past them for a shot near the bucket or create enough separation to take a jump shot.

Milwaukee cannot allow Phoenix’s star guards to target their big men in this series. Most of the time, this team keeps four strong perimeter defenders on the court: Jrue Holiday (3-time All-Defensive Team selection), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2020 Defensive Player of the Year), defensive stalwart P.J. Tucker, and two-time All-Star Khris Middleton. The Bucks cannot afford to let Phoenix attack their only defensive liability on the floor at every opportunity.

One way to combat this is by sticking with matchups and fighting over screens instead of switching on defense. Outside of its top three players, Phoenix struggled to shoot efficiently from the field in Game One. Forcing those players to get the ball out of their hands is the best-case scenario for the Bucks, so double-teaming Paul and Booker on the perimeter, and double-teaming Ayton in the paint, will force other players from the Suns’ rotation to step up and hit shots. For Milwaukee, you have a better chance at winning a game when those extra shots go to role-players over stars.

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The defining factor of this Milwaukee Bucks team over the last several years has been its unity as a defensive-minded group. Phoenix’s coaching staff and personnel are putting their philosophy to the test, and while making adjustments on the fly isn’t always easy, it’s an absolute necessity in the NBA Finals.

Offensively, it was a sound performance from the Bucks despite some careless turnovers. However, Holiday, who was the Bucks’ biggest acquisition this past offseason, fell flat. He shot only 4-for-14 from the field for 10 points while missing all four of his 3-pointers and failing to log a steal or block. He certainly contributed with tough perimeter defense, a ton of hustle, and great effort in other places. His nine assists and seven rebounds should not be overlooked, but Holiday needs to make more of a splash on offense for the Bucks to stand a chance.

Coach Budenholzer always shortens his rotation in the postseason to allocate more minutes to his best players. Holiday’s 40 minutes were the second-highest on the team behind Middleton, yet he couldn’t buy a bucket for his team. If anyone on the Bucks’ roster needs to shake off the rust and push past their performance in the first meeting, it’s him.

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