Milwaukee won 60 games in the regular season for the first time in 38 years. They won a playoff series for the first time in 18 years, in fact, they won two. But at the end of the day, the 45-year wait for another NBA title will have to wait, again. Sure, you can say that there is a disappointment in Milwaukee. But if there’s a silver lining to that, it’s the fact that it’s a different kind of disappointment now.
Before, fans would get disappointed when the Bucks miss the playoffs or when they lose in the first round of the playoffs. This time around, the expectations were much higher and they are disappointed in losing in the Conference Finals. They were two wins away from a Finals appearance. But they let the title dream slip away by losing four straight games to the Toronto Raptors. Considering they never lost three straight games this season prior to Game 5 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, the disappointment is understandable.
The Bucks entered the current season as one of the expected playoff contenders in the East. But no one expected them to finish on top of the East, much more win 60 games this season and claim home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by virtue of having the NBA’s best regular season record. Surely, the Bucks outdid themselves but after winning 60 games, they were supposed to blitz through the East the way they did the regular season.
Dominant Start To the Playoffs
Milwaukee swept the Pistons in round 1. And then after losing Game 1 to the Boston Celtics, they won four consecutive matches to eliminate the highly touted Boston team. And they did so with too much ease that nobody expected the Raptors to even challenge them in the Conference Finals.
The Bucks started like a house on fire, winning the first two games of the series convincingly. They lost to the Raptors in Game 3, but that double-overtime game proved how tough the Bucks were, on the road and under pressure. Or so it seemed. Kawhi Leonard’s Game 4 buzzer-beater was such a back-breaker. The Bucks came out flat in Game 5, at their home floor. Or had the Raptors taken the fight away from them?
Milwaukee held double-digit leads in Games 5 and 6 but the Raptors wouldn’t fold. Behind Kawhi Leonard, Toronto always fought back and took whatever the Bucks had for them. In short, the Bucks couldn’t deliver the knockout punch they delivered in the previous two rounds. But why?
Free Throw Shooting
The first culprit for Milwaukee’s exit was their free throw shooting. Take a look at how many free throws the Bucks missed as compared to their losing margin per game:
|Game 3||22-33||66.7%||6 points|
|Game 4||17-26||65.4%||18 points|
|Game 5||13-18||72.2%||6 points|
|Game 6||22-31||70.96%||6 points|
On top of mind, you’ll say that if Milwaukee only made their free throws, they would’ve ended up winning two of these games and thus would have theoretically won the series 4-2. But no team shoots 94% from the line as San Antonio, the league’s best free throw shooting team finished the regular season at 81%. Even if the Bucks shot at that rate, they wouldn’t have won Games 3,5 or 6 but if they did, the scores would’ve been much closer and the possibility of the game ending in their favor is always there.
During the regular season, the Bucks shot 77.3% from the foul line. No, they weren’t the best team in the NBA in that department but they ranked 14th and in the upper half of the league. That’s still good enough. But when you look at their free throw shooting in the last four games of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks were an aggregate 74-108 or 68. 51% from the foul line. That’s almost a 10% drop compared to their regular season average. Again, the difference wouldn’t have won them any of Games 3-6 but it would have made the game much closer, close enough to perhaps alter the ending.
I don’t expect Giannis to shoot like Steph Curry. But remember how DeAndre Jordan shot 70.5% this year after being a career 46.6% free throw shooter. What I’m saying is that the Bucks can always work on the free throws and improve. If there’s a weakness that Giannis must work on, it’s his outside shot. But to me, the more important thing he has to work on is his free throw shooting. He was decent during the regular season. But it can still be improved. He was terrible at the line in their last four games. Had he made his foul shots in those games, the games would have been much closer. Had he made his foul shots, that would have given him the confidence to keep on driving to the basket. Once he started missing, he hesitated and instead opted to kick out to his teammates instead of attacking the rim and trying to fish a foul.
I remember how Eric Bledsoe dissected the Los Angeles Lakers the day after he signed a contract extension. I mean he was such a monster that could not be stopped. Bledsoe is one of the top scoring guards in the league and during the regular season, he averaged 15.9 points per game of 48% shooting from the floor and 32% from behind the arc. In the month of May, Bledsoe shot just 33% from the field and 18% from the three-point area. He shot 4-18 from three ball in the last four games of the Toronto series and was 14-46 from the field overall. He scored just 8 points in Game 3, 11 in Game 4 and 8 points in Game 6.
Khris Middleton was Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer during the regular season and his 18.3 scoring average during the regular season helped him earn his first ever All-Star appearance. But Middleton shot just 18% from the field and scored just 9 points in Game 3 and then shot 22% from the floor and scored 6 points in Game 5 at their home floor. He also scored just 12 points in Game 3. I mean everyone is entitled to have off-nights but for Middleton to have his off-nights during three of their most important games of the season says something. I’m not saying he is a choke artist. He isn’t. But it was unusual how he struggled when they needed him most.
It was a good thing Malcolm Brogdon came back from injury. He averaged 13 points per game during those four crucial games. Brook Lopez also kept the Bucks alive in those games with his 14.5 points per game average. But had Bledsoe and Middleton played more consistent basketball during the entire series, I have no doubt Milwaukee would’ve won easily.
Bucks Folded Under Pressure
Milwaukee was the best team during the regular season. They lost two back-to-back games just once during the regular season and their losses in Games 3 and 4 were only the second time all-year long they’ve lost two in a row. Their Game 5 loss marked the first time they lost three straight games this season. Heading to Game 6, they had not faced elimination after dominating the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The pressure got higher after each loss. Milwaukee had never been in trouble before. They had never seen the kind of pressure that they faced in the last four games of the series. Without enough playoff experience, the unraveled so fast that they didn’t know what hit them.
After the Game 4 loss, Pat Connaughton said that the Bucks weren’t able to withstand the adversity the way they normally did. That’s saying that they couldn’t take the pressure that came with every game in the postseason. The closer they got to the goal, the more they struggled. In the end, their weakness a the foul line and their shooting struggles caught up with them.
Toronto didn’t have as deep a rotation that Milwaukee had. But Nick Nurse’s boys came up big when they needed to, Leonard was a constant and so was Siakam despite his struggles in some games due to injury. Kyle Lowry bucked a slow start and finished the series strong. But it was Fred VanVleet who delivered the killer blows in Games 5 and 6. Danny Green struggled more than Bledsoe and Middleton did but VanVleet picked up the tab.
Overall, it was a fantastic season for Milwaukee. The first order of business during the regular season would be keeping their free agents but with a limited payroll, I think Coach Bud’s job is cut out for him. There was nothing really wrong with the Bucks this season. But they could have played better. They could’ve done that by shooting better from the foul line and playing more consistent offense during the playoffs. I understand the pressure and I know that this tough loss is only going to make them better next season.