Bucks Blow the “Golden” Opportunity

In 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost the NBA Finals in five games to the Miami Heat. The final series score probably flattered Miami a small bit, as the Thunder were tied or leading in the fourth quarter of two of the four games they lost, but you couldn't argue with the result and LeBron James' first championship.

At the time, with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka all yet to even have their 24th birthdays, it was seen as a loss that a future championship team would take as a learning experience. To think that the Thunder would end the decade without an NBA title was unfathomable.

We know what happened next. Harden was traded after OKC wouldn't pay him star-level money. Injuries derailed the Thunder in 2013 and 2015, and the best San Antonio team of the era outsmarted the Westbrook-and-Durant show in 2014. Ibaka never took the leap above third or fourth option.

2016 saw OKC blow a 3-1 lead to the 73-win Warriors in the West Finals, and Durant left for Golden State about a month later. Even with Paul George in tow the past two seasons, Westbrook hasn't been able to win a playoff series without Durant.

If you're wondering where I'm going with this, I couldn't help but think of the Thunder from earlier this decade when watching the last four games of this year's Eastern Conference Finals, where Toronto stunned Milwaukee after the Bucks were all but coronated as the top challenger to the Golden State throne after a blowout win in Game 2.

It would be easy to take the same perspective we did with those Thunder teams earlier in the decade with Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo, only 24, likely still has 8-10 years of two-way MVP-level play in him. Fellow all-star Khris Middleton has several solid years left after Milwaukee gives him his payday this summer. Eric Bledsoe finally found a defined role on a contending team in his ninth NBA season and is under contract until 2023, although his no-show in the East Finals will bring doubters forward.

The underrated Malcolm Brogdon was out most of the playoffs with an injury and still returned to make an impact against Toronto. And it won't be too hard to find shooters who want to play with Giannis and Middleton in the coming years.

You'd bet on the Bucks making at least one or two NBA Finals in the next five years. And the team was the best in basketball in the regular season after a huge change in style with Mike Budenholzer taking over as coach.

But there are huge warning signs for Milwaukee going forward for future playoff seasons after the past 10 days.

Let's start with the fact that Game 2 was really the Bucks' only standout performance where they looked like the team that won 60 games and blitzed through the first two rounds of the playoffs. In Game 1, Milwaukee needed 29 points and 21 shots from Brook Lopez as most of Milwaukee's other offensive options struggled for large stretches.

After those first two games in Milwaukee, Toronto made Kawhi Leonard, the best on-ball defender of this NBA era, the main matchup for Giannis. Then, the Raptors also selectively doubled the Greek Freak, especially giving help in the lane on those trademark downhill dashes to the rim by Antetokounmpo.

Not every NBA team could have pulled off that defense, but it was perfect for a team with as much athleticism and as many plus defenders in an eight-man rotation as Toronto. It allowed the Raptors to both neutralize Giannis and limit the effectiveness of Milwaukee's stay-at-home perimeter shooters.

By Game 5, the Bucks were completely flustered. There were countless possessions in the final few games where Giannis had absolutely no space to operate, but also had his typical safety valves covered, too.

It must be said that Budenholzer was outclassed in a major way by Raptors counterpart Nick Nurse, a first-time NBA head coach. Coach Bud obstinately refused to adjust to the Raptors all-world defense and bizarrely took Giannis, the almost definitely league's MVP, out of the game at inopportune times and for too long.

Perhaps this is unfair for a coach who was in his first year with Milwaukee this season, but Budenholzer is starting to remind me of something of an Andy Reid for basketball. There's no one you trust more to win 75% of your regular season games and have teams play great offense with mercurial talent, but when you get in tough spots in a do-or-die scenario, the adjustments and tactics needed to succeed at the margins just aren't there.

I still believe that Milwaukee would have been the best chance to beat Golden State, and especially if Durant doesn't play in the Finals or is highly limited. Obviously, we won't get to find that out now, which makes this a giant missed opportunity for the Bucks. After all, OKC has shown us that even when the contending window looks wide open for years, you can never guarantee you'll get back there again.

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