The consensus among Milwaukee’s Eastern Conference rivals was that, best-case scenario, the Heat would push the Bucks to six games. Jimmy Butler and his crew would play hard, challenge Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammates, and perhaps leave a mark before bowing out.
The Celtics, 76ers, and Knicks were banking on the Bucks having to exert effort in that series before moving on to the second round. The Heat did more damage than that. They stunned the Bucks in five games, a byproduct of Antetokounmpo’s lower-back injury, the brilliance of Butler, and poor decisions by Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer.
Budenholzer was fired Thursday, two years after leading the Bucks to the championship. But with Antetokounmpo in his prime, and the Bucks favorites to win another title, being bounced in the first round by a team that had to fight to even reach the playoffs was too much for management to overlook.
The Bucks are now in transition. All-Star Khris Middleton is expected to opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Brook Lopez, who resurrected his career in Milwaukee, will be a free agent. Antetokounmpo has two years left on his contract, but he made a handful of references to coaching decisions as to why the Bucks lost the series.
One of the main issues with Budenholzer was his failure to make adjustments. The Bucks allowed Butler, Miami’s primary scorer, and even more so after Tyler Herro broke his hand in Game 1, to average 37.6 points in the series, on nearly 60 percent shooting overall and 44.4 percent from the 3-point line.
Budenholzer used former Defensive Player of the Year Jrue Holiday on Butler, but to little success. Butler was too big. Antetokounmpo said after Game 5 that he would have preferred to defend Butler more, but that it was the “coach’s decision.”
That was an indictment on Budenholzer, and so was the Bucks’ refusal to call a timeout in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter of Game 5, and at the end of overtime. The Bucks had 0.5 seconds left in regulation after Butler hit the tying basket, and passed on advancing the ball to midcourt. In OT, the Bucks had a chance to tie on the final play, but Budenholzer allowed his players to police themselves, and they never got off a shot. Budenholzer was removed as Hawks coach for many of the same reasons. He’s a quality coach with an impressive résumé, but some believe he underachieved during his five-year tenure in Milwaukee, especially with Antetokounmpo winning two MVP awards. The Bucks lost in the Eastern Conference finals to Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in 2019 despite taking a 2-0 lead.
In the bubble, the heavily favored Bucks were eliminated by the Heat in the conference semifinals. A year later, Milwaukee rode the play of Antetokounmpo to come back from an 0-2 deficit against the Suns and win the championship.
Hampered by the absence of Middleton, the Bucks lost to the Celtics in the conference semifinals last year. With Middleton healthy, the Bucks were primed for a deep playoff run this season until Antetokounmpo injured his back in Game 1.
Of course, it’s not all Budenholzer’s fault. Antetokounmpo missed 13 free throws in Game 5 against Miami. Overall, Holiday struggled offensively. And acquisitions Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles were ineffective. Crowder played 41 minutes in the entire series, including a DNP coach’s decision in Game 5. He openly complained about his usage.
Coaches such as Steve Kerr and Doc Rivers were not surprised by Budenholzer’s firing, but they were disappointed. NBA coaches are hired to be fired. There is pressure to win every year, especially when you have superstars in their prime.
Players can’t be fired. And the Bucks are thinking long term with this move. Why would they retain a coach if Antetokounmpo thinks the team can do better?
Rivers was fired by the Clippers after they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the bubble. The Clippers needed a scapegoat and they weren’t going to trade Paul George or Leonard.
“We’re going to be the guy you look at when anything goes wrong,” Rivers said. “That’s just the way it is. It’s part of our jobs. Listen, Bud got fired and his team [won] 69 percent [of his games]. They won the Finals two years ago. It’s just part of our jobs.
“It’s easier [to make coaches the scapegoats]. I’ve had games, and I won’t say the team, our guys had the best shots they had analytically for the whole season and we lost. And now I’m here. That’s just the way it is, and you know what’s funny? We still sign on to do it.”
Budenholzer could become a prime candidate with the Raptors and Pistons looking for experienced head coaches. Or more likely he will take a year off, rejuvenate, and then look for a job next summer. Coaches who win championships will always receive second, third, and fourth chances.
“I love what I do and we’re still going to keep signing on, because it’s awesome,” said Rivers, who is coaching his fourth NBA team, the 76ers. “When you hear all the stuff about [Budenholzer], clearly there are so many people smarter than Bud, going by what everybody says. I know that’s not true. But it doesn’t matter.”
Do Warriors have one final run?
Despite their poor road record, all the injuries, and the other issues they’ve dealt with this season, the Warriors are in the Western Conference semifinals, and have a chance to get back to the NBA Finals with an aging and flawed roster.
You can call Stephen Curry aging (he’s 35), but he’s not in decline. He dropped 50 points on the Kings in Game 7 in the first round. In Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Lakers, he turned into a more natural point guard with 12 assists in Golden State’s win.
Curry’s place among NBA greats has been debated over recent weeks, especially after his 50-point masterpiece. Is he a point guard? Is he the greatest point guard? Does he compare with Magic Johnson? Or is Curry just an undersized shooting guard? Whatever he is, he has revolutionized the game. Pee-wee league teams are now spreading the floor at the 3-point line because of Curry.
He’s been asked to explain his position and his impact on the game. It’s not an easy answer.
“The labels and all that stuff, I don’t have to get into it, just because, you know, labels usually demean or kind of try to bottle up greatness in the sense of what we try to do on a night-to-night basis,” he said. “We do it a lot of different ways. I try to do it a lot of different ways; however you want to describe it or label it doesn’t matter to me. It’s just when you watch us play, you know how we do things, and how I try to impact games. Again, whether that’s shooting 38 times or shooting 12 and trying to find what the defense is giving you.”
Curry prides himself on his versatility. He has revolutionized the game with his shooting but also reopened the door for smaller guards who don’t rely on elite athleticism. Curry is a master of movement and skill.
The Warriors may be close to their final run. Curry is in his 14th season. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are both 33. It’s apparent that the Warriors are not what they once were, and the future is cloudy.
The drafting of James Wiseman second overall over LaMelo Ball turned out to be a mistake. The Warriors were banking on Wiseman, Moses Moody, and Jonathan Kuminga becoming future cornerstones and taking pressure off Curry, Thompson, and Green. But Wiseman never worked out, while Moody and Kuminga haven’t progressed as quickly as expected.
Curry is a father of three now, and his kids are old enough to understand how gifted their father is.
“Gives you perspective. Me and Draymond talk about it all the time,” Curry said. “[Kids] are like kind of the time stamp on a lot of things that you’ve experienced. It’s a beautiful thing to know that you’re still playing at a high level and you get to enjoy it a little differently than we did back in the day. I was talking to LeBron [James] about it, he’s got an almost college student. It’s crazy to think about all the things that we’ve been through, and your family and the way that we get to enjoy the on-court, off-court experience of what that is is truly special. I’m grateful for that, for sure.”
While Green has spent his career as a villain because of his brashness and on-court antics, he is an NBA original who also has helped revolutionize the game for point forwards. Green, like Curry, hasn’t thrived off athleticism, but rather basketball IQ and experience.
Green humanizes himself when he brings his son and two daughters to the podium for news conferences, even though he may offer a few choice words during the sessions.
“We miss so much times with our kids, and I think that’s every working parent, right?” he said. “It’s not just us as basketball players. You have an obligation to provide for your child. Growing up in the circumstances that I grew up in, I never want them to experience that.
“With that comes a lot of work, and the times that you miss, it sucks. I think anyone in here who is a parent understands that. When you’re able to share these moments with them, it’s special. I’ll look back at some of these pictures, look back at some of these interviews and moments, you appreciate them.
“I’m always thankful of the Warriors organization and the NBA as a whole, because they don’t have to allow our kids to be up here. It’s not something that they have to do, and I understand that. Very appreciative of them allowing that because I think we always talk about, like kid energy in here. You bring the kid energy, it just lightens the mood. It’s always so serious and you do this over and over again, and when you’re just able to get the energy of children in here, it’s always special.”
NBA players have been bringing their kids to the podium for interviews for more than a decade, and it’s a way for players to introduce their children to the public. Celtics forward Jayson Tatum’s son, Deuce, is so popular he could run for mayor if he was of age.
“So that’s something I don’t take for granted, and I’m very appreciative of the organization and the access they allow our children to have and also the NBA as a whole, as a league,” Green said. “Our league embraces us having our children around, and it’s such a special thing because these are memories that will last a lifetime. This is documented. I’ll be able to find this interview forever. I’ll be able to find these pictures forever, and it’s special.”
Green said his son, D.J., is now old enough to understand wins and losses and why the Warriors may have faltered during a game. After the game, he wants answers from dad.
“When we lose, I don’t bring them back [to the locker room],” Green said. “You know, you’re trying to figure stuff out, way more serious, and they don’t get the opportunity. So, No. 1, that’s always more incentive to try to get a win, and this guy doesn’t let me live it down when we lose. ‘Daddy, why did we lose? How did we lose? What happened here? What happened there?’
“So, I’m always conscious of that and I always try to teach them, like winners win, and you can’t be teaching him and talking to him and her and my daughter, and telling them winners win and you’re collecting L’s. Like, that’s not a special thing.
“Just being able to have those walks with them down this tunnel, it’s important, and it’s huge and they love it, and I think, you know, any time as a parent you can provide things for your kids that you know they love, it’s always an extra added bonus and incentives and make you want to do more of that and put more effort into being great. Last night, I was here at the gym and [my son] was here with me, [my daughter] Olive was here with me, and it just pushes you way harder knowing that they are watching every single thing you do.”
The Grizzlies made a definitive statement by saying they wouldn’t re-sign free agent swingman Dillon Brooks, partly because of his behavior during the playoffs, as well as a lack of production. Brooks, an erratic shooter but plus defender, decided to trash-talk James during the Lakers series, calling him “old” and saying he wished he would have faced the game’s all-time leading scorer in his prime. The result was a reinvigorated James and a six-game loss for the Grizzlies. It wasn’t unusual for the Grizzlies to relay to Brooks their decision to allow him to leave in free agency, but leaking the news to The Athletic and the disdain the organization appears to have toward Brooks is unusual. Brooks will have a market in free agency, but the Grizzlies likely hurt his value with their actions. Memphis has a lot of other issues to address, such as the off-court conduct of starting guard Ja Morant. It’s not a stretch to say that Morant’s suspension, and actions such as brandishing a gun in an Instagram video derailed a promising season. What is certain is the Grizzlies need to mature and they were humbled by the veteran Lakers … The Raptors are being quiet about their coaching search after removing Nick Nurse last month. The issue for teams seeking head coaching is the lack of proven commodities who would be considered upgrades. The Raptors were reportedly interested in former Celtics coach Ime Udoka before he accepted the Rockets job, and highly regarded candidates such as Charles Lee and Adrian Griffin have no head coaching experience. Another candidate to watch is former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, currently the associate head coach of the Warriors. Atkinson turned down an offer from the Hornets last year but could be interested in a more intriguing position ... The Wizards are seeking a replacement for general manager Tommy Sheppard and want to make a home run with the hire. The Wizards have long wanted to become a power in the Eastern Conference and have been befuddled as to why the franchise cannot attract premium free agents. A charismatic GM could help the cause, but the Wizards’ roster is still flawed. The contract of Bradley Beal, who has been oft-injured the past few years, has hindered the ability to upgrade the talent. Beal will earn $57 million in the final year of that deal in 2026-27.