A trying time for Joe Prunty and Bucks after OT loss
The man responsible for bringing the Milwaukee Bucks back in this series is probably the most anonymous coach in the NBA now that Charlotte’s Steve Clifford has been fired.
Joe Prunty can certainly walk the Back Bay this week without being recognized. Just three months ago, he was a Bucks assistant under Jason Kidd.
When Kidd was fired Jan. 22, Prunty was handed the reins of a talented but wildly enigmatic team, such as it showed in Sunday’s 113-107 Game 1 overtime loss to the Celtics. The Bucks were stellar in some stretches, awful in others. And there is pressure on Prunty to turn Milwaukee into a more consistent team, because expectations do exist — even for a franchise 47 years removed from its last championship.
Milwaukee features the series’ most talented player and the NBA’s most unique player in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, if he wasn’t an NBA player could double as a Marvel Comics superhero for his ridiculous physical prowess. (Couldn’t you see Antetokounmpo simply reach out his arms 30 feet to grab the weapon out of the villain’s hand and lead his fair city to safety?)
Sometimes he’s asked to accomplish similar feats for the Bucks because of his athleticism and still-improving skills. He tried to carry the Bucks to victory Sunday with 35 points, but, in what has been this team’s pattern for years, it found ways to lose.
Prunty, the 49-year-old silver-haired NBA lifer, who has been thrust into the enviable position of coaching so much talent, now has to figure how to turn a bunch of inconsistent players into winners.
“It’s the little things that we talked about earlier,” he said Monday. “The 50-50 balls, the rebounds, the hustle plays. We have to make sure we come down up with those.”
The Bucks played a terrible opening quarter, a dominant second, and then watched the Celtics make all the hustle plays and big shots until Khris Middleton swished a 35-footer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
The Bucks were once again bailed out by their talent, until Prunty’s guys again played it too cool and watched the Celtics win the game with passion. That’s inexcusable for such a gifted bunch.
“It’s a mix of both in some cases, but, at the end of the day, those are also 50-50s in certain ways,” Prunty said. “In terms of being able to hit guys and chase them down, you have to get the dirty rebounds. One in particular that stood out that we didn’t get, there were a couple of guys battling in the paint and a couple guys battling on the perimeter and [the Celtics] just hustled for it. We had hustle plays, too, I don’t want to take that out of context.
“We played well and we played hard and that’s what this series is going to be: both teams fighting. Each little play will matter. The offensive rebounds that they’re getting, we got to try to limit those. Deflections when we get them, got to try and pick up those 50-50 balls. Then, conversely, taking care of the ball. In the first quarter, eight turnovers is too many. For the rest of the game, for the most part, we did a better job taking care of it.”
Prunty was at a loss to explain his team’s miscues. He knows the Bucks are capable of better, but a seventh seed played like a seventh seed, despite the presence of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, former second overall pick Jabari Parker, Eric Bledsoe, and reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.
Yet, the players laughed and joked after practice as if they had won Game 1. There’s plenty of time to come back and win the series, but the team’s ownership want to generate some type of momentum and enthusiasm for local fans to fill their brand-spanking-new arena opening next season.
“We know we can do a lot better,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to eliminate those turnovers and hopefully we can win the game. I’ll try to do whatever it takes to win.”
Antetokounmpo needs help, however. Middleton scored 31 points Sunday but Brogdon was the lone other Buck to score in double figures. Milwaukee has spent years lining up draft picks, making deals, trying to upgrade its roster for a long playoff run.
The Bucks even dumped current Celtic Greg Monroe for the opportunity to get Bledsoe — the same Bledsoe who essentially quit on defending Rozier on the Celtics’ final shot in regulation and who played a poor game in his Milwaukee playoff debut.
“Even though I didn’t play well, I thought I did a great job on the defensive end, except for the last play before regulation,” Bledsoe said after Game 1.
That’s been the issue. The Bucks play well, except when it really counts.
The Bucks have to expect more from themselves in this series or it could be a relatively short one and Prunty may not be there to open that new arena.