Milwaukee Bucks: Mike Budenholzer silences his critics in title run

Jul 22, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer near the start of the Bucks victory parade. Mandatory Credit: Mary Spicuzza/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK
Jul 22, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer near the start of the Bucks victory parade. Mandatory Credit: Mary Spicuzza/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK /

Before and during the amazing 2021 playoffs, where the Milwaukee Bucks finally were able to not only get to the NBA Finals, but defeat the Phoenix Suns to win the NBA championship, Coach Mike Budenholzer was a coach in jeopardy.

A coach who was ridiculed, criticized, second-guessed, and maligned. Even as little as three weeks ago, the ‘Fire Bud’ movement was alive and strong in social media and rumblings were that if Coach Bud fell short this season, his future as coach of the Bucks would be nonexistent.

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But just like Giannis Antekounmpo and the rest of this Bucks team silenced all the doubters with their Game 6 victory, so did Coach Bud. In a triumphant victory where the superstar Giannis led his team to victory, let us not forget how much Bud was a part of this championship as well.

A lot has been written about Coach Budenholzer’s willingness this regular season and playoffs to incorporate new defensive and offensive strategies this season within the Bucks.

The regular season became a lab experiment for including the dunker position on offense and doing more pick-and-rolls with Giannis as the screener. On defense, the drop coverage with Brook Lopez was still the primary defensive tactic, but more switching on defense and trying different approaches all paid off in the long run for this team. Obviously, the addition of PJ Tucker and Jrue Holiday were a huge lift, and these experiments resulted in an NBA championship for the first time in 50 years.

Mike Budenholzer showed a willingness to change in the Milwaukee Bucks’ title run

Besides the aforementioned changes in Coach Bud’s approach to his team and its success, there were specific instances that stood out to me and caused me to realize that this playoff run could be different under Bud, even when national reports suggested in May and June that his job could be on the line.

Let’s start with the Miami Heat series. When Giannis Antetokounmpo started the series guarding Jimmy Butler, it got my attention. A willingness to put Giannis on the other team’s best player is something Bud rarely did before in either of the preceding playoff appearances. Giannis did not guard Kawhi Leonard in 2019 and did not guard Butler in 2020. But, by making this coaching decision, Bud revealed a willingness to change.

Bud is also under appreciated in the confidence he has with his players. In this same series, Bud allowed Khris Middleton to take the basketball, get to his spot, and make the winning jump shot in Game 1 of the opening round series. Other coaches have a tendency to call timeout to set a play, yet Bud lets one of his best players make the decision. This trust also showed up in a critical Game 3 against the Brooklyn Nets when the Bucks were seconds away from being down 3-0. Giannis rebounds the ball, passes it up to Holiday and Holiday makes the go ahead lay up. Coach Bud trusts his players to make the right play.

This trust in his players was also exhibited in his loyalty to Pat Connaughton. Connaughton, another punching bag for some Bucks fans, became the most important player off the bench throughout these playoffs.

At times, he was the only reserve player playing valuable minutes, and he was finishing games to combat small ball lineups of other teams. More often than not, Connaughton was the only Buck to be able to make a three, get a key offensive rebound, or take a charge on defense. Pat’s contract was ridiculed in the offseason; now, it looks like a good value.

Even Jeff Teague had his hero’s moment in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 11 points off the bench to help the Bucks clinch the East. Teague, who was not seeing much time at all, also became an important bench player in the NBA Finals, doing his sharing of the ball handling duties at times to relieve Holiday, Antetokounmpo, and Middleton.

Although Teague found more playing time in the Finals, he played sparingly up to that point in the playoffs. Even though Coach Bud trusts his players, it did not mean he knew and understood situations in which they should not be playing.

Bud finally went away from the nine-to-ten players that played in the Nets series, a common criticism in past years was Bud’s reserve players playing too much. His willingness to eliminate the length of the bench grew in that Nets series. Only Connaughton and Bryn Forbes played meaningful minutes off the bench, and Forbes’ minutes were few. Basically, Bud went with his best players playing big minutes against the Nets who were doing the same. In fact, Kevin Durant rarely came out of the game.

In the Nets series, fan favorite Bobby Portis was simply not a good matchup with the small-ball Nets. Although there was some mystery to why Portis was not playing, Coach Bud made the decision that was best for his team. He did this in the Finals with Forbes, especially as Forbes was struggling with his shot and a liability on the defensive end. After Game 3 in the Finals, Forbes did not play again. Portis did play again, however, and became an instrumental part of the Bucks success in the NBA Finals, even a folk hero to the Milwaukee faithful.

Once again, Coach Bud pulling all the right strings.

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Three big moments that helped the Budenholzer guide the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship.  And even though one fan shockingly held a “Fire Bud” sign during the Milwaukee Bucks championship parade, the Fire Bud movement is no more. In fact, next steps for this franchise will be to sign this NBA Finals champion coach to an extension.