Assessing Milwaukee Bucks puzzling move to pull Giannis Antetokounmpo

Aside from the flat out bad offense (or good defense, depending on how you want to look at it), the biggest story from Game 1 had to be when Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer took Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the game with just under 90 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Brook Lopez had just hit a floater to put the Milwaukee Bucks up by three and was going to the line for a three-point play. Budenholzer subbed Bobby Portis in for Antetokounmpo, who had dominated on both ends all night (aside from the five fouls).

He was out for over a minute before checking back in with around 15 seconds left and Milwaukee up by four (eventually five after Jrue Holiday hit a free throw). It was an interesting decision, to say the least at the time and many are still wondering what was going through Budenholzer’s mind to make that call. So let’s try to figure it out!

Was Mike Budenholzer right to take out Giannis Antetokounmpo late in the Milwaukee Bucks’ Game 1 win?

So, as I explained briefly, Antetokounmpo was in foul trouble all night and picked up his fifth at the 8:14 mark of the fourth. He was immediately subbed out for Wesley Matthews and Budenholzer then put the two-time MVP back in for short bursts for the rest of the quarter.

Antetokounmpo checked back in at 5:38, out again at 4:51, in at 3:37, then infamously out at 1:24, before playing the final 15 seconds.

There are two schools of thought on how to approach a key player being in foul trouble. The traditional one is what Budenholzer did, take your guy out and ensure he’ll be there late in the game.

He explained his decision to take Antetokounmpo out after the game to reporters.

“We were up three with a free throw, you know just keep him in, had both my timeouts. If they scored, I’d probably call a timeout. Just make sure he’s there to finish the play, finish an offensive possession. Bobby had some good defensive possessions, so just taking away the option of going at him [Antetokounmpo] and him not trying to avoid his sixth to stay in the game. So Bobby and those guys got a great stop, a couple of them.”

There are a few big takeaways there. The first, for me, is that he was planning to put Antetokounmpo back in if the Bulls scored while he was out. That tracks considering Antetokounmpo was standing at the scorer’s table for a while, ready to get back in.

The next is that he was playing it with the traditional thought process of “well, we need him in the game later, so I don’t want him to get taken out” and that he didn’t want the Bulls to be able to go after him or have him play tentatively because he had five fouls.

I’m clearly not a head coach in the NBA, so what do I know! But I’ve disagreed with this line of thinking for a while. Foul trouble is a myth that head coaches create for their players.

By taking out Antetokounmpo with the idea that you don’t want him to pick up a sixth foul and foul out, you’re doing the exact thing that you’re trying to avoid. You’re fouling out your own guys! It’s all in an effort for something that may never actually happen.

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch spoke on this line of thinking earlier this season.

Finch is a coach I have a ton of time for and believe he’s one of the very best in the league for things like this (and, ya know, his incredible X’s and O’s knowledge).

There’s no guarantee that Antetokounmpo picks up the sixth foul. Yes, the referees were calling things tight, but you need to trust that Antetokounmpo can play with five fouls. He was a plus-19 in a seven-point win!

Now, of course, it paid off in the end as the unit of Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews, and Jrue Holiday got stops down the stretch.

Budenholzer noted that Portis was huge in getting a couple of stops down the stretch and had an interesting quote a little later in the same post-game press conference.

“Just felt like we took a bit of a chance, but certainly the confidence in Brook is high. And Bobby the same. The confidence to put him back in, I think it’s good for him to get those reps and we got to do it together so it was a good opportunity for us.”

Now that is something that made my ears perk up. Budenholzer mentioning that getting Portis those late playoff game reps is an interesting little tidbit.

I don’t know if that was part of the decision at the time to take Antetokounmpo out, but it’s one of the few good byproducts of doing it.

It’s the playoffs, so I’d prefer to have the best player in that game out there for as long as possible until he’s forced to be taken out. However, if you want to do that (to be clear: don’t), getting Portis some good reps in a high-pressure setting is fine, I guess. He’s one of the most important role players in this series and beyond in the playoffs, so it’s good to get him some confidence, I suppose.

I also wonder if this is how Budenholzer views this series that he can sacrifice Antetokounmpo to get Portis reps now against a team Budenholzer feels confident they can beat.

All in all, I don’t like the decision to yank Antetokounmpo from the game that late. There are less than 90 seconds left, make the refs make the call to take Antetokounmpo out, don’t make that call yourself. Process over results!

However, I’m also not losing too much sleep over this decision as I don’t think Budenholzer would do it again in a later series or even in this one again. At least I hope.

We’ll see what type of whistle the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls get in Game 2 on Wednesday at 8:30 pm CT.