2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Milwaukee Bucks’ flexibility broke

Apr 26, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) stands in the center of the court after a 128-126 loss to the Miami Heat during game five of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 26, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) stands in the center of the court after a 128-126 loss to the Miami Heat during game five of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports /

Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the podium after the Milwaukee Bucks’ shocking overtime loss in Game 5 to the Miami Heat that eliminated them from postseason contention trying to diagnose where this series went wrong.

The title favorites were out in the first round and while Antetokounmpo’s own injury suffered in Game 1 of the series was certainly a contributing factor, the Bucks still seemingly had questions to ask about why they were not moving on.

Antetokounmpo was certainly wondering about those things.

While in that final press conference, he expressed an incredibly mature perspective on the elimination as merely part of his sure-to-be Hall of Fame story — that the defeat was only a failure if he quit there — he also offered a glimpse over what might have been the lingering problems over the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo lamented the lack of adjustments during the course of the season and the series specifically.

It was seen at the time as a veiled vote of no confidence in coach Mike Budenholzer. Only a few days later the Bucks and Budenholzer parted ways, just two years removed from winning a championship.

The postseason is a challenge even for the elite teams. Teams that have even elite talent will find their flaws exposed. Often plan A is not going to work in a playoff series or there will be an opponent that matches up particularly well with a team.

The Milwaukee Bucks are an elite team. But their lack of flexibility ultimately cost them in the playoffs and was a recurring problem. It is something the Orlando Magic already seem to be planning for as they develop.

What the postseason constantly challenges is a team’s ability to adapt and change to its presenting circumstances. It challenges a team to use the full breadth of its roster and abandon things that worked every day in the regular season but do not click in the postseason.

The Bucks are an elite team. Antetokounmpo’s presence assures that. They will be a tough out even on their worst days.

But they were also a rigid team. They had one way to play and one rotation to use. They use Brook Lopez in drop coverage to wall off the paint. They try to spread the floor and fire away from three, using Giannis Antetokounmpo as a magnet on drive to free up shooters or Khris Middleton in the mid-post to set up some variety.

Milwaukee played Milwaukee basketball. And once teams at the elite levels figured it out and slowed it down, what was the adjustment?

That never came for the Bucks even with their experiments to try to change. They fell back to one way of playing and could not mix it up.

These issues and those criticisms of Budenholzer existed well before this year. If not for Kevin Durant’s shot in Game 7 of their second-round series in 2021 being ruled a two by a big toe, the Brooklyn Nets would have eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks and Budenholzer might have been let go then.

They came to a head in this embarrassing loss against the 8th-seeded Miami Heat. And like with all things, a team sometimes outgrows its coach and needs a new voice to unlock their next steps. Perhaps the Bucks reached that point.

But the playoffs require flexibility. They require a team to be able to adjust and shift.

Looking around the league it is easy to see how teams abandon what worked for several months if teams find a weakness in it. Kevon Looney was critical to the Golden State Warriors’ series win over the Sacramento Kings, but he was a non-factor in the next series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

An illness likely led to his decrease in his minutes, but he could not handle the Lakers’ smaller lineups and his effectiveness greatly decreased.

The Lakers too made changes throughout that series, electing to go smaller so Anthony Davis could have freer reign over the paint defensively and so they could spread the floor and stretch the Warriors’ undersized defense thin.

Playoff series can be quirky. A best-of-seven series is supposed to eliminate some of that randomness.

But it also requires teams to treat each series as its own mini-season too. It deserves to be siloed — just look at how the narratives over Jayson Tatum changed from the series against the Philadelphia 76ers to the series against the Miami Heat in just one week.

And that was the problem with the Bucks in the end. They had one way to play.

A lot of elite teams use the regular season to experiment and prepare for playoff flexibility and changes. They test different defensive schemes and work on things they may need in the playoffs. Even if it does not work. The reps could help refine a defensive scheme or an offensive set they need during the playoffs.

The Bucks tried this some with their pick-and-roll coverages. But they always defaulted back to the drop scheme the Heat torched with their mid-range shooting and passing. And without Antetokounmpo at full speed for most of their series, they lost a lot of their offensive force to cover for these struggles.

This is one of the reasons why it is not always accurate to look at defensive statistics and rankings. Teams are tinkering and trying things out. And in the playoffs, you find out what really matters — just look at the Cleveland Cavaliers and their rebounding numbers from the playoffs and the regular season.

The Bucks never seemed to make this adjustment. And their lack of flexibility cracked them in the end.

It is also something the Orlando Magic are thinking about.

Coach Jamahl Mosley came to the team talking about empowering his players to make decisions and preaching a more aggressive defensive style.

The team’s offense has obviously not quite come together, but it has been characterized by positional versatility and by his trust to let players make reads rather than run strict sets all the time. His defense has not been an all-out blitz, but Mosley has deployed different defensive schemes — from drop coverages to blitzing screens to switching screens to token pressure to 2-3 zones.

Orlando is trying to build a style on both ends of the court that can be flexible and adapt.

Sure, some of it is the Magic are trying to figure out what they have in their team. They are trying to see what fits best. And every team will fall back to their pet plays, sets and defensive schemes.

But Orlando has thrown a lot against the wall. And the results, at least defensively, are interesting. The Magic finished sixth in the league in defensive rating after Dec. 7 at 113.0 points per 100 possessions.

Magic players have already said Mosley has interspersed playoff clips or talked about his playoff experience in their film sessions. He is very much getting his team ready for these moments. His eyes are on preparing them to win at every level.

And that starts also with his willingness to be flexible.

It is still unknown how Mosley will coach a playoff series. So maybe this flexibility and experimentation at this stage of the rebuild are just for that and not something that carries over to the chess match that is a playoff series.

Next. Playoff Lessons: Chicago Bulls' pursuit of the middle a dead end. dark

Even at the highest levels, it is clear no team can rely solely on its base sets. In a playoff series, flexibility is critical to suggest.