Bucks need more from stars, coach to defy NBA Finals history

If the Bucks are going to make yet another playoff comeback in these NBA Finals, they’re going to have to beat not just the Suns, but also history to do it.

Milwaukee, which trails Phoenix 0-2 going into Sunday’s Game 3 at Fiserv Forum, may also need more from struggling stars Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo and from beleaguered coach Mike Budenholzer.

The Bucks are getting outplayed, Budenholzer is getting outmaneuvered and if they don’t find answers quickly, they’ll all be ousted.

In NBA history, only four teams have ever managed to overturn an 0-2 deficit to claim the title: The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, 2006 Miami Heat, 1977 Portland Trail Blazers and 1969 Boston Celtics.

Only 30 teams in history have overturned that kind of playoff hole, and only one has done it twice in a single postseason: This year’s Clippers. But that’s also the task at hand for Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) passes the ball to Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) during the second half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Bucks 118-105. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
To make a comeback, the Bucks will need increased production by Khris Middleton and for Giannis Antetokounmpo to maintain his high-quality play.

“We have to stay aggressive going back to Milwaukee,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve been here before. We know what the deal is. Just got to be aggressive, keep enjoying playing together, keep enjoying playing basketball. And hopefully our good habits from throughout the year can take over and we can put ourselves in a position to win the game.

“No matter what we say, we know what the deal is. It’s as simple as that. We’ve got to go back home and do our job. They did their job. We’ve got to do our job. We’ve been here before and we were able to get the job done.”

They got the job done by rallying against a decimated Nets team, which lost Kyrie Irving to a sprained ankle and essentially didn’t have James Harden for the first four games before he returned severely impaired for the last three. The Bucks then lost the Eastern Conference Finals opener before storming back to beat the Hawks.

“They took care of their home court. We have to find a way to do the same,” Middleton said. “It starts with the first one at them, though. We’ve got to come out, be prepared and be ready for a dogfight. We have been in this hole before. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve got to find a way to do it.”

The way is by Middleton giving them more production.

Antetokounmpo poured in 42 points in Thursday’s Game 2, but got little help from Holiday and Middleton. The Bucks are a plus-4 in the 75:28 he has played, but are a staggering minus-27 in the 20:32 he has sat.

Middleton is shooting just 40.5 percent overall and 6-for-18 from 3-point range. Despite Holiday’s always-stout defense, he’s hitting just 31.4 percent and 1-for-7 from deep.

Mike Budenholzer, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has struggled with in-game adjustments during the playoffs.

“Just keep talking to him, keep telling him to be aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said of Holiday. “No matter what’s going on, you’ve got to stay aggressive and you cannot get in your feelings. It’s hard not to: NBA Finals, 20,000 people booing you and all that, it’s kind of hard. But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s not about him. It’s not about Khris. It’s not about Coach. It’s about all of us.”

The Suns have held Holiday to just 27 points total — the same amount he scored in the Bucks’ Game 6 closeout of Atlanta. He and Middleton are going to have to give the Greek Freak support.

“Just try to find that balance,” Middleton said. “At the same time, try to play through him when he has it rolling like that. When he sees a crowd, we have to be able to help him out.”

Budenholzer is a former NBA Coach of the Year, but the consistent knock on him has been his lack of in-game adjustments, especially during the playoffs. That knock has gotten louder this postseason.

The Nets’ Steve Nash held his own against Budenholzer despite being a rookie, and the Suns’ Monty Williams has thoroughly outcoached him so far.

“We talked about it being a 0-0 series. That’s our mentality,” Williams said. “We have to approach every game with a level of desperation and we can’t look at the series numbers. Human nature forces you to do that, but our mentality is to play every game as if we’re coming off of a loss. That’s served us well.”

An MRI exam on Suns forward Torrey Craig’s right knee showed no structural damage, according to ESPN. He’s day-to-day.

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