PHOENIX — On the edge of the Petrified National Forest surrounded by the stark landscape of the Painted Desert is a town called Holbrook, Arizona, once a wild west locale with gunfights, robberies and cattle rustling.
Inside the gymnasium at Holbrook High School — 185 miles northeast of the Phoenix Suns’ Talking Stick Resort Arena — is Mike Budenholzer Court named after the Milwaukee Bucks coach who played basketball there for his dad, Vince, a legendary Arizona high school hoops coach.
“To be from a small town in northern Arizona, and to have that support and to feel how supported and proud everybody is and to be in our home state, it’s special,” Budenholzer said. “I would be lying or living in a cave if I didn’t feel it and see it. Very appreciative of that love and support.”
For a brief moment, Budenholzer, 51, was emotional considering the magnitude of coaching in the NBA Finals in his home state with his children, wife, parents and siblings in attendance.
He grew up a Suns fans.
“Is this the Al McCoy room?” Budenholzer said before Game 1 of the NBA Finals referencing the longtime play-by-play voice of the Suns. “If it’s not, I want to spend some time there. I listened to him on the TV and radio — great, fond memories of watching the Suns and Walter Davis and Paul Westphal, and you can go on and on.”
The son of a coach, Budenholzer played basketball at Pomona College, the same school where San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich coached. After a year playing and coaching in Denmark, the Spurs hired Budenholzer as a video coordinator and he worked his way up to a valued Spurs assistant on four championship teams.
The Bucks hired Budenholzer in 2018 as Jason Kidd’s replacement. Budenholzer had just spent five seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, reaching the conference finals in 2016. The Hawks were swept by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and 2017, and when the Hawks were headed in another direction after the era with Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap ended, Budenholzer was dismissed.
The Bucks quickly hired him, hoping he could unlock Giannis Antetokounmpo’s skillset alongside Khris Middleton and the rest of the roster.
Antetokounmpo won the first of his two MVP awards in 2018-19, the same season the Bucks finished with the best record in the league at 60-22. Budenholzer was named coach of the year for the second time. But the Bucks lost to the Toronto Raptors 4-2 in the conference finals after taking a 2-0 series lead.
Last season in the bubble, the Miami Heat defeated the Bucks in five games in the conference semifinals.
Pressure began mounting, and The Athletic reported in early May just before the playoffs began that Budenholzer is “likely gone unless there’s a deep playoff run.”
Getting to the Finals constitutes a deep playoff run.
“Every team has a different journey and every team has to go through different things,” Budenholzer said. “Certainly any time you lose you have to be honest with yourself and you have to look and you have to reflect and try and get better — just like every team in the league. When this group hasn’t been able to advance, hasn’t been able to continue, it’s hurt. It’s been hard. The offseason, the players have put the work in. And I’m impressed with what they have done, really every year, but coming into this year.”
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The chief criticisms directed at Budenholzer are that he is too rigid when it comes to changes and distribution of minutes. This season, he adapted, switching on defense to become more versatile, and playing key guys more minutes, including 50 minutes for Antetokounmpo in an overtime game against Brooklyn in the second round.
“There’s been conscientious effort to develop more variety, more diversity both defensively and offensively that you need in the playoffs, and so I think there’s a confidence in reps and building habits, doing different things during the course of the regular season,” Budenholzer said.
Bucks forward P.J. Tucker joined the Bucks at the March trade deadline, but he was aware of Budenholzer’s reputation.
“He’s done more adjusting this year than he’s ever done before (with) schemes and some of the things that we’re doing,” Tucker said. “He’s getting a little more adventurous and I think the personnel, that gives him a freedom to do that a lot more and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful. It’s been good.”
Budenholzer deflects credit, too, preferring it goes to the players.
“It’s usually the players who are the most important thing,” he said.
And he listens, which is important to players like Middleton.
“His honesty, for one,” Middleton said. “A guy that is going to tell you what he sees, and another thing is it’s just the trust. We see things sometimes differently on the court, bring it to him, ask if we could do it or suggest that we do it and he trusts us to go out there and execute that.”
Budenholzer understands the importance of hearing what players say and giving them ownership with their input.
“There’s film and there’s the pause and rewind, and you can do all that stuff,” he said. “At the end of the day, the players are the ones that feel it. They do it in real time. They understand the nuances of it.
“So to engage and have those conversations. It’s really one of the great things about this job, to work with and talk with people that are really smart and really understand basketball, and it’s the players. I’ve said it from when I was a young coach. But I just am constantly learning from the players. They’re really the key to it all.”
Budenholzer learned his passion for basketball from his dad. But he doesn’t always listen to his dad who still offers suggestions.
“He wants to us press every minute of every game,” Budenholzer said. “He doesn’t understand why we don’t press more. And one of his favorite lines to me was, you should press as soon as they get off the bus.
“But if you take that notion, that idea of full-court pressure, there’s an idea of playing hard and competing and being aggressive. Conversely, he talked about playing fast and shooting. I don’t think the 3-point line was in, to be honest with you, but he wanted to press and run, press and run. We don’t press, but we try to guard and then run.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Budenholzer makes adjustments to get Bucks to NBA Finals vs. Suns