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Bucks fail to adjust in Game 2, putting Mike Budenholzer's job in jeopardy

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PHOENIX — There were some adjustments made by coach Mike Budenholzer and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday.

Jrue Holiday routinely picked up Chris Paul full court. P.J. Tucker was reassigned to shadow Devin Booker. Bobby Portis was relegated to only five minutes after being singled out and torched defensively in Game 1.

Those were all planned rational schemes to implement, being how Paul and Booker had their way picking them apart on pick-switching the game prior. Adjustments were made. But the one knock Budenholzer hasn’t been able to sidestep throughout his three-year tenure with the Bucks is his lack of in-game adjustments, most importantly in the postseason.

The Phoenix Suns absorbed an aggressive first-quarter blitz before taking control and going up 2-0 after a 118-108 victory.

Booker scored a team-high 31 points and splashed in a game-high seven triples in 44 minutes. Paul provided 23 points and eight assists, while an attacking Mikal Bridges recorded a postseason career-high of 27 points and pulled down seven rebounds.

Mikal Bridges shoots over Pat Connaughton
Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges shoots over Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton during Game 2 of the NBA Finals on July 8, 2021. Bridges scored a playoff career-high 27 points, while the Suns routinely got the matchup they wanted against Connaughton. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Suns were a dynamic 20-of-40 from 3-point range to the Bucks’ 9-of-31 outing. It was the difference.

“I think defensively, I think there's some progress and improvement,” Budenholzer said. “We've just got to keep working that end, and same thing offensively. We've just got to get better, and we've got to go home and play good basketball.”

Despite Holiday and Tucker having different defensive assignments, the Suns remained one pick away from getting the matchup they wanted.

In Game 1, Portis was the target. In Game 2, it was Pat Connaughton. Milwaukee is going small in large chunks of the game and down the stretch by inserting Connaughton and sliding Giannis Antetokounmpo to the center spot.

Paul and Booker habitually requested a screen from the teammate Connaughton was guarding. There were no ball traps, nor were there doubles to force the ball out of the hands of the Suns’ lethal backcourt.

Antetokounmpo did all he could do on both ends to attempt at forcing a split, going for game-highs of 42 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in 40 minutes.

On most nights, that type of performance by the two-time MVP would equate to a win. Jae Crowder, who finished with a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds while connecting on three shots from beyond the arc, was asked about how the Bucks came up short despite Antetokounmpo’s huge game.

“I'm not really into coaching those guys,” Crowder responded. “I'm trying to beat them.”

Holiday continued his struggles, shooting 7-of-21 for 17 points. He’s 11-of-35 in his last two games.

“I think Jrue got some good looks,” Budenholzer said. “I actually think there's some opportunities where he can be even more aggressive. He's got to be aggressive from the 3-point [line]. He's got to be aggressive getting to the paint, and he was. ... Jrue's got to play his game. He knows how to play. He and I will talk, but it will be more just keep being aggressive.”

Khris Middleton joined Holiday in shooting inefficiently with a 5-of-16 night for 11 points.

Shooting comes and goes. The Bucks are expected to figure it out on the offensive end with the series shifting to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Wednesday. But defensively, that’s going to take some alterations in the midst of the game by Budenholzer.

With what the Bucks have at stake and considering all that was done to shape this roster to compete for a title, job security isn’t certain with merely a Finals appearance. Game 3 will be one of the most important games of Budenholzer’s career and his decision-making throughout will be dissected thoroughly.

But for what it’s worth, the franchise player still believes.

“We can play better. We definitely can play better,” Antetokounmpo said. “We can make more shots. Getting good looks. We're going towards the right direction. Now, I don't know if we're going to win the next game or the game after that. But I know that we're going to compete and we're going to watch what we did good on tape and hopefully we can carry it over to Game 3 and do it even better and do it with more energy and more physicality and make it tougher for them. And I've said this and I'm going to keep saying over and over again, not just for the media but for myself to hear it. Also, hopefully when we do those things, hopefully we can put ourselves in position to win the game.”

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