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Home cooking? Bucks can’t win Finals if their road woes continue

Down 0-2, Milwaukee needs to take care of business at home and then some

When asked after his team’s loss in Game 2 of the NBA Finals to the Phoenix Suns what effect returning home would have on the series, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, as he has said all postseason, emphasized how important it is for the team to take care of business whenever they play at Fiserv Forum.

“I think 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,” Antetokounmpo said after scoring 42 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in a 118-108 loss on Thursday.

“But, like, we know what the deal is, man. Like, we got to go back home and protect home.”

Those are the words of both a man frustrated that his team has found itself in an 0-2 hole for the second time in these playoffs (Antetokounmpo was seen on the sideline being uncharacteristically animated with his teammates during a break), and someone who is likely aware of how much better the Bucks have played at home compared with on the road during these playoffs.

During this postseason, the Bucks have a 7-1 record at home but just a 5-6 record on the road. And while many teams see a drop-off in production when not playing in their own arena, the Bucks have been hampered by poor play from practically every player not named Giannis Antetokounmpo, particularly his co-stars, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.

Throughout the regular season and postseason, the Bucks have been one of the best offensive and defensive teams in the league; as for the regular season, that domination has been on display since the 2018-19 season, which was coach Mike Budenholzer’s first year on the job and Antetokounmpo’s first of consecutive seasons winning the league’s MVP award.

But the Bucks’ domination on both ends of the court ebbs and flows depending on whether they’re playing in front of their home fans, particularly on the defensive end.

On the offensive side, Milwaukee sees a drop-off in offensive rating (112.5 at home vs. 109.9 away) and fast-break points (18.1 vs. 10.8) when playing on the road. Despite what appears to be a teamwide shooting slump when not at home, the Bucks’ effective field goal percentage (52.1% home vs. 52.3% road) and true shooting percentage (54.8% vs. 54.4%) are quite similar across the board, buoyed by the work in the paint by Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.

But it’s the defensive side that pulls a Jekyll and Hyde depending on where the game is being played. The Bucks’ defensive rating drops from a playoff-leading 99.2 at home to a not-as-good 112.0 (fifth) on the road. Opponents shoot considerably better when the Bucks come to visit, evidenced by Milwaukee allowing a playoff-best 48.2% effective field goal percentage at home compared with 54.4% on the road. Opponents have one of the worst 3-point rates in the league when playing at Fiserv Forum during these playoffs (31.2%), but suddenly become Stephen Curry when the Bucks come to them (37.9%). But most notably, Milwaukee is allowing 1½ times (6.9 vs. 10.4) as many fast-break points on the road than at home.

Which all makes sense. Teams that play both top-level offense and defense are normally successful in the playoffs (look at the last few NBA champions). But teams that struggle on both ends of the court, most importantly on defense, are usually average, hence the .455 winning percentage in road games this postseason.

And for the Bucks, the odds of success depend heavily on the play of their top three players. While Antetokounmpo has dealt with his normal free throw woes on the road (59% home vs. 52.2% road), he’s mostly been the same, if not a better, player while on the road, whether it be points per game (30.4 vs. 27.2) or field goal percentage (51.2% vs. 60.3%, though he averages seven less shot attempts per game on the road).

It’s Holiday and Middleton who are the true culprits. As evidenced by their combined 28 points on 32.4% shooting on Thursday – not to mention shooting a combined 40% in Game 1 – the pair have chosen exactly the wrong time to go cold. In normal stances, down 0-2 to a higher-seeded team when two of your best three players are struggling, the Bucks season would be on the line headed to Game 3 on Sunday in Milwaukee. But, as with most of the rest of the team, Holiday’s and Middleton’s issues seem to only arise when on the road.

Middleton, who has had four 30-point games this postseason (and multiple games near 30) and who was a few midrange jumpers away from joining the elusive 50-40-90 club, sees his shooting drop off a cliff while away. On the road, Middleton has a true shooting percentage of 50.3%, down from 60.3% at home.

And it’s not just shooting. Middleton has always been hampered by a slow-and-high dribble and off-target passing (particularly when trying to throw it into the paint for Lopez or Antetokounmpo). And that has become more of an issue in the playoffs. Middleton’s assist-to-turnover ratio drops from a middling 2.15 to 1.31 when the Bucks are away from home. (He committed five turnovers in Game 1 against Phoenix.)

“It’s going to be hard,” Middleton said of trying to avoid going down 0-3. “But that’s what it is at this point in the playoffs. Hopefully we can knock down a couple more shots, limit them to some of those 3-pointers and play a little bit faster or freer or whatever.”

Holiday, traded from New Orleans in November, was supposed to be the much-needed upgrade over former Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe. And through the regular season, Holiday was very much that. But through these playoffs, whether home or away, Holiday has somehow played worse than his heavily criticized predecessor. Through 19 playoff games in Milwaukee, Holiday has nearly matched Bledsoe in field goal percentage (41.1% vs. 41.1%), 3-point percentage (28.9% vs. 25.4%) and free throw percentage (67.3% vs. 73.2%), according to StatMuse.

But Holiday has played considerably worse when on the road. His true shooting percentage, already poor, drops from 52.7% at home as opposed to 44.9% on the road. Holiday is shooting 16.7% on 3s in this series and missed at least four layups in Game 2. When he’s fouled, his free throws are not gimmes.

“I think Jrue got some good looks,” Budenholzer said after Game 2. “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.”

If the Bucks are to even up this series after Game 4, and overcome an 0-2 deficit in the Finals, which only four other teams have been able to do, they’ll both have to play their normal best at home, but will have to change recent history when playing in Phoenix for possible Games 5 and 7. That means Antetokounmpo needs to make free throws no matter whether the crowd is chanting an imaginary shot clock. That means Middleton has to be efficient from the field no matter where the game is being held. Holiday needs to … not be Bledsoe.

But if their current trend of regressing on the road continues, this series may not end in a sweep, but it most definitely won’t end with the Bucks holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy at Phoenix Suns Arena.

“It’s always good to play at home in front of your fans. But trying not to think about that right now,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 2. “We have to keep getting better in order for us to put ourselves in a position to win this series.

“But we’re going to figure it out.”

Martenzie is a writer for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"