Speaking Too Soon: The 2021 Eastern Conference Finals

You ever read something and think “man, I need an editor?”

Because in my piece “The Terrible Coach Redemption Tour”, I asserted that Steve Nash was coaching in the conference finals.

This is what happens when you have a deadline, Game 7 of the conference semis are still to be played, and of course you’re going to be spending the next five days working a contract gig full-time that’s nowhere near your home studio.

The Milwaukee Bucks won Game 7 over the Brooklyn Nets. And of course I didn’t get time to write about it until Saturday. Gods help me.

So first, some housekeeping with regards to Monday’s article—instead of “a rookie”, namely Steve Nash, one of your four conference finals coaches is “a guy whose regular-season brilliance hasn’t translated to the playoffs”, which is Mike Budenholzer’s problem. He’s got two conference finals appearances—one in 2015 with a 60-win Atlanta Hawks team, the other in 2019 when the 60-win Bucks got there—and in both cases the team fell short, first at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers and then against the Toronto Raptors.

Last year, the Bucks lost in five games in the second round, and the think pieces began about whether Coach Bud could get Giannis Antetokounmpo over the hump for real.

Which all leads me into the ECF, where Milwaukee just utterly trashed Atlanta 125-91 on Friday night to even the series, and what it says about Budenholzer and his matchup with Nate McMillan in these conference finals.

Because this is basically tying together the principles of the last two articles run on this site—the coaching conversation on Monday and the talk about the Hawks living and dying by Trae Young last week.

Young had 48 points on 17-of-34 shooting in a game the Hawks won by three points in Game 1.

Young shot just 6-of-16 and, perhaps more importantly, got held to just 2-of-3 from the free throw line in Game 2, a game the Hawks lost in a 34-point blowout.

This is where coaching is going to come into play big-time in the next three to five games (depending, of course, on whether this series goes five, six, or seven games.)

Because a cynic could look at McMillan and say “big deal, the two coaches he beat to get to his first-ever conference finals as a coach are the only two coaches in the playoffs worse than he is.”

Nobody in NBA history has lost more elimination games as a coach than Doc Rivers, because the knock on Rivers is that he runs out the exact same strategy in Game 7 as in Game 1. When one coach makes adjustments—ANY adjustments—and the other coach cannot do this to save his life, it leads to…well, it leads to the entire track record Rivers has as a coach, where the only time he won the title was with such an overwhelming advantage in talent that even the worst coach could lead them to a championship.

Likewise, Tom Thibodeau, when he doesn’t have the 2011 version of Derrick Rose on his team, has consistently been outcoached in the playoffs when he’s even been good enough with the players he has to get to the playoffs, which hasn’t been a given.

McMillan, as much as I’ve spent five years of my writing life bagging on him as a terrible coach, is at least of the coaching talent level to get a team into the postseason on a consistent basis, and as a regular-season coach, he took a moribund Hawks season from Lloyd Pierce and turned Atlanta into one of the best teams in the league in the second half of the regular campaign.

Then he ran into two coaches worse than he is and arguably had a talent advantage in both cases.

McMillan’s redemption is going to hinge on whether he can, without that talent advantage and without a clear advantage in coaching ability, win a seven-game series to get to the Finals.

In Game 1, we saw Trae Young put the team on his back in ways that great players in the past have put weaker supporting casts on their back to beat a favored opponent—the 2001 Finals come to mind.

But then again, Philadelphia lost the 2001 Finals in five games as the Lakers asserted just how much better they were as a team. It wasn’t Phil Jackson outcoaching Larry Brown; it was just an all-time great team beating a merely very good one.

Mike Budenholzer needs to prove, for the sake of his coaching legacy, that he can coach a team with one of if not the best player in the league on the roster to a championship. Giannis Antetokounmpo is in Year 8 of his career, and much like Michael Jordan got his first title in his seventh season and LeBron James got his ring in his ninth, Giannis needs to go out and start securing his own legacy if he’s to be talked about as an all-time great.

For that matter, while the second round was still going on and Milwaukee was in the process of trailing the Nets in that series, I asked if we were seeing the ceiling that the Bucks’ roster decisions had put on the team. Would the team be championship-caliber or were they going to decline into salary cap hell as Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday soaked up max-contract money without giving max-contract performance?

This is what’s at stake in the ECF. This is a coach, a superstar, and a roster trying to silence doubters. And it’s a young and up-and-coming superstar on the other side whose coach has a chance to get not just a monkey but an 800-pound gorilla off his back.

The series moves to Atlanta for Game 3, and anything can happen.