Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer is very particular about the way he does things.
He doesn’t watch as much film as you might expect – that’s his assistants’ job – in favor of focusing on his own players and what they need to do. Practices are structured such that no time or effort is wasted. He has an offensive and defensive scheme in place, which while simple and accommodating, form the Bucks’ solid foundation. Regardless of what other teams do, the Bucks are going to be who they are and do what they do.
Budenholzer’s approach also extends to his rotation. Before games, he and his assistants decide on 10 players who are going to get regular minutes that night and lay out when the subs will generally come. It’s an efficient system in which everyone knows their role and can mentally prepare for what to expect.
However, over the past week in particular, Budenholzer has demonstrated he’s willing to be flexible.
Snow forced the cancellation of practice on Wednesday. In both games this week, wins over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday and Charlotte Hornets on Friday, Budenholzer stretched his rotation to 11 players in an attempt find a spark. Against the Hornets, he had the Bucks take on a switch-heavy defensive scheme that helped that rally for a 108-99 victory at Fiserv Forum.
“There’s lots of different things that can trigger it,” Budenholzer said of rotational changes. “I do think as a staff we like to kind of have a plan going into a game, but as a staff hopefully we have a sense or have some trust in our gut, trust in our feel – it could be a lot of gut, a lot of feel – or it could be certain things that are happening in game.
“It’s nice to have depth, to keep people involved, to keep them playing, to keep them growing. There’s just so many different things that go into those decisions.”
On Monday, Thon Maker got a four-minute turn in the rotation during the third quarter instead of Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks had bounced back from a ragged second quarter and Budenholzer wanted to try to keep that momentum going. Maker served his purpose, helping the Bucks increase their lead by a point before checking out.
Pat Connaughton didn’t expect to get his chance on Friday. He had sat six of the previous nine games, mostly seeing the court when the result had all but been decided. But with Milwaukee down double digits late in the third quarter, Budenholzer knew he needed to break script.
“It’s, again, just mostly gut,” Budenholzer said. “We were, I think a little bit in mud. Just seeing if we could find a spark. … Just gut feel. Just throw him out there, try and mix it up, throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.”
Connaughton stuck, playing 12 minutes straight to help the Bucks climb out of that hole to a comfortable victory. He didn’t score, but he hustled and scrambled on defense, poking balls away, contesting shots and grabbing a couple rebounds.
“It’s just about being ready,” Connaughton said when asked about coming in cold. “I don’t think it’s that hard. For a professional athlete, that’s our job to be ready whenever coach needs us. … When coach calls your name, be ready to go in and have that same impact. Be ready to go in and be aggressive, be energetic, and do the things you do to help the team win.”
While bringing Connaughton in and shifting to a switching defense were representative of Budenholzer being flexible and using an unusual lineup of Connaughton along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, it was also wasn’t totally new.
Those five players have only shared the court together in four games this season. In two of them, they didn’t log as much as a single minute before someone subbed out. The other before Friday was Milwaukee’s 110-107 loss in Charlotte on Nov. 26.
In that game, they also played about nine minutes together while doing lots of switching. A stretch together in the third quarter didn’t go so well, with the Bucks’ deficit going from 19 points to 23 points. But in the fourth quarter, they used a 3 1/2-minute stretch to halve the margin from 14 points to seven, which set the stage for a close finish.
In 18 total minutes this season, all against the Hornets, that five-man lineup owns a 116.2 offensive rating and 65.7 defensive rating, meaning Milwaukee has outscored Charlotte by 50.5 points per 100 possessions with Connaughton joining the starters in lieu of Brook Lopez.
Connaughton’s on-off court numbers haven’t been quite so extreme this season, with the Bucks being slightly negative – but still very good overall – with him on the floor.
There’s no telling who, if anyone, will draw Budenholzer away from his routines when the Bucks face the Oklahoma City Thunder at 5 p.m. Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but Budenholzer was certainly encouraged by the way everyone has responded to his recent curveballs, particularly that closing lineup on Friday.
“I think we’ve talked about the depth of our roster, the versatility of our roster,” Budenholzer said. “I think when you win a game like this (Friday) … for what we do and how we play normally, a little unorthodox, I think it just gives us more options, more ways to win games.”