Here’s a pretty remarkable stat: the Bucks used 16 different lineups Saturday night, in their Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics; the five most used lineups of the bunch played about 35 minutes, and finished plus-11; the other 11 lineups played a total of just over 13 minutes, and were outscored by a whopping 27 points. For about 35 minutes of a 48 minute contest, the Bucks were solidly outplaying the Celtics; during the remaining sliver of time the Bucks got their dicks kicked all the way off, and the result was a dispiriting 16-point loss.
Milwaukee’s bench was breathtakingly incapable of playing anything like competitive basketball against Boston’s deep and relentless group. Joe Prunty starting rolling in substitutions just after the six minute mark of the first quarter, with the Bucks up 13-10 following a Thon Maker three-pointer. Over the next three minutes Prunty sent in Jabari Parker for Khris Middleton, Matthew Dellavedova for Eric Bledsoe, Tyler Zeller for Maker, and Tony Snell for Malcolm Brogdon. In a sign of things to come, the Celtics closed the quarter on a devastating 20-4 run.
To staunch the bleeding, Prunty reinserted Bledsoe and Middleton with about a minute left in the quarter, and left them out there to start the second quarter. Middleton played the entire second quarter; Bledsoe played nearly 10 minutes; Thon played 10 minutes; Brogdon played more than seven minutes. Not coincidentally, the Bucks managed to get things somewhat under control, outscored the Celtics in the frame, and had Boston’s lead down to a manageable eight points at halftime. Jaylen Brown suffered a hamstring injury late in the second quarter, a development that would eventually prevent Brown from returning at any point in the game. This game—hell, this series—was positioned for the Bucks to pull the upset.
To Prunty’s credit, he saw what happened in the first half and decided he had to make a change: he exiled Tyler Zeller and Tony Snell to the end of the bench and never used them again after they combined to go minus-24 in seven combined minutes in the first half. But the Bucks roster sucks very, very badly, and so Prunty’s pivot, in the second half, was to give minutes that might otherwise have gone to Tony Snell to friggin’ Shabazz Muhammad, who played all of 117 total minutes for the Bucks during the regular season. For whole stretches of the second half, while Boston was stretching its lead eventually beyond the horizon of what Milwaukee’s utterly punchless offense could realistically manage, Prunty was using lineups that featured all of Jabari Parker, Shabazz Muhammad, Matthew Dellavedova, and Jason Terry, which is not so different from throwing up your hands and forfeiting the game.
Watching it made me want to pull my own head off and throw it into the ocean, but with the benefit of a night’s sleep and a longer look at Milwaukee’s roster, I’m not sure what the hell Prunty was supposed to do. He played Giannis the entire second half; he played Khris Middleton, indisputably Milwaukee’s second-best player, all but two minutes of the second half. The Bucks have four guys who can realistically do any ball-handling and also even hope to guard opposing point guards—Bledsoe, Dellavedova, Brogdon, and [gulp] Terry—and Prunty tried them all, although in some awfully tortured combinations. When the Bucks lost John Henson to an ailing back, they were left with only Zeller, who is useless, to spell Maker. Jabari Parker can get hot and fill it up, but he is mostly an achingly bad defender and defensive rebounder. Snell has been a fine player for the Bucks, but he had a nightmarish series, producing 39.6 percent True Shooting in 19 minutes a game against Boston. Prunty needed some guys who could be part of lineups that could outscore the Celtics, and, man, he had no more than five, maybe six, on his entire roster.
This is not to absolve Prunty entirely of blame for what happened in Game 7. Someone will eventually need to explain to me why Jabari Parker played more than twice as many second-half minutes (16) as Thon Maker (7) when Thon finished the first half plus-10, and has had a good series, and more or less triggered a revolution in Milwaukee’s defensive strategy in the series. Someone will also have to explain why the Bucks started fighting through screens instead of switching in Game 7, when switching is what worked Thursday night, when the Bucks were holding the Celtics to 86 points in Game 6. But the fact remains, when Prunty reached into the cupboard for someone who could spell one of his main perimeter guys for just a few minutes, more often than not what he pulled out was a handful of shit, or a lit stick of dynamite.
This will not make Bucks fans feel any better today—in fact, it should probably make them feel worse, for how glaring the difference was—but the Celtics are an incredibly well-organized, well-constructed, and well-coached team. If nothing else, this was the very worst coaching matchup to support whatever interest Prunty might still have in coaching the Bucks next season: on one sideline you had a young, fresh-faced coach summoning his deep reserves to incredible heights despite terrible personnel losses; on the other sideline you had Prunty, the greyed, miscellaneous interim guy who couldn’t keep his shirt from catching on fire each time he even so much as glanced at his bench.
Think about everything the Celtics overcame in this series, the list of injured stars and rotation players that’s gotten so long I’m having a hard time keeping it straight. The loss of Jaylen Brown, who averaged 21 points through the first six games of this series and looks very much like a future All Star, was just another awfully timed blow to a team that was already starting Semi Ojeleye in a damn Game 7. And still they won! I want to give them all the credit. They deserve enormous credit! But it was hard to watch the second half of Game 7 and not feel outright disgust at how the Bucks seemed engineered and constructed and determined to lose an elimination game. The painful, embarrassing stink of it should probably cost Prunty a shot at keeping the job beyond this half-season stint, but, man, whoever saddled him with that mess deserves to have their ass kicked.