Last shots: Celtics 112, Bucks 96

Twenty-three last shots for the 23 points scored by guard Eric Bledsoe in Milwaukee’s 112-96 loss in Game 7 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs to the Boston Celtics.

1. This was a disappointing end to a disappointing season for the Milwaukee Bucks. There’s no other way to put it.

2. The Bucks had aspirations of battling for homecourt advantage in the first round and making a run as deep as the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, their season ends with a Game 7 loss in the first round to the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics.

3. Make no mistake, the Celtics aren’t one of the typical powerhouse No. 2 seed. Sure, they won 55 games this year, but once the playoffs rolled around Boston was without several key players. Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis both missed the entire series, Marcus Smart missed the first four games, Jaylen Brown missed the second half of Game 7, and Gordon Heyward missed the entire season.

4. The Celtics still found a way to beat the Bucks four times despite Milwaukee being the team at full-strength.

5. No. 7 seeds aren’t typically expected to advance in the NBA Playoffs. This one was.

6. In a game that could have been an early career-defining moment for all-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, it wasn’t. He wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t the performance needed from a player knocking on the door of the NBA’s elite.

7. Antetokounmpo finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and four turnovers. He was far from spectacular. Antetokounmpo wasn’t the best player on the floor, and the Bucks cannot win when that’s the case. Khris Middleton, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, and arguably Eric Bledsoe were better than him.

8. Middleton continued his strong play, finishing with a game-high 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting. He had an incredible series and was certainly Milwaukee’s most consistent player. Bledsoe also saved his best game of the series – by far – for Game 7. He had 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting in the loss.

9. Even with Bledsoe playing well, he was still outplayed by Rozier, who finished with a playoff-career-high 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting and nine assists. Horford also had 26 points for Boston on 13-of-17 shooting.

10. The Bucks needed an effort from Antetokounmpo similar to the one they received in Game 6. On that night Antetokounmpo was undoubtedly the best player on the floor. He was the reason that the Bucks were able to force a Game 7, he was also part of the reason that Milwaukee’s season is now over.

11. Milwaukee now enters an offseason filled with uncertainty. The Bucks do not have a head coach, as it’s extremely unlikely that interim coach Joe Prunty will be retained to lead the team, and they’ll have to make a decision on Jabari Parker’s future.

12. Prunty will likely be given an opportunity to interview for the job opening, but the Bucks would be foolish to retain him moving forward. This job, due to the opportunity to coach Antetokounmpo, will be one of the more sought-after positions in the NBA for this coaching cycle.

13. That’s not to say Milwaukee will be able to pick any coach out there. With the Bucks lasting two weeks into the playoffs, every other team with a coaching vacancy has a head start on the search. For instance, the New York Knicks have reportedly interviewed 10 candidates already. Hiring the right coach will certainly help the Bucks move closer to owning the future that has been talked about so often. But that alone will not do it. There have been poor personnel decisions that have factored into the Bucks struggling, not just the coaching of Prunty and Jason Kidd before him.

14. Milwaukee has nearly $50 million tied up next season between Eric Bledsoe, John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, and Mirza Teletovic. Add in the dead money the team has from the Larry Sanders and Spencer Hawes situations and that number is over $50 million.

15. This is all before factoring in the Parker situation. He now enters restricted free agency after turning down Milwaukee’s contract extension offer prior to the season.

16. At times, Parker has been a very productive player for Milwaukee. Those times haven’t been frequent enough, and frankly, there are too many deficiencies in his game for him to be a max-level player. Add in his injured plagued history and he’s not a player that can be counted on with that type of financial commitment.

17. The likely scenario is that Parker will be given an offer sheet by another team and the Bucks will have an opportunity to match it. Matching it may push the Bucks further into financial distress as they wait for the contracts handed out to Henson, Dellavedova, and Snell to run out.

18. Not matching it would mean letting a talented player walk out the door with no compensation while the team is attempting to enter a window of contention.

19. The other question the Bucks need to ask this offseason is how serious the future is they’re trying to own. Yes, Antetokounmpo’s future is bright, and yes, Middleton is a very underrated player alongside him.

20. With that being said, where do the Bucks sit in the pecking order of the Eastern Conference? There’s uncertainty surrounding Cleveland with the future of LeBron James, yes. But the Celtics just knocked the Bucks off without their two best players, the Philadelphia 76ers are currently better than the Bucks — despite being younger – and are only going to be getting better while maintaining financial flexibility, and the Toronto Raptors do not look like they’re going anywhere soon, either.

21. And that’s only the Eastern Conference.

22. It’s hard to call this season anything but a failure for Milwaukee. And no matter what Antetokounmpo says about his future in Milwaukee, the clock is ticking for the Bucks.

23. Right now, it’s certainly difficult to see the Bucks owning the future.

Stretch after All-Star break will be telling for Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks were in an odd place in January. They were dwelling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, nowhere near the place the team expected to be.

On January 22, the team removed coach Jason Kidd from the job while they were 23-22, and had lost four of their last five games. The Bucks were underachieving, no doubt about it. The team’s record was better than it could have been, considering the net rating of the team was negative. They were allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions while scoring 107.1.

All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was away from action for eight days while resting his sore right knee. The time was right for a change at the top and bringing in Joe Prunty as the interim coach was the right move.

Since Prunty took command, the Bucks have gone 9-3 and played the second-best defense in the league, sporting a 100.4 defensive rating. That stretch has moved them up from 25th in the league in defensive rating to a tie for 15th for the entire season. It’s been impressive to watch for Milwaukee, but the question looms about whether or not the Bucks have been that good, or if they’ve benefitted from the softest part of their schedule.

Of Milwaukee’s nine wins since Prunty took over, eight of them have come against teams that currently have records below .500. The lone win against a winning team came by knocking off Philadelphia with All-Star center Joel Embiid sitting out the second night of a back-to-back.

It’s surely a comforting thing for fans to see the team defeat the opponents it should, especially the way they’ve won. Doing it with defense is a great recipe in the NBA, and with that unit led by a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Antetokounmpo, the Bucks should be much closer to the top of the league than they were.

With that being said, has their defense improved because of Prunty or because of the teams they’ve played? They certainly have done some things differently on that end of the floor, specifically their pick-and-roll defense. With that being said, it’s an incredibly challenging thing to overhaul an entire defensive system on the fly, thus little tweaks will have to suffice. The Bucks were among the league leaders in trapping on the pick-and-roll and have since changed.

They’ve done that against some really poor offensive teams, however. Of their eight wins, the best offensive team they’ve beaten was Philadelphia, who comes in at 14th in offensive rating for the season, and that victory came without Embiid on the floor, as mentioned.

The remaining eight wins have come against Orlando (18th), New York twice (23rd), Brooklyn twice (24th), Chicago (28th), Phoenix (29th), and Atlanta (22nd)

The defense has been good in those games, however in the two instances in which Milwaukee has faced top 10 offenses, they’ve not performed nearly as well and lost. In the loss to Minnesota (third rated offense), Milwaukee allowed 108 points while finishing the game with a defensive rating of 111.6. When the Bucks hosted the Denver Nuggets (seventh), they allowed a season-high 134 points while their defensive rating was 129.1. That was mostly due to the Nuggets nearly setting an NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a game with 24.

After the All-Star break things won’t be getting easier for Milwaukee, either. The Bucks face teams with winning records in seven of their first eight games after the break. The lone team with a losing record, the Detroit Pistons, could potentially have a winning record at the time of the matchup as they have three games prior to taking on the Bucks and are currently 28-29.

The Bucks improving after firing Kidd was something that should have happened. They were underachieving and had the benefit of the softest three weeks of the year approaching. The real test for Milwaukee will be the post break stretch.

After winning 9-of-12 since Prunty took over, this becomes the most important stretch of the season for the Bucks. Showing that they can compete with some of the top teams in the league like Toronto and Houston could keep them in the race to hold home court in the first round. A disastrous stretch could place Milwaukee back fighting for the playoffs, exactly where they were when Kidd was fired.