All season long, the spectre of yesteryear’s humiliating playoff exit hung heavy over the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum. For all their pre-playoff success in the past two years, the regular season just didn’t matter as much this time around, and the Miami Heat are the reason why.
Milwaukee Bucks vs Miami Heat playoffs series preview
Who could forget the Miami Heat’s stout defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo on one end, and their barrage of three-pointers on the other? In just five games of revelatory play on both ends, the Miami Heat went from a perennial and fairly nondescript sixth seed to a bona fide finals contender. As they say, the rest was history; they would go on to steal just one game from the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. But never again was the team from South Beach to be slept on by basketball purists.
Until they fell off. Though not much has changed on paper, the matchup may no longer be in their favor this year. The circumstances are not what they were a year ago: one team is coming into the matchup humbled with everything to prove, while the other is looking like a shell of its former self—with its promise and potential from a year ago still possibly dormant.
Here’s a deep dive into what to expect in the Bucks and Heat’s first-round matchup.
Bucks vs Heat: Fast stats
On paper alone, the Bucks look like they’re the team to beat, as they were last year. History tells us it isn’t that simple in a matchup like these, with two teams that look built to stop the other. Here’s a look at what the numbers say.
For the season, the Bucks are:
- 1st in the league in points per game (120.1 points)
- 2nd in Rebounds (48.1)
- 3rd in field goal percentage (48.7 percent)
- 4th in net rating (+5.8)
- 5th in offensive rating (117.2 points per 100 possessions)
- 8th in Steals (8.1)
- 10th in defensive rating (114.4 points allowed per 100)
Here’s a look at the Heat’s numbers:
- 5th in opponent points per game (108.0)
- 7th in defensive rating (111.2)
- 9th in assists per game (26.3)
- 9th in steals per game (7.9)
- 16th in net rating (0.0)
- 17th in offensive rating (111.2)
Not the same teams
It seems as though the Bucks have had their sights set on the playoffs since the beginning, and for good reason. This iteration of the team from Wisconsin might be the best they’ve looked so far in the Antetokounmpo era. With the acquisition of a third star in Jrue Holiday, the Bucks have been rearing to prove themselves as title contenders.
Holiday’s impact on the floor cannot be overstated, especially when you consider how Eric Bledsoe’s limitations have held back the Bucks in the past two years. Whenever the ball was in Antetokounmpo’s hands, the famed Giannis Wall went up. Jrue affords the Bucks a secondary playmaker and shot-creator to take the lead ball-handler load off Giannis and gives the Bucks offense that much more dynamism and spacing.
The Bucks are also ready to trot out a lineup with Giannis at the center position, thanks to the switchability that P.J. Tucker provides at power forward. As it currently stands, they’ve experimented with zone and switching defenses this season and look much more adaptable when the patented Budenholzer drop coverage fails to yield stops.
Miami has evolved too, albeit to a lesser degree and varying results. They’ve since flipped Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk for Trevor Ariza and Nemanja Bjelica in moves that made them older and less athletic in exchange for relatively better spacing and defensive versatility. Though they’re still a formidable opponent matchup-wise, evidence of their ability to go far in these playoffs remains scant after an up and down regular season.
Pace may make all the difference between these two teams. The Bucks rely on the fastbreak for much of their scoring opportunities as evidenced by their blistering 102.2 possessions per 48 minutes, while the Heat are much more collected with a 29th-ranked 96.6 pace. If the Heat control the pace and force the Bucks to play their game, which is precisely what happened last year, that may very well turn the tide.
Antetokounmpo is likely not scoring much with the scheme Miami is going to throw at him, so bench production is another factor to watch. Milwaukee already has steady production off the bench from Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis, who will have to make their shots this year where Pat Connaughton and Marvin Williams could not. Whether the Heat will be able to answer with Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala could also make all the difference down the stretch.
Defense will win the battle for Miami. It’s been their calling card all season long, and the stats prove it. Their defense rotates on a string with long, athletic defenders wreaking havoc for offenses trying to score. Their uncanny ability to seamlessly transition between switching, man, and zone defense, sometimes within the same possession, gets opposing teams out of rhythm all game long.
Miami should also be concerned with its shooting. Five players shot the three-ball on more than 40% when the two met last year. This season, only Duncan Robinson is entering the playoffs with a shooting clip of that calibre. The Bucks should be concerned, too, being that Antetokounmpo’s impact relies largely on the shooters around him. Only Kyle Korver and Brook Lopez shot above 39% in their playoff exit: things will have to be different if they want to move past the first round.
Talent still matters
Though the Bucks have the best player in the series in Antetokounmpo, Butler is not far behind and will have to carry the biggest load. Where Giannis has shown marked dips in his production in the playoffs, Butler has shown he has always had another gear despite relatively sluggish regular seasons.
Giannis looks much more comfortable than ever scoring in the mid-range and in the post this season. His decision-making also looks much more polished, and he knows when and how to pass out of double teams to open shooters, six of whom are shooting over 39 percent for the season. With the Heat defense inevitably focused on him, the Greek Freak should be careful not to force any shots the way he did a year ago.
Brook Lopez will also have to step up as a scorer. The Heat caught the Bucks last year in the middle of a shooting slump by the 7-foot big man, and the Bucks’ five-out scheme fell apart without consistent floor-spacing on his part. This isn’t the case anymore; Milwaukee’s four-out-one-in offense doesn’t rely as much on the center’s three-point shooting, which he’s hitting on 33.8 efficiency this season. Keeping Adebayo’s hands full will do wonders for the Greek Freak, who shouldn’t have much trouble with Trevor Ariza or Precious Achiuwa.
Will Heat have the scoring to match?
Couple Holiday’s presence with that of an aging Trevor Ariza expected to replace a stronger wing defender like Jae Crowder, and the robust Giannis Wall may not be as fearsome this postseason. This is a bigger deal than it seems: though Crowder is no star, he held Antetokounmpo to 9-of-22 (40.9 field goal percentage) in their playoff series last year as his primary defender.
For the Miami Heat, scoring consistency is going to be one thing to look out for. Both Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro have cooled down this season after red-hot playoff campaigns where their production was instrumental in lifting the Heat past Milwaukee. Herro in particular has not been the same player all season long, and if there was ever a time to break out of his slump, it’s now.
Bam Adebayo has also come into his own as a scorer and is automatic from mid-range at this point. More than being the Heat’s primary Giannis stopper, Adebayo will have to be aggressive in looking for his shots this time around in the event that Herro fails to flip the switch as a scorer.
It all comes down to coaching
In vastly different ways, Mike Budenholzer and Erik Spoelstra both prove just how significant a factor coaching is on playoff basketball. If you have one as stubborn as the former, you may just find yourself utterly exposed when adjustments are made.
Budenholzer seemed to take note of this as shown by his experiments with the Bucks earlier on in the season. Gone are the days of forced Giannis drives and five-out sets. His emphasis on planting Antetokounmpo in the dunker area has unlocked the Bucks offense, which looks scarier than ever.
For all the improvements the Bucks organization has made in the past year, NBA fans should know better than to bet against Erik Spoelstra in the playoffs. Despite the seemingly downward trajectory of the season, Spo has proven that coaching alone can bring a team far. It was also during the playoffs when the Miami Heat turned it on with its balanced brand of team basketball.
With an adaptable tactician like Spoelstra at the helm, anything is possible even in the absence of star power. Bud has clearly made his adjustments this year. Will he have another ace up his sleeve when Spoelstra inevitably strikes back?
The painful memories were ubiquitous for the Bucks faithful this year, as they enveloped practically every aspect of Milwaukee’s season. The Bucks will be hungry and looking to exact revenge after last year’s exit, and the Miami Heat are out to prove they aren’t a has-been after making it all the way to the NBA Finals. This one’s going to be fun.