7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -5.5, Over/Under: 226
A rematch of last year’s shocking upset in the Eastern Conference Semifinals is on tap tonight from South Beach, as the Miami Heat play host to the Milwaukee Bucks from AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida. Despite finishing with the best record in the National Basketball Association in each of the past two seasons, the Bucks (1-2, 8th in East) have failed to parlay their Regular Season mastery into prolonged success in the Playoffs, knocked out of the Postseason twice as the No. One Seed in the East. Granted, each elimination came at the hands of the eventual Eastern Conference Champion, with last year’s 4-1 loss to the Heat coming under the unique circumstances of the Bubble in Central Florida, but the prevailing theory nonetheless stands that Milwaukee is a Regular Season Team, and will continue to be until proven otherwise. While that statement may come across as overly harsh, it has also fit this group to a tee thus far; since arriving in 2018, Mike Budenholzer has guided his charges to a remarkable 116-39 (.748) record, in which the 51-year old took home his second career Coach of the Year award (2018-19), while (Forward) Giannis Antetokounmpo (25.7 PTS, 47.3% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 13.0 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 23.6 PER) has rocketed to superstardom, earning MVP honors in each of the past two years along with Defensive Player of the Year in 2019-20, becoming just the fifth player in NBA history to be named to both distinctions in the same season. Needless to say, more is expected from this team, MUCH more. As such, Budenholzer and (General Manager) Jon Horst went to work in the Offseason on bolstering their ranks, beginning with Antetokounmpo’s lucrative supermax extension ($228.6 million), the most expensive contract in NBA history, which will keep the Greek international in Milwaukee for the next five years. They also managed to flip Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and a surplus of Draft Picks in a mammoth four-team trade, acquiring veteran Point Guard, Jrue Holiday (15.0 PTS, 58.8% FG, 11.1% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 4.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 19.4 PER) in the process. The feeling is that the 30-year old will be a better fit in Budenholzer’s system, which emphasizes spacing and shooting, and less likely to disappear in the Playoffs as his predecessor did; Bledsoe averaged 11.7 points on just 38.8% shooting, including 25.0% from downtown in last year’s Playoffs, including 11.8 points on 33.3% shooting and 21.4% from three in that aforementioned gentlemen’s sweep against Miami. Of course, Antetokounmpo had his fair share of struggles in that matchup, with a high ankle sprain contributing to his woes.
When we last saw the Bucks, their inconsistent start to the 2020-21 campaign continued in a surprising 130-110 loss at the New York Knicks. This wasn’t what you would expect with Milwaukee hitting the road to battle a team that had been circling the drain in the Eastern Conference for the past five years, but then again this is why the games are played on hardwood instead of paper. Trailing 30-27 after the First Quarter, the game got out of hand when the hosts went on a 16-2 run to stretch the lead to 61-43 late in the First Half, before building a 21-point advantage heading into the final period of play. Seven consecutive points later and the gulf grew to twenty-eight. After devastating the Golden State Warriors by thirty-nine points on Christmas Day, due in large part to a scorching 20-of-36 shooting from beyond the arc (55.6%), Budenholzer’s troops could muster only 43.2% shooting overall, including a dismal 7-of-38 from three (18.4%). As he often does, Antetokounmpo filled up the stat sheet with a team-high twenty-seven points, thirteen rebounds, five assists, and three steals, while fellow All-Star, Khris Middleton (26.7 PTS, 52.8% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 6.0 AST, 32.0 PER) added twenty-two points, four rebounds, and five assists, with Bobby Portis (10.0 PTS, 54.2% FG, 20.0% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 19.4 PER) adding seventeen points and seven boards off the bench. However, the aforementioned Holiday wasn’t particularly sharp, totaling just eight points, five assists, and three turnovers, while missing all four of his attempts from deep. With all that said, the biggest issue was their collective effort on the defensive end of the court, allowing the Knicks to shoot a blistering 54.1% from the field, including 16-of-27 from long range (59.3%), outscoring them by twenty-seven points in that regard. This could be something to keep an eye on moving forward, for the Bucks were one of the best defensive teams in the Association last year, allowing 108.6 points per game (8th Overall) on 41.4% shooting overall (1st Overall), due in large part to a defensive rebounding percentage of 81.6% (1st Overall). Through three games this season, those figures have fallen back to the pack a bit, yielding 117.0 points per game (21st Overall) on 44.9% shooting (9th Overall) and a defensive rebounding percentage of 80.7% (9th Overall). However, if you look past that romp over the Warriors (which unfortunately could be common for Golden State), you’ll see a team that has been gashed for 126.0 points on 50.5% shooting, including 50.7% from downtown, while outrebounded by 6.5 boards a night.
Meanwhile, the Heat (1-1, 7th in East) are looking to follow up their surprising jaunt to the NBA Finals by proving that their success within the Bubble was indeed no fluke. Though some in NBA circles considered Miami’s run following the Lockdown to be due to the perceived militant culture long associated with the franchise, the more common feeling is that this young team used those unique circumstances to accelerate their growth, with Erik Spoelstra and his Staff providing a masterclass in terms of coaching and player development. The young triumvirate of Bam Adebayo (15.9 PTS, 55.7% FG, 14.3% 3FG, 10.2 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.3 BLK, 20.3 PER), Tyler Herro (13.5 PTS, 42.8% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.2 AST, 12.5 PER), and Duncan Robinson (13.5 PTS, 47.0% FG, 44.6% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 13.1 PER) came of age in the Playoffs, with Adebayo emerging as bonafide two-way force as an immovable deterrent at the rim as well as an infectious playmaker on the offensive end of the floor. Oh, and let’s not forget about the addition of Jimmy Butler (19.9 PTS, 45.5% FG, 24.4% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 23.6 PER), which propelled this club back to the Playoffs to begin with. The veteran Swingman entered the season on his fifth team in four years, but appears to have settled rather comfortably on South Beach, where he has thrived in Miami’s said culture; though he struggled shooting from the perimeter (24.4% 3FG), the five-time All-Star registered career-highs in a slew of other categories, including rebounds (6.7) and assists (6.0), all the while proving instrumental in the development of his young teammates. After sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the First Round of the Playoffs, they knocked off the heavily-favored Bucks in five games, proving to be a matchup nightmare for their opponent. This series had less to do with Anetotounmpo spraining his ankle and more to do with the Heat ruthlessly exploiting Milwaukee’s weaknesses; Spoelstra’s troops relegated the East’s top seed to just 43.9% shooting overall, including 32.7% from three, while holding their own on the glass (Plus-1.4). Butler was a force over the course of those five contests, averaging 23.4 points on a red-hot 53.2% shooting, while taking residence from the charity stripe on 46-of-54 shooting (85.2%), with Adebayo adding averages of 17.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. On the strength of his growth, Miami was quick to lock down the 23-year old, signing him to a five-year/$163 million contract extension, hoping to keep him in house for the foreseeable future.
When we last saw the Heat, they bounced back from a surprising 113-107 loss at the Orlando Magic by disposing of the New Orleans Pelicans on Christmas Day, 111-98. After leading by twelve at Halftime, Miami saw the visitors climb back into the affair, cutting the deficit to 91-85 with just over seven minutes in the fourth period, as the hosts went without a point for five minutes. However, Spoelstra’s charges would go on an 11-2 run to restore their comfortable advantage en route to victory against one of his former mentors, Stan Van Gundy, whom he worked alongside from six years and under from 2003 to 2006. Despite their stretches of poor shooting, the home side ultimately ended the day netting a strong 50.7% from the field, including 16-of-37 from beyond the arc (43.2%), with Robinson nailing a Christmas Day record, 7-of-13 (53.8%). The sharpshooting 26-year old dropped a team-high twenty-three points, while Adebayo added seventeen points, four rebounds, and a pair of assists and steals apiece. The Bench also played a big role in their success, with veteran Guard, Goran Dragic (19.0 PTS, 58.3% FG, 12.5% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 8.0 AST, 2.5 STL, 31.1 PER), totaling eighteen points and nine assists, (Fee Agent acquisition) Avery Bradley (12.0 PTS, 57.1% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 2.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 2.0 STL, 16.8 PER), chipping in with a dozen points of his own, and (Rookie Forward) Precious Achiuwa (9.5 PTS, 72.7% FG, 3.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 18.8 PER) logging eleven points on 5-of-7 shooting (71.4%) and providing solid defensive minutes. Unfortunately, Butler limped into the locker room at Halftime with a stiff right ankle, and abstained from participating in the Second Half, ending his afternoon with four points, six rebounds, and five assists in just over sixteen minutes of action. Spoelstra has since labeled him as day-to-day, leaving his availability for tonight’s encounter with Milwaukee up in the air. Friday’s win extended the Heat’s record on the holiday to a stellar 11-2, with their last loss coming in 2007. Including the Playoffs, Miami has won six of their last eight meetings with Milwaukee.