7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -4.5, Over/Under: 222.5
If Game One was any hint as to how the rest of this First Round Series between the (6) Miami Heat and (3) Milwaukee Bucks will play out, then we should be in for one helluva show, as the latter hosts the former tonight from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You always hear of teams angling for particular matchups heading into the postseason, though it’s not often that a team yearns for a meeting with a side that had finished with the best record in the National Basketball Association in each of the previous two years and is led by the league’s two-time reigning Most Valuable Player. However, that’s precisely what the Heat (40-32, 6th in Eastern Conference) wanted all along, as they looked to administer more pain and misery in a matchup that has favored them rather well in the past. When these teams locked horns in the 2020 Playoffs, it was the Heat who embarrassed the top-seeded Bucks in a five-game triumph, eventually advancing to sixth NBA Finals in franchise history. Forget the fact that Miami was only 1-3 against Milwaukee during the Regular Season, for as we’ve discussed at length over the past five months, this particular campaign has been nothing short of incomparable to any that has preceded it. COVID-19 ravaged the NBA for months with virtually every team feeling it’s effects, some more so than others, with the Heat utterly decimated in the early stages of the season due to the virus; the reigning Eastern Conference Champions dealt with a plethora of adversity early on, with their rotation nearly halved for much of the first two months of action, managing a disappointing 7-14 record by early February. The likes of (All-Star Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.5 PTS, 49.7% FG, 24.5% 3FG, 6.9 REB, 7.1 AST, 2.1 STL, 26.5 PER), alongside (Guards) Goran Dragic (13.4 PTS, 43.2% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 13.0 PER), Tyler Herro (15.1 PTS, 43.9% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 13.3 PER), Kendrick Nunn (14.6 PTS, 48.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 14.2 PER), and Avery Bradley (8.5 PTS, 47.0% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 10.4 PER), each missed a minimum of fifteen games as subject of the NBA’s health and Safety Protocols, with (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra routinely forced to get creative with his lineups; robbed of much of their backcourt depth, Miami has employed twenty-six different starting lineups thus far, easily one of the most in the Association this season. Fortunately, this team would return to full strength and round into form in lieu of the postseason, going 18-8 over the final twenty-six games of the campaign, thanks in large part to a long dormant offense that had finally awoke; Spoelstra’s charges averaged 110.8 points on an efficient 48.6% shooting, including 37.9% from beyond the arc, while dishing out a healthy 27.9 assists in comparison to committing just 11.8 turnovers during this span. In his second year with the franchise, Butler enjoyed a number of personal bests despite the early impediment from COVID, posting career-highs in field goal percentage (49.7%), two-point percentage (53.8%), rebounds (6.9), assists (7.1), and steals (2.1), with that last figure good for best in the league this season. Alongside (versatile young Center) Bam Adebayo (18.7 PTS, 57.0% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 9.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.0 BLK, 22.7 PER), who was another crucial cog in their trek to the Finals last Fall, Butler & Co come into this series with absolute confidence that they can once again pull the upset and send the Bucks packing. Butler averaged 23.4 points on 53.2% shooting with 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.8 steals in last year’s victory over Milwaukee, and even though his side fell in a 109-107 overtime thriller in Game One on Saturday, he knows that he can push them to brink despite a poor overall shooting performance; Miami only shot 36.4% from the field as a team, but by and large managed to stay within striking distance throughout the affair thanks to their three-point shooting, netting 20-of-50 attempts (40.0%), and outscoring the hosts by FORTY-FIVE points in that regard. Butler may have finished with a meager seventeen points on just 4-of-22 shooting (18.2%), but he still managed to push the game into Overtime with a driving lay-in off the glass with reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on him shortly) draped all over him, while also contributing in other ways with ten rebounds, eight assists, and a pair of steals. The aforementioned Dragic was essential off the bench with a team-high twenty-five points, while (sharpshooting Forward) Duncan Robinson (13.1 PTS, 43.9% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.6 STL, 11.0 PER) was on fire early with twenty-four points of his own when it was all said done, with the duo combining for 12-of-23 shooting from the perimeter (52.2%). With all that said, where the Heat must improve is on the glass, where their overall lack of size was exploited mercilessly throughout the afternoon as they were outrebounded 64-51, while also finding a way to mitigate Milwaukee’s production in the paint here they were outscored convincingly, 56-24. Spoelstra will also be lamenting their seventeen turnovers, which led to fifteen points going the other way, which was uncharacteristic for a team that had taken such good care of the basketball of late.
Meanwhile, make no mistake about it, the Bucks (46-26, 3rd in Eastern Conference) were gunning for a matchup with the Heat as well, particularly after the way their campaign ended in such disappointing fashion last Fall. Coming into the Playoffs as the East’s top seed for the second consecutive season, Milwaukee ran into a proverbial brick wall in the form of Miami, who completely took them out of their comfort zone over the course of a five-game deconstruction that would force the franchise to reevaluate themselves from top to bottom. Seriously folks, few teams are working under more pressure in these Playoffs than the Bucks, who have invested HEAVILY to bring the organization it’s first Larry O’Brien Trophy since 197. When (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s charges faced the Heat last Fall within the Bubble, their typically efficient and prolific attack was anything but, managing just 106.0 points per game on 43.9% shooting from the field, including 32.7% from beyond the arc, with 21.2 assists opposed to 13.2 turnovers, which were all well off their season statistics. (Two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.1 PTS, 56.9% FG, 30.3% 3FG, 11.0 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.2 BLK, 29.2 PER) served as the poster boy for their struggles. with the Greek International unable to make the kind of impact that we had grown accustomed to seeing over the previous two years; the 26-year old was routinely turned away from the paint, and turned into a horror show from the charity stripe where he netted a mere 22-of-41 attempts (53.7%), before missing Game Four with a high ankle sprain. It was a painful reminder that even though they had won more games than any team in the NBA over that two-year period, there was still plenty of work to be done in terms of improvement, while Giannis, who became only the third player in league history to earn both MVP and DPY honors in the same season, still had room to grow. And it’s with that said, that the Bucks got down to business in the offseason in an attempt to correct their flaws and add the requisite pieces to become better suited for the Playoffs. First and foremost, they re-signed Antetokounmpo to the richest supermax extension in NBA history, retaining his considerable talents for a mammoth $228 million over the next five years. They would go on to add (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (17.7 PTS, 50.3% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.0 PER), who has absolutely flourished in Budenholzer’s system, providing more efficient play on both ends of the court in comparison to his predecessor (Eric Bledsoe), and not to mention the shooting and size that they had sorely lacked at the position in recent years; the 30-year old enjoyed a slew of personal bests in 2020-2021, including field goal percentage (50.3%), three-point percentage (39.2%), two-point percentage (56.1%), steals (1.6), and PER (20.0). Other members of the rotation blossomed as well, with the likes of (substitutes) Bobby Portis (11.4 PTS, 52.3% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.9 PER) and Brynn Forbes (10.0 PTS, 47.3% FG, 45.2% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 12.8 PER) posting with career campaigns, with the former developing into a lethal shooter from the perimeter, knocking down the fourth-highest percentage of attempts from downtown in the league this year (47.1%), while the latter wasn’t far beyond (45.2%). And then there is (All-Star Swingman) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 47.6% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.2 PER), who also enjoyed quite a bit of further development this season, particularly from a playmaking perspective in dishing out a career-best 5.4 assists per game. When opposing defenses sell out to keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint, this is the guy that the franchise is counting out to become their closer, and by and large they had to have been satisfied with his performance in Game One’s thriller; with the affair already in Overtime and squared away at 107-107, Middleton received from halfcourt and proceeded to bury a tough turnaround fadeaway jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining on the clock to seal the victory. In a game in which neither side managed to build a lead greater than four points, it was fitting that it would be decided in such a fashion. The 29-year old scored a game-high twenty-seven points on 10-of-22 shooting from the field (45.5%), accounting for three of the home side’s scant five three-pointers, while also contributing with six rebounds and assists apiece. It was the kind of complementary performance that helped make up for Antetokounmpo’s struggles (10-of-27 FG), particularly outside of the paint where he missed all thirteen of his attempts. With that said, the aforementioned Holiday shined in his postseason debut with the team, totaling twenty points, eleven rebounds, three assists, and three steals. This one was much more of a throwback to the Playoffs of old, with nether side shooting particularly well and struggling to move the basketball with the pace of play contested at a crawl; Milwaukee committed nearly as many turnovers (17) as assists (19), and missed thirteen of their thirty-three attempts from the charity stripe (20-of-33 FT), with Giannis in particular struggling on 6-of-13 attempts (46.2%). With that said, they did manage to make the most of transition when afforded the opportunity to do so, outscoring Miami 12-2 in fast break points. While this one was absolutely an UGLY win, it should be encouraging for Budenholzer & Co that they can indeed succeed when taken out of the comfort zone, which is important moving forward for if this chapter of the series was any indication it appears that they’ll be playing towards Miami’s liking for the duration.