7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bucks -1.5, Over/Under: 219.5
Familiar foes gearing up for the stretch run clash tonight in Milwaukee, as the Bucks host the Miami Heat in this showdown of teams having emerged from the All-Star Break with more questions than answers. We’re fifty-nine games into the regular season and we’re still wondering who exactly the Heat (32-27, 7th in Eastern Conference) are supposed to be? Is this the dogged veteran group that captured the East’s number one seed a year ago and were a buzzer-beater away from advancing to their second NBA Finals in three years, or are they the aging side that has largely meandered throughout the campaign waiting to get completely healthy? At the moment, it appears that they’re trending more so towards the latter than the former, as Miami has yet to make a proper push up the East’s hierarchy. 7-6 over their final thirteen outings before the Break, (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s troops have been a difficult group to get a handle on, as the key figures in their rotation haven’t been able to stay on the hardwood for very long. Don’t get us wrong, (All-Star Center) Bam Adebayo has been great this season in posting career-highs in scoring (21.6) and free-throw percentage (80.5%), while missing just five games to boot, but the same cannot be said about the likes of (fellow All-Star) Jimmy Butler, (reigning Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro and (veteran Point Guard) Kyle Lowry. All three of those figures have missed a least fourteen games due to a variety of maladies, with Lowry still dealing with a lingering knee issue that has kept him out of action for each of the last six contests. Even with that said, it’s not as if this particular quartet has separated themselves from the competition in considerable measure; logging 452:19 of game time thus far, the foursome of Adebayo, Butler, Herro, and Lowry are just +2.1 points per 100 possessions, while posting negative margins in threes (-2.0) and rebounds (-1.2), with the assist differential being even. All things considered, such small margins shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that this is a team that frequently lives within that realm, largely due to their style of play. Make no mistake, the Heat can oftentimes be tough to watch offensively, operating at the third-slowest pace in the Association (96.6 possessions per 48 minutes), while ranking dead-last in scoring (108.3), next-to-last in field goal percentage (45.2%), twenty-eighth in three-point percentage (33.4%) despite jacking up the ninth-most treys (2,054), and sitting at twenty-third in assists (23.4). Indeed, this is a team that has thrived off the defensive pressure that they’re able to create, but with Butler (pictured above) and Lowry missing as much time as they have, they’ve been without two of their better perimeter/on ball defenders. Case in point: after narrowly besting the likes of Indiana (116-111), Houston (97-95), and Orlando (107-103) in succession, their defense crumbled in losses to Denver (108-112) and Brooklyn (105-116), in which they permitted a combined 55.6% shooting from the field, 41.8% from beyond the arc, and 30.0 assists per matchup. The defeat to the Nets was particularly troubling for Miami, who were expected to overcome a team that had literally been dismantled at the trade deadline. Throw in the added significance of their opponent sitting 2.5 games ahead of them in the standings, and this game was one that Spoelstra’s charges needed to win if they wish to escape the play-in tournament. However, you wouldn’t know it watching it all play out, as the Heat blew a narrow 56-52 halftime lead en route to being outscored in the second half 64-49. Without Lowry and Herro, the visitors could do nothing to stop the home side after intermission, as Brooklyn shot a ridiculous 61.5% from the field, including a blistering 11-of-18 from downtown (61.1%), which proved to be the difference as they outscored the visiting side by twenty-four points in that regard, while also dishing out sixteen assists opposed to committing just four turnovers, which was yet another sign of how little Miami managed to pressure them. Adebayo led the team with twenty-four points on 10-of-19 shooting (51.6%), thirteen rebounds, and six assists, while (unheralded swingmen) Gabe Vincent and Max Strus added twenty-one and eighteen points respectively, though it was a tough night at the office for Butler, who could muster just thirteen points on a miserable 4-of-11 shooting (36.4%). Sure, it was the final game before the Break and they were down two of their top four players, but as we stated earlier, these are the kind of games you need to win if you have designs on climbing the ladder in the Eastern Conference. Curiously, the franchise was largely quiet at the Trade Deadline, effectively dumping the salary of (backup Center) Dewayne Dedmon and a 2028 second round pick for cash in a deal with the Spurs, though they have been active on the buy-out front, adding former All-Star and NBA Champion Kevin Love earlier in the week after his contract was bought out by the Cavaliers. Though he doesn’t make them any younger, the 34-year-old should be reasonably fresh after being reduced to a bench role with Cleveland over the past few years, while his skillset should be a boon to his new club. Love has long been one of the best rebounding bigs in the league, logging no less than 6.8 boards despite averaging fewer than 25.0 minutes a night over the last 2.5 seasons, while his passing (2.1 assists) and three-point shooting (37.2% career 3FG) should be a welcome sign of relief for Spoelstra & Co. Furthermore, he’s never been known as a defensive stopper, but his size is real, and he will be surrounded by a plethora of ballhawks to provide coverage, which should come in handy against bigger opponents, such as the Bucks. Speaking of tonight’s trip to Milwaukee, the home team has won and covered the spread in each of the last seven meetings between them, with Miami winning the first two encounters at FTX Arena, before falling at Fiserv Forum 115-123 three weeks ago. Trailing 26-34 after the conclusion of the first quarter, the visitors rallied back to tie the game at halftime, 62-62, but couldn’t keep it up as the hosts outlasted them in a fourth quarter in which the deer shot a torrid 12-of-20 from the field (60.0%), including 3-of-7 from three (42.9%). Butler led the way with thirty-two points on an efficient 11-of-21 shooting (52.4%), including 9-of-10 from the charity stripe (90.0%), with eight rebounds and three assists, while Herro added twenty-four points, five boards, and six dimes. From a betting perspective, the Heat have covered the spread in just three of their last ten games overall heading into the Break, while posting a marginally better record (4-6) in their last ten trips away from South Beach. Furthermore, they have failed to cover the spread in five consecutive games after allowing 100+ points in the previous contest, while riding a four-game losing streak against the spread versus opponents with winning records, which is obviously the case tonight. On the injury front, the aforementioned duo of Lowry and Herro are the biggest names to watch, with the former expected to miss his seventh straight outing due to soreness in his left knee, while the latter has been labeled as probable with soreness in his right knee. Additionally, (veteran Guard) Victor Oladipo is probable with a sprained ankle, while (Rookie Center) Nikola Jovic will be re-evaluated at the end of the month due to a lingering lower back strain.
Meanwhile, lurking a half-game out of first place in the East are the Bucks (41-17, 2nd in Eastern Conference), who are positioning themselves as the chief challenger to the Celtics’ conference throne. Simply put, there wasn’t a team to enter the All-Star Break in better form than Milwaukee, winners of twelve consecutive games marking their longest winning streak since beginning the campaign 9-0. Of course, just two years removed from earning the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien Trophy in fifty years, this team is no stranger to playoff races and with twenty-four games remaining they’ll have every opportunity to secure the number one overall seed in not only the East, but the NBA as a whole. So, what in the name of Sidney Moncrief has gotten into these deer, you ask? Well, this current run has seen them round into form on both ends of the hardwood, besting their opponents by an average margin of 11.7 points per game, which includes impressive victories over many of the league’s best, such as the Nuggets (107-99), Celtics (131-125), and Clippers (106-105, 119-106) twice. Offensively, (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s troops have been in quite a groove, scoring 124.2 points per game on 49.2% shooting from the field, including 37.5% from beyond the arc, where they’ve outscored the opposition by 13.5 points. They’ve also utterly dominated the glass during this stretch, pulling down 52.9 rebounds a night, equating to a commanding +9.2 advantage along the way. Of course, having (perennial All-NBA Forward) Giannis Antetokounmpo on their side makes a HUGE difference, with the two-time MVP enjoying the most prolific season of his impressive career. The Greek Freek is averaging a career-high 31.8 points per game, thus far as he has carried an even larger role in the offense given the absence of (fellow All-Star) Khris Middleton, who has appeared in just seven games this season due to wrist surgery and soreness in his right knee. The 31-year-old has long been one of the most understated components of this team’s success, providing precious spacing with his three-point shooting (38.9% career 3FG), valuable secondary playmaking and length on the perimeter to stymie penetration into the paint. It’s no secret that this winning streak began with Middleton’s (pictured above) to the rotation, with the Swingman averaging rounding back into form with 15.3 points on 48.3% shooting, 31.0% from downtown, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. Remember, it was his absence in last Summer’s seven-game bloodbath with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals that ultimately made the difference, and any run Milwaukee has in store simply must include the veteran sharpshooter. When we last saw the Bucks, they finished off the Bulls in the first half finale, leaving the United Center with a 112-100 victory. Just as they did in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the visitors pummeled Chicago, who could do no better than 38.1% shooting from the field. Budenholzer’s unit caught fire from the perimeter, netting 18-of-47 treys (38.3%), outscoring the home side by twenty-four points on the night, five different players draining multiple triples. With Middelton sitting out and Antetokounmpo playing less than ten minutes due to tender wrist, the rest of the team picked up the slack, with (veteran Center) Brook Lopez dropping a season-high thirty-three points, followed by (backup Guard) Jevon Carter with twenty-two of his own. The reserves-turned-starters combined to shoot 7-of-11 from three (63.6%), with thirteen rebounds and eight assists, with Lopez also blocking four shots. Looking to tonight’s matchup with the Heat, Milwaukee will be looking to split the season series after taking that aforementioned 123-115 victory at home three weeks ago. The hosts shot a stellar 52.3% from the field overall, including 14-of-40 from three (35.0%), leading to an 18-point edge in that regard, while also dominating the glass in the process (51-44). Five different players scored in double-figures for the deer, led by Antetokounmpo with thirty-five points an efficient 13-of-19 shooting (68.4%), fifteen rebounds, and eleven assists, recording his third triple-double of the campaign thus far. Middleton poured in twenty-four points, seven rebounds, and four assists off the bench, while the duo of (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday and (backup Guard) Grayson Allen combined for thirty-four points on 13-of-20 shooting (65.0%), including 7-of-12 from long-range (58.3%), eight rebounds, five assists, and four steals. From a betting perspective, the Bucks have certainly been hot straight-up, but it’s been a bit of a different story against the spread where they’ve covered six of their last ten games regardless of the venue. Furthermore, they’re a middling 5-5 against the spread in their last ten games at Fiserv Forum, though have covered seven of their last ten outings when declared a favorite by the oddsmakers. As for this particular matchup with Miami, Budenholzer’s outfit is 5-4-1 against the spread in their last ten meetings, while posting a 6-4 record against them in this regard when favored. On the injury front, the potential absence of Antetokounmpo, who is officially listed as questionable for tonight’s affair due to a sore wrist that he re-aggravated in last weekend’s All-Star Game, threatens to swing the momentum in this affair, though it should be noted that Milwaukee has handled themselves reasonably well in his absence, posting a 6-5 record without him on the hardwood. We could see the return of (valuable Forward) Bobby Portis, who has missed the last eleven outings with a sprained MCL in his left knee, while we could also see the 2022-2023 debut of the (veteran Forward) Jae Crowder, who sat out the entire season thus far due to a lengthy contract dispute in Phoenix, with Budenholzer stating that he is undergoing reconditioning to get himself back into shape for the looming playoff run. Now with his eighth different franchise since being drafted in eleven years, the 32-year-old’s skillset should be a perfect fit for the Bucks, who have pursued him for years, parting ways with a plethora of draft picks to obtain his services. Furthermore, Middleton is probable after missing the last game with soreness in his right knee, while (veteran Forward) Pat Connaughton is questionable with soreness in his left calf muscle.