Miami is a dark horse favorite in the playoffs — the Heat have a lot of fans in and out of league circles.
Milwaukee has its share of doubters, people who think the Bucks are overrated and a one-trick pony.
Does that mean we have an upset brewing in the East? The “Unpredictable bubble playoffs” largely have followed form so far, but the No. 5 seed Heat present matchup problems for the top-seeded Bucks that make this possibly the first big upset of the playoffs. It’s why this second-round series — which tips off Monday night — has drawn a lot of interest.
For the Miami Heat to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, these three things have to come together for them.
1) Bam Adebayo and company must slow Giannis Antetokounmpo
Nobody is stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo right now — he is the best player in the world. The reigning MVP is about to win that award back-to-back (and he was just named Defensive Player of the Year).
Antetokounmpo is going to get his, the important thing is to slow him down, get him in the halfcourt, and have someone who can just make the Greek Freak less efficient.
Enter Bam Adebayo.
Adebayo has the length, athleticism, and strength to bother Antetokounmpo as much as any human can. According to NBA.com advanced stats, Antetokounmpo shot 12-of-28 this season when guarded by Adebayo. Which is great, but this cannot be a one-man show (and the Heat can’t afford to get Adebayo in foul trouble). Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Jones Jr. all likely will get time guarding Antetokounmpo. More importantly, there has to be smart and decisive help defense on the Greek Freak to put him in difficult spots.
There is a blueprint for slowing Antetokounmpo and Eric Spoelstra is going to stick to it: Get back and take away his transition buckets, double him inside the three-point line (and encourage him to take as many threes as he wants), and pack the paint. Those play to Miami’s defensive strengths. Antetokounmpo will dish to Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and the other Bucks — and that’s okay. Make those guys beat you. As always with Milwaukee, it comes down to the other players on the team stepping up.
2) Miami’s shooters have to hit above-the-break threes
The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season but their Achilles heel is no secret: No team gives up more three-point attempts than Milwaukee — 39.3 a game in the regular season. Their protect-the-paint-at-all-costs defense has to surrender something, and threes are it.
However, all threes are not equal and Milwaukee is smart about the threes they give up. They close out hard and chase guys out of the shorter corner threes. Also, the Bucks are the ultimate know-your-personnel team — they don’t give sharpshooters room at the arc, just the lesser threats. In the first round against Miami, Markelle Fultz was at the all-you-can-eat buffet at the arc, but notice how the Bucks ran Evan Fournier off the line when he got the ball? They knew.
What happens when the Bucks run into a team full of shooters? That’s Miami. They are loaded with players who can knock down the three, hitting 37.9% from deep as a team this season (second-best in the league). More importantly, the Heat shot 38.2% on above-the-break threes and have some shooters who are particularly deadly straight on.
Look for Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic to get a lot of clean looks out high. If those two — and other Heat shooters such as Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, and Kelly Olynyk — hit their threes, the Heat can put up points against the league-best Buck defense.
As a side note, Miami — and Butler in particular — have to finish inside to balance things out. Butler isn’t much of a three-point shooter, but he has to hit at the rim and his midrange shots to get his and help make the offense click.
3) Mike Budenholzer’s adjustments have to fall short again
Eric Spoelstra will have a plan when Game 1 tips off. And, when parts of that plan don’t work, he will adjust. Fast. When a player proves to be a poor matchup in this series, Spoelstra will ruthlessly make a change.
Will Mike Budenholzer make the needed adjustments? And when he does, will they work?
That’s the book on Budenholzer, fair or not — the man sticks with his plan to a fault. And when your plan is “get the ball to Antetokounmpo and get out of the way,” that plan is going to work almost every night. He was slow to adjust against Toronto, slow to ramp up Antetokounmpo’s minutes.
Budenholzer says he’s learned from his mistakes. And to be fair, he has done things this season like role-out lineups with Antetokounmpo at the five for lengthy stretches. Or post up Brook Lopez because that was the best matchup. The problem for Budenholzer has been — and was against Toronto last playoffs — his players didn’t always execute his adjustments.
They need to this season. They need to this series.
Spoelstra and the Heat have almost no margin for error this series, they need to slow Antetokounmpo and execute their offense (hit their threes) at a high level to have a chance. You know Spoelstra will put his guys in the right positions.
Will Budenholzer have the counters?