The Eastern Conference’s third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and sixth-seeded Miami Heat meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. It is a rematch of a second-round series the Heat won last year, 4-1.
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How they got here
The Bucks paid handsomely to acquire one-time All-Star Jrue Holiday in an offseason splash that was undercut by news that Bogdan Bogdanovic did not in fact agree to be signed and traded to Milwaukee.
Otherwise, they flew under the radar during another remarkably successful regular season. Consecutive playoff shortcomings wore the sheen from two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his small-market powerhouse. The consensus approach was to wait and see how both perform in the playoffs.
The playoffs are here, and Antetokounmpo and his Bucks are still really freaking good. He averaged an efficient 28-11-6 in just 33 minutes a game, and they finished third in the Eastern Conference behind the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets with a top-five offense and top-10 defense that netted a +5.8 rating.
Holiday stepped seamlessly into the lead guard role vacated by Eric Bledsoe and outperformed his predecessor on both ends of the floor. Khris Middleton remained the quintessential under-the-radar star on an under-the-radar team. An aging Brook Lopez continued to man the middle and space the floor from the center position. The Bucks even pulled the trigger on a deadline deal for former Houston Rockets stalwart P.J. Tucker in the hope of further improving their depth and toughness to avoid another playoff failure.
The Heat felt the strain of playing into October as a 2020 NBA finalist and starting training camp some seven weeks later. COVID-19 ravaged the roster. Everyone but Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo and Andre Iguodala missed at least a quarter of the season. A deadline trade for Victor Oladipo paid no dividends.
Their 7-14 start left them 13th in the East at the start of February. A six-game losing streak still had them sub-.500 and fighting for a play-in spot at the end of March. They have turned in the conference's best record since, climbing to sixth place — one seed from where they began last year's surprise playoff run.
Heat culture persisted. Adebayo and Jimmy Butler submitted All-NBA-caliber seasons on both ends of the floor. Robinson was a flamethrower from 3-point range. Tyler Herro shook off his own slow start to shoot 44% from distance over the final eight weeks of the regular season. Kendrick Nunn proved his stellar rookie season was no fluke. Midseason acquisitions of Trevor Ariza and Nemanja Bjelica added more veteran depth to a bench that already included Iguodala and Goran Dragic. And Miami emerged a threat again.
Head to head
The Bucks won their series with the Heat that bookended the season, 2-1. Butler missed all three games.
Milwaukee split a December back-to-back against a Miami roster that looked nothing like its current iteration, winning the first game by 47 points and losing the second by double digits. Butler also missed last week's 14-point loss to the Bucks, this time with a sore lower back. Take nothing from their regular-season series. Even Antetokounmpo's subpar 16.7-point average in the three meetings feels more like an aberration than indicator of things to come, given two games were blowouts and the third a back-to-back.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer will rely almost solely on Antetokounmpo, Holiday, Middleton and Lopez in the clutch, with either Donte DiVincenzo or Pat Connaughton filling the fifth spot. DiVincenzo won the starting spot alongside Milwaukee's four pillars, and they outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. That net rating rose to +24.7 in a less interpretive fraction of the playing time together with Connaughton in place of DiVincenzo.
Keep an eye on Tucker as a potential frontcourt replacement for Lopez in closing lineups. He has played just 63 possessions with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton since arriving in March, but he is a more versatile option against a Miami team that leverages Adebayo's athleticism at center in small-ball lineups.
Butler, Adebayo and Robinson are locks to be in any closing lineup for Miami. Lineups featuring those three outscored opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions this season. Dragic and Herro both saw significant time down the stretch of close playoff games last year, but coach Erik Spoelstra often chooses one or the other, depending on the hot hand. Expect to see a smattering of Ariza and Iguodala as small-ball fours next to Adebayo. Nunn could also crack some crunch-time lineups, so long as he doesn't cower under pressure.
Matchup to watch
The Heat have a host of willing defenders to throw at Antetokounmpo, including Butler, Iguodala and Ariza, but when push comes to shove, the responsibility of stopping the two-time MVP will fall on Adebayo. There is no player better built to combat Antetokounmpo's strength and athleticism. Adebayo's work on Giannis both on the ball and as a last line defense helped swing last year's conference semifinals in Miami's favor.
This is where the addition of Holiday makes all the difference in the world. In 39:24 of work directly opposite Butler across eight games over the previous three seasons, Holiday has held Butler to 36% shooting on 39 shots, also forcing five turnovers and limiting trips to the free-throw line. Holiday will also command Butler's attention away from Antetokounmpo, unless Miami wants to trust Dragic, Herro or Robinson to defend him.
Bucks in seven.
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