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Heat vs. Bucks Preview: Larry Sanders and Luol Deng out, Dwyane Wade returns to Milwaukee as Bucks look to snap skid

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Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

UPDATE: Larry Sanders (illness) is out for the Bucks, while Luol Deng (hand) and Chris Andersen (ankle) are out for the Heat. Zaza Pachulia will start at center for the Bucks and Danny Granger will start in Deng's spot for the Heat.

The last time the Bucks faced the Miami Heat, they pulled out a surprising road win that got them back to .500 and kickstarted a streak of six wins in eight games. Tonight, they'll need a win to avoid falling below .500 for the first time since that trip to Miami on November 16.

After streaking to a 10-7 record against the league's weakest November schedule, the Bucks have been handed a dose of reality in three straight losses against the Rockets, Cavs and Mavericks, and it doesn't get much easier with 10 of their next 11 opponents at or above .500. The only exception? A Thunder team that now has both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant back from injury. GULP. The Bucks could get some help tonight if Luol Deng is shelved by the hand injury he picked up in Wednesday's loss in Atlanta, though Dwyane Wade will be back after missing the teams' first encounter in Miami.

The defense rests? While both Texas teams were missing all-stars in their recent wins at the BC, the Bucks can at least take some heart in competing to the end in narrow losses to the Cavs and Mavs. Not that their defense has had too much to do with it -- while the Bucks' defense still ranks an encouraging ninth overall, it's been a tale of two seasons through 20 games for Milwaukee. The Bucks ranked 29th offensively and second defensively after ten games, but the following ten games have seen the offense carry the load. The Bucks have both scored and allowed 12 pts/100 possessions more in games 11 through 20, with their offense ranking 11th in the league in that span and their defense just 22nd. So maybe this isn't a defensive team after all?

While Milwaukee has forced plenty of turnovers throughout the season, the obvious problems have been preventing good looks and cleaning the boards when opponents do miss (not a great combination, eh?). Opponents are shooting both more often and more accurately from deep (33% on 20 attempts to 36% on 23 attempts), and the Bucks have seen their defensive rebound rate fall by 5% (28th over the last 10 games). While Dallas couldn't buy a three for most of the night on Wednesday, Milwaukee's complete inability to keep Tyson Chandler and company from generating second (and third and fourth) chances was the single biggest factor in the Bucks' blowing a late eight point lead. Discipline at the point of attack would seem to be part of the problem on both fronts -- the Bucks' inability to contain penetration has seemed to create more collapsing of help defenders, which has often left the team scrambling to cover back to contest perimeter shots and generally created more confusion everywhere.

Defending the line. Another reason for concern: The Bucks have benefited from opponents shooting a league-worst 69% from the free throw line so far, a trend that really hasn't changed between the first and second 10-game spans. Though teams might be strategic in fouling worse free throw shooters in individual games, historical data suggests there's no such thing as "defending the free throw line." As a result, it stands to reason that -- all other things being equal -- the Bucks will see their defensive efficiency take a hit once opponent performance from the foul line begins to mean regress. That's not immaterial either; if opponents were shooting around league average (let's say 75%), the Bucks would be surrendering an additional 1.5 pts/game and slightly more in terms of points per 100 possessions. That would knock their top ten defense closer to middle of the pack.

Getting offense. OK, so the defense may not be all it's cracked up to be. But what about the offense? Here we've seen a leap from league-worst to slightly above-average, an improvement fueled by both improved shooting and a major spike in offensive rebound rate. After ranking last in three point percentage and 27th in total free throws through 10 games, the Bucks have been 7th over the last 10 games from deep and have also been 7th in total free throws. So that's good, and the interesting part is that their pace has actually dropped slightly as the season has worn on despite their fast break points per game rising from 13.2 ppg through 10 games (12th) to 14.4 through 20 (8th). So you could say that they're running smarter, even if their overall pace is still below league average. They should have a good chance to keep it going tonight, as Miami ranks just 25th in defensive efficiency and second-to-last in offensive rebounding.

Anecdotally, the bench has gotten a major lift from Ersan Ilyasova finding his rhythm and Jared Dudley's shot coming around, and among the starters I like that Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo are taking more active roles while allowing Brandon Knight to play "off ball" more regularly (note: he's still the point guard). All of these things have served to diversify the Bucks' offense, which is important when you don't have one or two proven superstars to run all your offense through. Whether the starters can continue to be effective with both 19-year-olds avoiding three point shots like the plague is a separate question; the Mavericks used a zone early in the third to goad Jason Kidd into benching his youngsters in favor of Dudley and Khris Middleton, a tactic that more teams may begin to use. Also a major concern is the ongoing absence of Ilyasova, who suffered a nasal fracture on Tuesday and could be out for the next week.

14/15 NBA Season
(10-10, 5-4 home)
(9-9, 5-3 road)
December 5, 2014
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:30 CT
Fox Sports Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Brandon Knight PG Mario Chalmers
O.J. Mayo SG Dwyane Wade
Giannis Antetokounmpo SF Danny Granger
Jabari Parker PF Josh McRoberts
Zaza Pachulia C Chris Bosh
2014/15 Advanced Stats
93.3 (17th)
Pace 90.1 (29th)
102.9 (23rd) ORtg 106.6 (15th)
104.3 (9th)
DRtg 108.8 (25th)

Opponent Coverage: Hot Hot Hoops