After wrapping up the Orlando Magic in a messier 4-1 series than I think any Milwaukee Bucks fan would’ve hoped, the franchise moves onto the second round for a dance with the Miami Heat. Erik Spoelstra’s squad is humming on all cylinders following their speedy 4-0 dispatch of an overmatched Indiana Pacers team. With their parade of rangy wing defenders, the bullying game of Jimmy Butler and rhino defense of Bam Adebayo, their makeup and recent success against Milwaukee will make them a trendy upset pick for this series.
I don’t agree, but I get it. Milwaukee never snuffed out Orlando in the suffocating way they did Detroit dirty last year, and Miami’s workmanlike ousting of the Pacers provides a tidy narrative for pundits to extrapolate their success into the second round. While Spoelstra may have the in-game tactical advantage over Bud, the Bucks maintain an overall talent edge, and I’m of the belief Orlando may’ve stumbled into an offense uniquely suited to exploit their zone-drop scheme. We all know the holes in this defense, pick-and-pop bigs and elite pull-up shooters at the guard position. Milwaukee’s willing to concede those shots to assert utter dominance in the paint. Orlando, despite their deep talent disadvantage, had a big in Nikola Vucevic who could both function as a pick-and-pop big from three, handle the ball on the short roll, bully Bucks centers down low and distribute. We’ll get into the whole, “But what about Kelly Olynyyyyyyyyk,” part of it later, but I think Marc Gasol is the only remaining center in the East that would put Brook Lopez, the defense’s fulcrum, through the same ringer he just faced with Vucevic.
Regardless, let’s dive into another four factors examination of this Miami-Milwaukee matchup. We’ll tinker it slightly from the last round, but will stick with shot location and the transition game as our first two categories:
- Shot location
- Turnovers/Free Throw rate
- Sneaky Key Buck to Watch
We’ll peek at long-term trends across the season, and sprinkle in a little bit of their performances against one another and in the first round.
Let’s kick off with how the Bucks may attack a Heat defense that, while typically lauded, finished with a 109.3 defensive rating in the regular season, nearly the same as the Orlando Magic. Against Indiana, that dipped down to 103.9 (4th in the Playoffs thus far), but the Pacers weren’t exactly an offensive buzzsaw, even when they had a healthy Domantas Sabonis. Miami’s defensive shot diet isn’t dissimilar to that of the Bucks. They let teams chuck it from the deep while trying to wall off the paint and prevent them from letting it fly both from midrange and down low.
It’s clear what the Bucks will be content to do this series: let it fly. And Miami will gladly let them. Even with Milwaukee’s Playoff bump from the 3-point line, up to 38.9% as a team against Orlando, the Heat are going to test the Bucks shooters and see if they can replicate that success. The Magic didn’t give up triples at the level of the Heat, but they did similarly try to take away the paint, so the Bucks were prepared for a team to extinguish those easy points. Milwaukee settled for 3-pointers against Orlando plenty of times, shooting a marginally smaller percentage of shots at the rim in that series than they did in the regular season.
Spoelstra is going to view those as wins for their team. The early shot clock triples, the no-pass pull-up jumper possessions from Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo; the Heat will be delighted with that outcome. That’s even more clear when looking at how the Heat did defending shots across the floor.
The weak spot sticks out like a Super Mario Galaxy boss. Miami’s found success all season defending teams around the arc - a success that typically is attributed to merely variance - and within the midrange. But for all their “insert defensive buzzword” players, their defense is a souffle. They prevent teams from shooting at the rim, but if Milwaukee punctures their wall, there’s a gooey center waiting (can you tell I’ve never eaten a souffle?).
Much has been made about how Giannis will muscle up to Bam Adebayo’s might, but the fact is that Antetokounmpo needs to avoid being content settling for jumpers. The more Miami feels they need to collapse, the more passing lanes will reveal themselves to outside shooters and cutting lanes. Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo will have opportunities off-ball to provide a release valve for Giannis as continued penetration draws the eyes of Head defenders. It may not be a massive part of their offensive repertoire (just 6.4% of plays in the regular season), but they’ve found success (1.31 points per play; 69th efficiency percentile) and will need alternative forms of offense if their sets get gummed up.
And, here’s partly why getting to the rim is paramount, in particular for Eric Bledsoe.
Beyond Bam Adebayo, the Heat don’t have ample guys to guard the rim. Their not an interior-oriented team offensively either, where they typically defer to shots from around the arc.
Orlando wasn’t a team that loved to skulk around the arc and bomb from deep, but they upped their regular season percentage of 3-point shots by about 10% in their first round series with the Bucks. Will Miami, like Orlando, dramatically increase their 3-point attempts to attack the Bucks’ defense? Or does their already elevated percentage means they won’t shoot significantly more than would’ve been expected? I’d lean toward the former, and in the seeding games, opponents took 43.7% of their shots from three against Milwaukee. The Heat shot at least 40 3-pointers in every matchup with the Bucks this season too. Teams are trigger-happy, and Miami will join the spree with their barrage of sharpshooters.
Miami offers the type of elite shooting Orlando lacked, with a parade of well-honed marksman. Here are their top five shooters in order of 3-point percentage along with their attempts per-36 minutes:
- Duncan Robinson: 44.6% (10.1 field goal attempts per-36)
- Jae Crowder: 44.5% (8.3 FGA per-36)
- Meyers Leonard: 41.4% (4.5 FGA per-36)
- Kelly Olynyk: 40.6% (6.5 FGA per-36)
- Tyler Herro: 38.9% (7.1 FGA per-36)
In contrast, George Hill, Kyle Korver and Khris Middleton, are the three Bucks above 40% from deep this season before it dips to Ersan Ilyasova at 36.5%. Robinson in particular will be racing around the court at every opportunity. The Bucks on the backside will have to be more diligent than Connaughton is here:
He’ll come around curls for hand-offs too, meaning Milwaukee’s backcourt will have to use every ounce of strength to blow through those perimeter screens to disrupt his shot. That’s to say nothing of his gravity when he’s not shooting either.
They hunt the corners, which is the deep shot Milwaukee forfeits the least amount. Above-the-break is a different story, where I’m sure Miami will be rifling away at every chance. For those worried about Kelly Olynyk or Meyers Leonard doing what Vucevic did to Milwaukee last round, I’d expect the Heat to move to that tactic quickly. Leonard fell out of the rotation in round one, but I bet he gets dusted off. The Bucks are going to live with them shooting, knowing full well they can exploit their defensive liabilities on the other end. Provided the Bucks can take care of punishing them offensively (see the above click of Bledsoe for an example of said punishment), both of those slick-shooting pillars will have to hit at least their season average for the payoff to be worthwhile. We’ll see if Bud is willing to move Lopez up a bit or try out some switching in game one.
In our preview to the Magic series, we discussed Orlando’s predilection for stopping opponents’ fastbreak opportunities and that Milwaukee’s sheer quantity of transition attacks masked what was a relatively average play type in terms of efficiency. Unfortunately, they face a similar task in the second round, with Miami allowing the same percentage of opponent transition opportunities as Orlando (14%), and rank 14th in terms of opponent points per play. However, Miami is one of the best teams in the league in terms of stopping opponents off live rebounds. They rank 4th in terms of points per play for that metric (Milwaukee is first FWIW).
Against Orlando, the Bucks struggled to get any sort of fluidity and effectiveness in transition. The Magic won that battle, plain and simple, something I don’t think we would’ve predicted coming into the series. The Bucks scored at the worst rate in the Playoffs off live rebounds, and since that makes up nearly 30% of their plays, per Cleaning The Glass, that’s a whole lot of empty possessions. Eric Bledsoe in particular needs to up his efficiency here. When he’s not hitting shots, he’s a liability in the halfcourt, but his speed means he can still be a force when barreling down in transition. Despite making the highest percentage of his plays in transition among all Bucks, Bledsoe ranked in the 30th percentile in terms of scoring efficiency. He needs to force contact at the tin more often too to avoid the horror show he was in transition against Orlando. Giannis, for his part, couldn’t solve the Magic’s puzzle either, scoring in the 21st percentile after ranking in the 55th in the regular season. His hamstring strain and questionable status for game one bears monitoring.
Here’s a perfect example of Bledsoe’s questionable decisions in transition. The magic are scrambling, and their only paint protector manages to get locked in one-on-one with Bledsoe. He could easily scoot by him for a shot at the rim, but instead he settles for a 3-point jumper. Ignore the make; Bledsoe should be driving at these kind of cross-mismatches next round if he wants to maximize his offensive value next round
Miami blitzed Indiana in the first round with the best points/play in transition, but the Bucks pose a much stiffer task. Milwaukee didn’t allow gimmies to Orlando; what they did allow were careless fouls on shooters and uncharacteristic turnovers.
Turnovers/Free Throw Rate
I’m putting these together since they’re some of the most prominent low-hanging fruit principles Bud impresses upon the team. Turnovers in particular were a painful part of the first round, when Milwaukee coughed the ball up at the highest rate of any team in the Playoffs. The Bucks haven’t been as sure-handed as last year when they ranked sixth in the regular season for turnover rate, but they gave it away at a 15.9% rate against the Magic, which would’ve been second worst in the entire NBA through the season. I guarantee Bud put them through some basic drills to try and curtail that issue.
Miami aren’t a team that relies on creating turnovers, but they forced Indiana into the second highest turnover rate in round one. Their relentless pressure can force ball handlers into difficult decisions, and Bam could boast the strength to stand up Giannis while Heat helpers dig down to slap the ball from Giannis’s hands, Raptors style. Here’s a scene from their bubble game where that precisely happens.
Granted, several of Giannis’s turnovers are prone to come from offensive fouls, occasionally dubious calls, and passing overthrows. Still, Giannis was actually the least of Milwaukee’s issues last round turning it over. Both Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, who looked uncharacteristically sloppy and loose offensively, need to clean up their handle. The other frustrating bugaboo against the Magic was the parade of thoughtless fouls on shooters. I’d argue the Magic were embellishing contact in some of the early contests, but there were plenty of flat-out senseless plays with Milwaukee defenders making contact with shooters in the act.
The Bucks ranked 8th in the regular season in terms of opponent free throw rate, per Cleaning The Glass, but Miami is deadly at drawing fouls, ranking 2nd in the league throughout the regular season. That’s led by Jimmy Butler, who drew fouls on nearly a quarter of his shots. Looking at the list of players in that category, that’s a standout number for a wing given the vast majority of other players are either centers or rangy forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Zion Williamson. Butler’s closest approximate may be James Harden, who drew fouls on only 18.5% of his shots. Discipline is key for this Milwaukee team, both against Butler and Miami’s “bigs”, Derrick Jones Jr. and Bam, who draw fouls at elite rates for their positions. For Milwaukee’s part, they aren’t nearly as reliant on free throws to bolster their offense, but Bledsoe will need to be more aggressive attacking than against Orlando.
Sneaky Key Buck to Watch
Recall, if you can, the start of round two against the Boston Celtics last year. Game 1 was a tirefire, but from there, Milwaukee regained control with the help of two key bench players: George Hill and...Pat Connaughton. The high-flying Fighting Irishman is the sneaky key Buck for this round, particularly given Bud appears to trust him more than Donte DiVincenzo at this point. Pat’s been hot from deep, hitting 43.5% of his attempts in round one, but Milwaukee needs that type of efficiency to continue going forward.
Connaughton averaged nearly as many minutes as George Hill last round, but outside of 3-point shooting, his offensive contributions are reliant primarily on smart cuts to the bucket. He won’t create on his own, so he’ll need to cleverly read the Miami D to see if he can knife through to give Giannis and company an assist. Exhibit A: Herro gets caught ball-watching The Antetokounmpo Show while Connaughton cuts baseline for a slam.
I’m not as concerned about Connaughton offensively though. As one could see in the clip above with Duncan Robinson, Patty can get caught ball-watching of his own and losing discipline off-ball. That turns into his patented Planet Pat liftoff to sky and contest shots. If he does that against the likes of vets like Jae Crowder or Andre Iguodala, look for pump-fake, single dribble shuffle moves to the side for a clean jumper or for them to drive inside. Given his energy, he may be caught snaking around the court to tag onto Tyler Herro or Robinson as they race through screens. Connaughton can’t let himself get caught in that hall of screens. Unless Korver is on the floor, Spoelstra will likely have Connaughton as his first and foremost target to scheme against.
On paper, the Miami Heat look like an offensive team built to attack Milwaukee’s weaknesses, but the Bucks also have the best paint scorer since Shaq against a team whose rim protection is bottom-five in the league. For all the buzz we’re going to hear about Bam Adebayo’s ability to guard Giannis, there hasn’t been a defender this side of Kawhi Leonard who has found a recipe to slowing down the Greek Freak. I’m betting on him solving whatever mishmash of defenders the Heat throw at him, Khris Middleton finding a familiar groove and Miami lacking the offensive punch to keep up with Milwaukee. It all comes full circle; against the Heat, I’m taking Bucks in six.