culture (noun) - the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
What exactly is culture worth? If the Milwaukee Bucks’ 4-0 series victory is any indication, not much.
The thing about any series against the Miami Heat is not that we’d be playing a team with awe-inspiring talent or a regular season track record of note. Instead, it would be about something larger than simply the players available for both sides. You see, in the course of the Bubble Debacle last year, these two teams had found their “narratives” solidified in league-wide perception.
Last postseason, Milwaukee went from sure-fire contender to laughingstock overnight, the target of ridicule and doubt from almost every corner. It wouldn’t matter if the Bucks went into the 2020-2021 season, whooped up on everyone yet again, and entered the playoffs with the East’s one seed for a third consecutive year. We would be seen as nonexistent as a post-season factor; good enough to be there, but dismissed as not mentally or strategically capable of going all the way.
Contrast that with the Miami Heat, a league darling since before their NBA Finals run in the Bubble. Somehow, someway, the Heat, a team that has been no better than a five seed in the past five seasons, accrued a reputation bordering on the mystical. For some reason, the collective consciousness decided that managing to win (at most) 44 games in five years was a sign that there was something special in Miami’s water. Pat Riley paid Dion Waiters $52 million and Tyler Johnson $50 million, thus earning our begrudging respect that He Still Had It. Their franchise legend left town to go to ring chase in Cleveland (via Chicago, of all places), a sign that loyalty doesn’t go quite as far in Miami. Then Jimmy Butler showed up screaming about how different he is than all the rest. The run to the Finals last year was the cherry on top that cemented the Heat as the team you just don’t want to face in the playoffs.
A week after the start of the post-season, and the Bucks have absolutely, catastrophically, definitively proven that the Heat myth was just that: a myth.
Oh, how can I count the ways?
Let’s start with Jimmy Butler, shall we? Undoubtedly a talented, All-NBA caliber player, the Bucks showed that he lacks the skillset to credibly be considered a superstar. Yes, he screams a lot. Yes, he talks a very big game. Yes, he’ll hurt you if you’re careless. Yet all Milwaukee needed to do was go under on his pick and rolls and watch him collapse from a modicum of pressure. There were the numerous passes thrown either completely out of bounds or so poorly as to result in the same thing: a giveaway. There were the decisions to try to drive, find Giannis standing in his way, and then mope back to the perimeter after wasting 10 seconds. There was the utter unwillingness to step up and take the responsibility for at least getting some shots up when Miami’s season was collapsing before their eyes. Instead, we got to watch Kendrick Nunn try to shoot the Heat back into things. Butler, just like every braggart, looks like a prophet when his talk is backed up by wins. Just like every braggart, when you publicize that you’re “stupidly locked in” and then get outplayed by the opponent’s bench guard, the whole rotten edifice of your persona collapses in on itself. It’s going to be a long offseason for that guy.
Then there’s Bam Adebayo. Nice guy, I’m sure, but one who is about to be paid roughly a billion dollars so that he can routinely decline doing anything helpful on an entire half of the floor. Nobody personified the indecision and confusion of the Miami Heat in the face of tense defense than Bam. So many Heat possessions were utterly wasted in his hands, Brook backed 30 feet off him daring Bam to take a shot, and Bam pivoting around desperately hoping a teammate would come and take the ball from his hands. Unfortunately for him, Milwaukee’s off-ball defense suffocated Miami and, for three and a half games, Adebayo was left to stand dumbfounded and incapable of summoning the courage to shoot an open look for 12 seconds at a go. Defensively, he’s a rare talent, yet like most humans he can’t adequately guard two players at once, so it was a long series of him watching Giannis and Brook alternate dunking. Miami’s next superstar, or something.
What about the rest of that squad of losers? Turns out there isn’t a lot of there there. The thing we learned about “Heat Culture” in this sweep is that “Heat Culture” is perfectly fine with doing away with any semblance of sportsmanship. “Heat Culture” is trying to cause a fight as your career slowly ebbs from your grasp so you can avoid taking your drubbing like an adult with a little bit of humility. “Heat Culture” is being so bitter that you were proven to be totally incapable of winning even a game that unnecessarily hard fouls and putting other players in dangerous position became acceptable. “Heat Culture” is being the worst kind of front-runner when things are going your way and the worst kind of sore loser when they don’t.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, proved themselves to be everything the doubters thought they weren’t. Calm under pressure, they methodically chipped away at any lead Miami held and ended each game with pomp and poise. Dangerous at any moment, they showed that they could unleash an avalanche of scoring from anywhere on the court that would leave you buried. Defensively sound, they regularly dialed up the intensity to smother the idea of an open look easily earned. Balanced in personnel, if one Milwaukee Buck struggled, another stepped forward, and then another, and then another, and then another; players new or old all leaving an indelible mark on each game. Well-coached, they adjusted quickly to a dangerous opposing gambit and kept their foot on the gas the entire series. You can’t go so far as to say that this team is a lock to make it past the Nets or the Sixers of the world, but this isn’t the same pushover of years past.
Whereas the Miami Heat had a “kick me” sign duct taped to their back, the Milwaukee Bucks put everyone on notice. You doubt them for a second this time around, you think yourself safe and sound, you sit confident that history will repeat itself, and they will come for your neck.
How’s that for culture?