An evening ago, after waiting well over a week, the Milwaukee Bucks finally learned who their first round opponent would be: the Miami Heat. For fans who have commented all year at how old the Bucks—and they certainly aren’t young—rotation skews, may I present to you the Heat, who are only barely younger: their roster’s average age is only exceeded by the NBA’s oldest Bucks.
Jimmy Butler and co. took out his former team to secure the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, a few days after getting worked over by the visiting Hawks. It’s a disappointing result for the Heat, who finished the regular season in the seventh slot, just a game back of the sixth seed that would have kept them out of the play-in. That did afford them up to two home games, however, and they needed to win just one of them for honor of facing the two teams who finished the regular season with the best records league-wide.
Led by Trae Young, Atlanta constructed a 24-point first-half lead on Tuesday before Miami tightened things up slightly in the second half behind a resurgent Kyle Lowry and his game-high 33. However, Clint Capela’s 21 rebounds constituted the lion’s share of the Hawks massive 63-39 edge on the glass, and the Heat went pretty quietly as a .500 team who finished three games behind them in the standings leapfrogged them for the seventh seed. Their win-or-go-home matchup with Chicago last night wasn’t going that well until the final frame, at least offensively speaking. Despite Max Strus’ 23-point first half, one where he sank six of his eight three point attempts, no other Heat players could help them separate beyond a 49-44 halftime advantage. They trailed by a point after cobbling together a mere 18 points in the third before Butler—who finished tied with Strus for a game-high 31—erupted in the fourth, pacing Miami to a 35-point quarter and a 102-91 victory.
Each outing was emblematic of the Heat’s season-long struggles scoring the ball. They finished a putrid 25th in offensive rating and are one of just two playoff teams (the other is Minnesota) with a negative net rating at -0.3, despite finishing 44-38. Shooting is a particular problem, as they finished fourth from the bottom in three-point percentage on an above-average 34.8 attempts per game, and 22nd in field goal percentage in the restricted area, where only 19% of their shots came.
Put simply, Miami has been a bad offensive team. Despite three scorers above 20 PPG (Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Milwaukee native Tyler Herro), key contributors to last year’s top-seeded unit like Strus and Caleb Martin took big hits to their efficiency. Meanwhile, Lowry has trended down for years now and missed nearly thirty games, losing his starting spot to sometimes-Bucks killer Gabe Vincent. Buyout addition Kevin Love hasn’t refund his stroke in South Beach, plus former rotation guards Duncan Robinson and Victor Oladipo stay pretty glued to the pine.
Behind Adebayo and Butler, their defense ranked much better in eighth, but aside from those two, the Heat are well-known for a lack of size in their front court. Gone are the days of starting both Martin and Strus in the frontcourt at 6’5”, but Butler undersized for the four at 6’7” too. Still, as Bucks fans know well, Erik Spoelstra has long found ways to frustrate Giannis inside with his gaggle of help defenders, and only the Raptors generated opponent turnovers at a higher rate than this year’s Heat (14.5 opponent TO%).
These are not your Heat of a season ago, much less of two seasons ago when the Bucks swept them out of the first round. Even more dissimilar were the Bubble Heat, who gritted their way to the NBA Finals and notoriously needed just five games to dispatch the Bucks in the second round. However, the Heat aren’t quite the kind of low-seeded team one can just hand-wave away, á la the 2019 Pistons. I’ll get to that in a moment.
These two teams faced off four times in the regular season and the home team was victorious every time. Like most regular season basketball, though, these results weren’t very instructive. The two games in Miami came consecutively in January, Milwaukee was without both Giannis and Khris Middleton for both of them, and they nearly snatched away a W in the first contest. You might remember Vincent going off in each of those. When the series moved to the 414 in February, the Heat point guard was much more muted (3/9 then 1/6 from the field, 1/11 from deep across both for a combined 9 points), helping the then-healthier and more complete Bucks prevail as part of their perfect month. The most recent meeting was a 128-99 laugher, but in each of their wins at Fiserv Forum, the Bucks’ offensive rating was well-above 120, a number which would have led the league this year.
Most of the handwringing about the Bucks at present is again in regards to health, after seeing three key contributors exit with injuries in the regular season’s final week. While neither team has posted their injury report as of writing, news on the Middleton, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton front is pretty good:
After today’s practice, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters that Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Khris Middleton were all full participants in practice today.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) April 13, 2023
Allen and Brook Lopez said today was the most intense scrimmaging they’ve done since the All-Star Break.
Certainly, there will continue to be questions around the health of each of these players, particularly Middleton, whose malady was described as a reaggravation of recurring right knee soreness. The other two had ankle sprains, but neither seemed very severe. All signs point to the trio seeing the court tomorrow, though perhaps limited for the series’ first few games.
Fans may still harbor feelings of trepidation from way back in the 2020 bubble, and the Heat have given the Bucks some trouble in the regular season since, but much has obviously changed. At the forefront is Giannis, who famously broke through the wall in the 2021 playoffs and had little trouble getting to the rack in the one full appearance he made versus Miami this year. Though Adebayo remains, the other Heat defender from that 2020 series who gave Giannis trouble happens to now be his teammate: Jae Crowder. To be sure, the Heat currently lack any other rim protectors or big bodies inside beyond Adebayo, which bodes well for Giannis and Lopez.
In 2021, Mike Budenholzer made the notable adjustment to put Giannis on Butler defensively, a move that paid off in spades as the Heat start was famously outscored by Bryn Forbes throughout those four games. We’ll see if Bud opts to go that route again with Crowder and Wesley Matthews also available, but I think it’s safe to say that the Bucks (and their fans) are no longer scared of Jimmy Buckets. Adebayo was also completely de-fanged by Lopez in 2021, but he’s been notably less scared of Splash Mountain since. I’ll be curious to see how a more confident Adebayo fares against the Bucks’ top-flight defense on the heels of a career offensive season.
Perhaps the only part of Middleton’s game we’ve yet to see return fully is his defense. In the title run he was great on that end, switching onto Kevin Durant with aplomb and chasing Robinson off all kinds of screens during that sweep. While Middleton likely won’t need to deal with Heat shooters as much, I think we’re all waiting to see whether or not his perimeter abilities return, or if he even can still compete on that end. Guys like Strus and Martin aren’t as big on movement as Herro or Vincent, who will likely be the purview of guys like Jrue Holiday and Jevon Carter, but Middleton has a size advantage on each that he could leverage on both sides of the ball.
DraftKings Odds & Prediction
Befitting of the Bucks’ status as league-leaders and the Heat’s less-than-inspiring week, the Bucks enter Game 1 as nine-point favorites at home according to our friends at DraftKings. ESPN writers are unanimously picking the Bucks, with five games by far the most popular choice (shoutout to our guy Nick Friedell going Bucks in four).
As for me, well… I’m certainly more confident in this current Milwaukee roster than the one entering that 2021 postseason. Yes, yes, I know. I’ve spent a lot of time in this preview discussing that series from two years ago, but that 2020 result seems to stick out in many peoples’ minds even more than the 2021 sweep. It’s obvious that these two teams have gone in opposite directions since, and even more sharply over the past year. Given relative health for the Bucks, how outstanding they looked in all facets over the latter two months-plus of the regular season, and the Heat’s significant offensive deficiencies, a Bucks series victory seems like a fait-accompli. I won’t be surprised if Miami takes one, maybe even at Fiserv Forum, but ultimately I find this to be a very lopsided matchup.
Bucks in four.
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