In the NBA bubble last year, the Miami Heat stunning the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round represented a huge turning point: the Heat transforming into serious contenders.
Both teams have sort of fallen off from their positions last year, with the Bucks no longer dominating the East in the regular season and the Heat only qualifying as a sixth seed after making the Finals.
What was one of last year's most pivotal series comes to us in the first round this year, still with plenty of simmering storylines waiting to burst out the seams.
Most compelling storyline
This season, the Bucks have assembled the most talent in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era with the addition of Jrue Holiday in the offseason and PJ Tucker pre-trade deadline. The Greek Freak was low-key freakier this season, pretty much matching his MVP numbers.
But the Bucks have been labeled a “prove it" team – as in prove it in the playoffs – mostly because of back-to-back early playoff exits despite having the back-to-back MVP on their team. Milwaukee is among the teams in the league that have done pretty much everything, except make the Finals. Although they were able to avoid an extension drama with Giannis, an early playoff exit this year will still cause the axe to drop on several Bucks on the roster, the coaching staff, or even the upper management.
The Heat, on the other hand, have not been all right all season. The condensed schedule hit the top four teams from last season especially hard, with Miami dealing with injuries and health protocols up and down their lineup. Even when they were complete, they were inconsistent in living up to the Heat Culture.
Despite all that, the Heat are still somewhat favorites against the Bucks. Forget their 0-3 record against Milwaukee in the regular season because the Heat didn't have Jimmy Butler for any of those games. Miami will inevitably build a wall in front of Giannis. It’s up to the Bucks to prove that they can break down that wall, like how the White Walkers used a zombified dragon to break into Westeros in Game of Thrones.
Keep an eye on…
The Bucks’ Achilles heel is their endgame execution. Giannis is unstoppable on the fastbreak and when he finds enough space to launch himself to the rim. The main problem with having Giannis in close games is his free throw. While he's not a Ben Wallace-level shooter from the free throw line, his 68.5 percent FT shooting this season doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
His free throw shooting severely limits his potential, especially late in games when teams would rather gamble on him shooting charities than him driving to the rim. This was apparent in each of the last two playoff series that they lost. The Bucks needed to go to other ball handlers to close games, because Giannis was still limited in what he can do in the half-court. Look for Giannis to be more confident down the stretch when he’s shooting well at the line.
For the Heat, the point guard rotation will be crucial. Goran Dragic has been in and out of the lineup, but he should be healthy come Sunday. He and Kendrick Nunn being consistent threats could be what stretches Milwaukee’s defense too thin in this series.
The Heat pulled incredible performances from Butler and Bam Adebayo last year, but what really gave them the edge was the emergence of Tyler Herro. Miami confidently rode the then rookie's hot streaks to several key wins against the Bucks and the Boston Celtics.
Herro didn't have the breakout season that most expected from him because of injuries, COVID-19 protocols, and all the heat he took for that music video he starred in. He came off the bench for most of the season, which could be the optimal role for him on this team. Having a second unit led by Herro and Dragic is the kind of bench production that no other team in the East has.
For the Bucks, PJ Tucker’s involvement on both ends of the floor could low-key win this series. Tucker didn’t have a lot of time to be assimilated into the Bucks’ ethos, but unlike his sneaker collection, he's low-maintenance. Milwaukee just needs Tucker to make a couple of corner 3s a game and they'll happily have him close games as an elite switchable defender.
The Heat already have the formula and the personnel to beat the Bucks: form a wall in front of the rim so three or four guys are containing Giannis' drives while rotating to the recipient of any kick-out pass. The Bucks may have a counter to that strategy in line, but the Heat still have Adebayo as the perfect foil to Giannis.
Miami’s wins should look like mid-2000s playoff games with relatively low-scoring and languid pace. The Heat should also be able to punish any gimmick defense that the Bucks may employ if their shooters get it going. Just having Butler also ensures that the Heat will have the best chance to close out tight games in the series.
The Bucks will need to find a way to run against the Heat, which, in turn, will maximize Giannis' strengths. The Bucks arguably have more shooting across their roster. If Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Holiday get quality outside looks, the Bucks should easily overwhelm the weary Heat.