Searching for Seven
In case you are worried about Milwaukee’s recent dip in form (five straight losses) with the playoffs just days away, keep in mind that their very best seven-game slice of the season (6-1) was preceded by their very worst seven-game slice of the season (1-6).
The Bucks might just have a 1 in 76 chance of outplaying the Heat over the course of seven games. So we are looking for that one.
You can split an 82-game NBA schedule into precisely 76 seven-game slices. Stay with me.
For example, the Bucks went 5-2 in the first seven games of the season. And so on.
Because there is a different seven-game slice starting at each game number up to the 76th game. Games 76-82 represent the final seven-game slice of the season (it’s not a very good-looking slice for the Bucks right now).
And why would you want to do such a thing?
Because you can find out pretty quickly how good (and bad) any team is capable of playing over the course of seven games. The span of seven games is important quite obviously because a playoff series is a seven-game series.
So, we are searching for the best seven-game Bucks slice that we can find. It might offer a blueprint for success. Something for the team to look back at, learn from – and hopefully, replicate.
For the Heat, we are doing just the opposite. We are looking for their worst seven-game slice.
After all, the perfect game is not enough. The Bucks need the perfect series. Their best seven-game slice. And the Heat’s worst seven-game slice. At the same time.
The Heat had the bigger (better) slice 69 times. It was the same six times. The Bucks had a better seven-game slice once the entire season.
Yes, this is sort of how I spend my Sundays and Mondays. And yes, the data is pretty discouraging for Bucks fans. You might say that this suggests that the Bucks have a 1 in 76 chance of winning more games than the Heat over the course of seven games (it’s so much more complicated than that, but it’s also interesting).
But rather than look at that one overlapping slice, we are going to identify the best (Bucks) and worst overall slices (Heat), regardless of timeframe.
Milwaukee’s Seven-Game Slice (February 26 to March 10)
The best seven-game slice of the season for the Bucks is pretty clear. It started in Dallas, just days after the team acquired J.J. Redick.
Coincidentally, it all started after falling behind 11-0. The Bucks stormed back in the fourth quarter to defeat the Mavericks 95-90 on the road. Monta Ellis played brilliant offense down the stretch (high percentage playmaking with lots of driving and dishing) and Larry Sanders played brilliant defense down the stretch (bottling up Dirk Nowitzki). Safe to say, those two will need to be just as brilliant on their favorite sides of the court against the Heat.
The good times for Ellis continued the night next in Houston, as the Bucks came from 17 points down to defeat the Rockets 110-107 on a game-winning, buzzer-beating three by Ellis. The final heave was miraculous and not necessarily something to try again, but to beat the Heat the team will very likely need some similar luck. More importantly, Ellis played a fantastic game, notably earning 11 shots at the free throw line.
After leaving Texas 2-0, the Bucks returned home and dropped 122 points in an overtime win over the Raptors. It was an inconsistent overall effort, but the team was really rolling offensively at this point. Brandon Jennings posted a career-high 19 assists and the Bucks piled up 32 assists as a team.
Then they knocked off the Jazz at home in overtime. Jennings continued his pure point guard ways with 17 assists. The Bucks headed for the coast on a four-game winning streak but ran into the Clippers and lost a lopsided game. But they recovered quite nicely to beat both the Warriors and Kings in their buildings. Jennings and Ellis outplayed and outshot Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, and held on for a weird win in Sacramento without Larry Sanders, J.J. Redick, or Ersan Ilyasova.
Three quick notes from the team’s finest seven-game slice of the season:
- Jennings and Ellis coexist. In fact, they didn’t just coexist, they positively thrived starting in the backcourt together. While Jennings reinvented himself as a patient, probing, pass-first point guard, Ellis embraced the lead scorer role in all of the best ways. Indeed, Jennings racked up assists at an unprecedented, historically elite rate (35 in two games!), and Ellis won Player of the Week honors in the beginning part of this stretch. Jennings attempted fewer shots, shot better (44.0 % from field, 50.0 % from deep, 90.5 % from line), averaged 11.1 assists and just 2.3 turnovers, and still managed to average 16.0 points. Meanwhile, Ellis averaged 26.1 points, 7.1 assists, and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 50.0 % from the field and getting to the free throw line more often than usual.
- On the road. The Bucks went 4-1 on the road and 2-0 at home in this stretch. Obviously the Heat have home court advantage, and what an absurd advantage it is, at 36-4 in Miami. But the Bucks have had their moments on the road this season, and it should be noted that their best stretch of the season came mostly away from Milwaukee.
- Shot distribution. They were a bit more aggressive and a bit smarter offensively than usual. The team made 17.3 free throws per game during this stretch, a nice bump up from their season average of 15.3. At the same time, the Bucks also warmed from outside, making 9.1 threes per game on 41.0 %. And they shot more often from deep. You can’t really plan on shooting that well on threes, but Miami is the second most accurate three-point shooting team in the league, and the Bucks will absolutely need to be on point from outside to have any real chance.
Miami’s Seven-Game Slice (December 28 to January 8)
In late December, the Heat struggled to a 3-4 record, somehow managing to lose to almost the entire Central Division. They lost road games to the Pistons, Bucks, and Pacers, and fell at home to the Bulls. And this came with the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh trio at almost full strength (Wade missed one game while James and Bosh both played all games).
Then again, this was a long time ago, and the Heat worked things out since then, to devastating near-perfection. Still a few things are worth noting: the Heat did not force nearly as many turnovers as usual, they gave up a lot of offensive rebounds, and James/Wade/Bosh all played up to their usual standards (gaudy numbers for all three). It was the supporting cast that let the team down.
Sliver of Hope
Coincidentally, even Milwaukee’s best seven-game slice of the season was no match for Miami. In the same time that the Bucks went 6-1, the Heat breezed to a 7-0 record in what was roughly the middle of their 27-game winning streak. Naturally, the Player of the Week award that Ellis won at the time was sandwiched by Player of the Week awards by James and Wade.
And that brings us back to the point that not only do the Bucks need to find their best seven-game slice of the season, but that it probably also needs to coincide with the worst seven-game slice of the Heat’s season.
So we will search for that seven-game slice. And we will watch. Even if the odds are not in their favor, no matter how you slice it.