Two years ago, the Miami Heat – seeded second in the Eastern Conference – faced the 7th place Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, and in a short, five-game annihilation of their opponents, LeBron James referred to the first round as ‘breakfast’. The ‘bigger meals’, apparently, were to come later. Miami rode their appetite all the way to the NBA Finals that year before becoming a midnight snack to the Dallas Mavericks. A year later, the Heat returned to the playoffs a little hungrier, and finished all their meals to become the NBA champions.
This season, with the Heat standing head and shoulders over all of their opponents in the Eastern Conference, they will be looking forward to another appetizing ‘breakfast’ in the first round to start their playoffs journey. But not if the current eighth seed in the East – the Milwaukee Bucks – decides to put up a fight.
From the looks of it, Miami has little to fear from a matchup against Milwaukee. The Bucks currently stand a massive 21.5 games behind the dominating Heat, and although their playoff qualification seems safe, their chance of snagging even a single victory against the unstoppable Heat – who have won 27 in a row – seems somewhere between zero and nil.
But a playoff qualification, and a chance to become a thorn on Miami’s path to glory, may be more than enough validation for this young side.
The Bucks haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, missing the post-season over the past two disappointing seasons. Back then, the efforts of Andrew Bogut, rookie Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, and Ersan Ilyasova helped Milwaukee snag sixth place in the East, and begin the ‘Fear the Deer’ campaign for this exciting squad. Unfortunately an injury to their defensive stalwart in Bogut ended the excitement early, and – despite giving the Hawks a run for their money in a memorable seven-game series – the Bucks were ousted in the opening round.
Three years later, this franchise has changed its face dramatically. While Jennings and Ilyasova remain as important pieces in the rotation, Bogut was swapped to Golden State for Monta Ellis last season and Larry Sanders has emerged as the team’s tough post defensive presence. A trade-deadline move for sharp-shooter J.J. Redick helped to add an extra dimension to this squad.
While Milwaukee has been simmering below .500 through much of the season, their slight recent improvement – since the Trade Deadline – is encouraging. While Redick’s numbers have fallen since the trade from Orlando, his presence has helped improve the floor game for point guard Brandon Jennings, who has been the second-leading assist getter in the NBA (9.4 assists per game) since the trade, improving his numbers dramatically from 6.1 apg before that. A pass-happy Jennings has also resulted in better scoring nights for Monta Ellis, who has raised his points average from 18.4 to 23.6 ppg since the Trade Deadline. Ilyasova’s scoring (17.9 ppg, up from 11.2) and rebounding (9 rpg, up from 6.2) have increased too. Meanwhile, Sanders continues to be close to a double-double threat every night and is still the league’s leader in blocks.
It is the presence of Sanders and Ilyasova on the inside, along with other bigs like Samuel Dalembert and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, that will probably have to play the biggest role for the Bucks in a potential first-round tilt versus the relatively undersized Heat. Milwaukee currently holds a 1-2 record against Miami, losing the first matchup in a thrilling overtime contest, dominating the Heat in their second game in December, but losing again as the 21st victim of Miami’s recent streak.
The reality of the situation is that even this recent improvement and optimism may not be enough against Miami’s explosion of talent. With the seventh place Celtics having lost five in a row, perhaps the Bucks’ best chance of a respectable showing in the playoffs is to move up a seed. They will have to finish the season strong to do that. The ‘Deer’ haven’t been past the first round since the 2000-01 season, when their big three of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson led them to the Eastern Conference Finals.
For now, the Bucks will be hoping that if they do face the Heat in the first round, they can serve their opponents an unappetizing breakfast.