Let’s get this part out of the way. The Milwaukee Bucks just finished one of the better seasons in recent memory. Outside of the Golden State Warriors of the past five seasons, and the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013, Milwaukee’s Net Rating of +9.4 is the best the league has seen this decade. Better than even any of the Miami HEAT teams that went to the NBA Finals. Beating the Bucks would be a Challenge and an Accomplishment with capital letters.
But sometimes the right team, and the wrong matchup, comes along at the right time. Sometimes Three 6 Mafia shows up at the Academy Awards and wins a damn Oscar.
The HEAT can win. This is how they’ll have to do it.
Milwaukee and Toronto had the two best defenses in the league this season. With all their length and size, protecting the rim was the name of the game and the Bucks did it better than anyone, ranking first in both opponent volume and opponent field-goal percentage at the rim. The HEAT shot 67 percent at the rim this season. In three games against Milwaukee, they shot 52.5 percent on a number of attempts (19.7) in that area that would be far and away the lowest per-game average in the league. No team was immune to the rim-averse stylings of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co.
Impossible as it is to secure every section of the floor, Milwaukee and Toronto, along with Miami, also allowed the most threes as a percentage of their opponent’s offense. It may be the closest thing you’ll find to one, though it’s tough to call something so by-design a weakness. Necessity may be the better word. You must hit jumpers to beat them. Of their 18 losses this season, only four of them featured Bucks opponents hitting fewer than 15 threes. Antetokounmpo didn’t play in three of those four losses. For perspective, the average numbers of made threes in an NBA game this season was 12.
“We’re going to play the same style of basketball,” Jimmy Butler said. “We’re going to attack, get into the paint, find open shooters and we’re going to get pissed off if they don’t shoot the ball.”
Good thing, then, that the HEAT are an exceptional shooting team. Among the best in any recent season.
You can throw out bits and pieces of all three Heat-Bucks matchups this season – key players missing games, back-to-backs, etc. – but each remain variations on a theme. When Miami had success, they shot well and Milwaukee didn’t.
-Game 1: Miami comes back to win in overtime hitting 10-of-23 from deep after halftime while the Bucks shoot 3-of-20 over the same period.
-Game 2: A close game turns into a late blowout with Miami shooting 48.6 percent on threes and Milwaukee hitting 20.5 percent.
-Game 3: A double-digit HEAT lead at halftime comes by way of 13-of-24 first-half shooting from three.
The manner in which those threes came about was pretty consistent. Coach Mike Budenholzer is notoriously deliberate in his adhesiveness to their base defensive scheme, which involves dropping big men back into the paint like so:
The shooting pocket created by that coverage is well suited to Miami’s perimeter-powered offense. When Duncan Robinson is running through a Bam Adebayo dribble handoff, there’s typically no big to contest if his defender gets caught up on contact. The HEAT’s various off-dribble threats – Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn, who may have opportunity ahead of him after seeing limited time against Indiana – can hunt pick-and-pull triples whenever they like. And with Milwaukee sucking help into the paint as necessary, drive-and-kicks are there if you can thread passes through the sea of arms.
Which is all the say that the shots Miami is comfortable with are the shots Miami are probably going to be able to get in this series, at least on the perimeter. Getting those shots won’t be enough, and it comes with the territory that the HEAT will run cold for stretches which could lead to a lopsided score of two – the Bucks did lead the league in shot contests so open will be relative here – but you only need to score enough to win four, not four in a row.
“You have to do things with intention,” Spoelstra said. “You can’t have wasted possessions. It’s not just about taking a particular shot, because they do a lot of things well defensively.
“Ultimately in the playoffs, yeah guys have to make plays and make shots.”
All that shooting will be the equivalent of Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley trying to salvage The Rise of Skywalker if the HEAT can’t get stops. Here’s where it gets a little tricky. It’s true that Bam Adebayo is as perfect a defender as you could design for Antetokounmpo…
…but if that were all it took Erik Spoelstra wouldn’t designate so many extra resources toward the same cause.
Every team tries to build a wall against Antetokounmpo just as every team tried to build a wall against LeBron James. No matter how strong your bricks, they still need to be connected to stop a force of nature. Just as with James at the time of his career when he saw this coverage most often, inducing a jumper is the best-case scenario.
Over the past two seasons Antetokounmpo, likely the back-to-back Most Valuable Player, has played two of his worst games against the HEAT, shooting 3-of-12 in 2018 and 6-of-18 this past March. Granted those were both road back-to-backs and Antetokounmpo is also 2-of-23 from three against Miami over those two years, low even for a 30 percent shooter, but there is at least past evidence of success to lean on. The Bucks are 23-3 when Antetokounmpo hits two or more threes.
Antetokounmpo also set a personal-high with 13 makes (on 13 attempts) at the rim when these teams met during seeding games. Butler didn’t play and Adebayo was in foul trouble – something the HEAT can ill afford – but speaking of past evidence there’s that, too.
The issue with any defensive wall is that it has holes. The Great Wall of China doesn’t actually cover all of China. Every defender pulled into Antetokounmpo’s orbit is leaving a shooter.
“They generate a lot of three-point looks because they have a guy that collapses your defense consistently,” Spoelstra said.
Milwaukee isn’t the shooting team that Miami is, in fact they’re quite average, but they’re replete with willing and able spot-up receivers. It’s no coincidence that Miami didn’t only have to get hot to beat the Bucks, but the Bucks had to miss plenty of their own.
Where both sides of the floor come together is that the HEAT might not only need to hit their jumpers in order to score enough, they’ll need to hit their jumpers to get enough stops.
It’s tough enough to manage keeping Antetokounmpo out of the paint with all those shooters around him during a slower, half-court possession. All full speed in transition? Good luck. No team played in transition more than Milwaukee, and they didn’t rely on forcing turnovers to do so. When the Bucks grabbed a defensive rebound, a league-high 35 percent of their ensuing possessions were fast-breaks per CleaningTheGlass.com. In comparison, Miami’s number in those situations was a league-low 22 percent. If you miss shots, the Bucks run. If the Bucks run, they score. If they score, you’re back to trying to score in the half-court against the league’s stingiest defense ready and set. You get caught in that vicious cycle and you’re down double digits in a hurry. When Miami went cold in the fourth quarter a few weeks ago, the Bucks went on a 20-0 run.
There are some mitigating factors that can disrupt the cycle. The Bucks don’t foul a ton, but with Butler leading the way Miami can get to the line. The Bucks don’t commit a ton of turnovers, but Miami’s help defense can be fast and furious enough to induce deflections. A timely charge taken here or there can get Antetokounmpo into foul trouble. Any one of those categories can swing a game. They’ll have to win some of the unquantifiables.
Miami’s relatively newfound identity as one of the league’s most switch-heavy defenses could come into focus in a roundabout way, in that with so much of Milwaukee’s offense coming from ball movement derived from Antetokounmpos’s gravity, the Bucks don’t actually run a ton of switchable actions. Not to mention the switches Miami won’t want to make given Milwaukee’s ability to punish mismatches. Where the Indiana Pacers hunted perimeter mismatches in a manner that resulted in isolation after isolation, the Bucks are a little more well-rounded in that Eric Bledsoe can take guys off the dribble, Khris Middleton can shoot efficiently off the bounce from anywhere and there’s post-up options as well. Given Miami’s proclivity for helping on mismatches, those tilted defensive possessions can quickly become spot-up looks.
“Even if you think you play him well, he’s always dancing around a triple double,” Spoelstra said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons.
Clutch minutes will again be a question, for each side. Milwaukee scored well at the end of games, but it’s still the time of the game when things slow down and you may get to deal with someone who isn’t the Most Valuable Player controlling the ball. The HEAT held off a number of late Pacers pushes, but now they have to do it in a matchup where they don’t have any natural offensive matchups to chase down the stretch.
This won’t be that Indiana series. Unlike then, when Miami looked at home on most possessions, Milwaukee doesn’t afford you comfort. Even when the Pacers were the better team for six minutes, that often only meant they outscored the HEAT by two or four points during that stretch. Now it’s flipped. Miami is the one working with the thinner margin for error, though their shooting should allow for more extended runs.
It feels reductive to bring everything back to shooting, but those are the circumstances of the matchup, at least on (a large stack of) paper. The HEAT can win because they are a great shooting team. But to actually win, they have to be a great shooting team.