1. If you could have dreamed up a perfect start for the HEAT, injuries aside, it would have looked something like this.
Milwaukee didn’t look prepared for their opportunistic hit-ahead passes in transition. They were drawing charges and forcing turnovers on defense. And offensively they hit just about everything they put up, shooting 8-of-14 from three – compared to 4-of-21 from the Bucks – and 4-of-8 in the mid-range. Jimmy Butler was 10-of-13 in the paint, hitting short jumpers and challenging Brook Lopez at the rim as he scored 24 points on 17 field-goal attempts that were the most he had ever taken in the first half of a game while wearing a HEAT uniform. Milwaukee made a run at one point, Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis working around the edges of the paint, but Miami immediately responded with a series of jumpers to push the lead back to 13 by the break.
Potential injuries to Giannis Antetokounmpo (ruled out in the second quarter, after he attempted to return to the game, with a back contusion suffered on a fall) and Tyler Herro (a broken right hand suffered when he dove after a loose ball just before halftime) cast a shadow over the proceedings, but there was nothing either team could do for either play in the moment. There remained a game to win.
The second half started just as well. More jumpers, including some from Bam Adebayo over Lopez after a slow start, held the Bucks off. Miami wasn’t exactly getting great stops, the makes just kept coming to sustain them – either Kevin Love (18 points on nine shots) was hitting threes or Butler was attacking, answering each Bucks shot while Milwaukee struggled to string consecutive scoring possessions together even when open opportunities were there. The fact that Miami extended their lead to 14 despite Milwaukee scoring 33 in the period pretty much sums up how this one was going. The Bucks are one of the few truly elite defenses in the league, and every player in a HEAT uniform was tickling the twine.
This HEAT group has always been at their best playing from ahead, and up 13 with just over five minutes to go, Milwaukee continually missing the momentum shots that would have made a real run, it looked like everything was in hand, and it was. Miami takes Game 1, 130-117, with a 128.7 Offensive Rating. All eyes on Milwaukee’s injury report for the next two days.
2. Much of the runup to this series was spent discussing the role Bam Adebayo – gaining some real momentum in the second half with his upper paint jumper – could play with Brook Lopez expected to play his usual drop coverage in the paint. But the other side of that coin is that drop coverage, by its very nature, it’s pick-and-roll coverage, and there’s another player involved in the pick-and-roll. In other words, all that space was there for a ballhandler to eat, too, and Butler was hungry. The Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll had been coming on strong in the last month of the season with Butler posting such ridiculous efficiency, but his performance wasn’t contained to just that action. As long as Lopez was dropping back and conceding space, Butler was more than happy to take his short jumpers early and often – or just outright trying and score over or around Lopez’ size.
Miami also has an option to pull Lopez out of the paint, however, and when Erik Spoelstra went to Love at backup center, with Love hitting threes throughout then night – just last week he only played three minutes in the play-in game against Atlanta, but veterans show up and do their thing – Butler had a field day getting downhill as the Bucks tried to sort out who was supposed to be the help man – and doing so too late – when Lopez wasn’t hanging around the rim. Throw in more first-quarter hit-ahead passes than Butler has received seemingly since Kyle Lowry’s first months with the team last season, plus a few open floor scores off turnovers, and it was a quintessential Butler (35 points on 20 shots, 11 assists, three steals) game. They weren’t always the best shots possible in a possession on a random night in February, but they’re the shots Milwaukee is going to give up and the shots you have to hit against them. Coupled with Butler’s physical drives into contact, there isn’t much more you can ask of him from a scoring perspective.
The question now is where Milwaukee will want to make adjustments in how they play Butler – do they keep giving up the same switches, do they play him up higher on the floor – and when it comes to the Bucks, adjustments don’t always come fast and furious when it comes to their base coverage. Antetokounmpo didn’t open this game on Butler like he did back in 2021, but assuming he returns at some point from his injury that’s a still a card to be played.
3. It was plain to see what the HEAT did well offensively. Their spacing was superb, they played with a pace in the half-court and, you know, they hit a metric ton of shots. Even with how much of a struggle scoring has been this season, they’ve proven themselves capable of games like this, even against the Bucks (without Antetokounmpo). Even without Herro (presumably), we know what it’ll have to look like on that end for them to find success. It’s their defense that will be worth some examination as we move on toward the rest of this series.
Here’s a big number for tonight. Despite their 11-of-45, 25 percent three-point shooting – something you can never bank on repeating, even if Milwaukee has a history with poor postseason shooting regardless of regular season success – the Bucks still had an Offensive Rating of 116 – a tick above league average – despite getting next to nothing in transition. Those are not two things that generally go together. A huge chunk of that is Milwaukee was just as hot from mid-range as Miami was from three – though Miami was also hot from mid-range, go figure – shooting 11-of-18 on non-paint two pointers, which is something Milwaukee is liable to do when Middleton (33 points on 20 shots) is involved. But there were also many plays where the Bucks were getting what they wanted and they got it easy, mismatches in the post, drives with a defender on a hip, the like. Given the natural size advantage the Bucks will be playing with – again Antetokounmpo is a major swing factor right now, as those three are only more open when he’s the one sucking the defense in – it’s worth wondering whether or not they took the bait, to some extent, with how much Miami helps into the paint and gives up threes. Both teams are going to cool off for pockets of this series, but the despite their own poor shooting the Bucks were just as solid as Miami at working the paint and drawing fouls.