The first play of the first game of the first rematch between the Miami HEAT and the Milwaukee Bucks looked almost exactly as expected.
Starting in the left corner, Duncan Robinson flew off a series of staggered screens, receiving a handoff as he curled around the final pick set by Bam Adebayo. As he slowed his momentum and squared his body to the basket, there wasn’t a single soul in front of him. Every remaining section of Milwaukee’s defense had two feet below the free-throw line.
So, finding himself wide open for more than the split-second he needs, Robinson fired up his first shot and thunk’d it in off the back of the rim. For those first 20 seconds the proceedings looked just like the last time these teams met, those summer days when Miami’s shooters hit shot after shot after shot.
The rest of the game did not look so familiar.
On a night when both teams had nearly equal shares of positive and negative takeaways from a two-point game decided on a fading Khris Middleton jumper in the closing seconds of overtime, there were two Milwaukee defensive coverages – one expected, one less so – on which Miami’s offensive hopes may hinge.
But whether or not Miami solves those coverages, both directly related to their stars, one thing was abundantly clear: this isn’t last year, when Miami played the part of the permanent aggressor on their way to a decisive 4-1 series victory.
“It’s definitely going to be a cage fight,” Bam Adebayo said.
A Most Precipitous Drop
When Robinson wound up for that first three, the reason he was so wide open was because Brook Lopez was exercising the most extreme variation of the art form known as The Drop.
In other words, he stood in the paint and didn’t move.
Now as that happened – we’re getting in to the dangerous territory of paraphrasing Twitter as a single entity, but allow it for just a moment – there was a certain sense of “They’re Doing That Again?” going around. After all it was just last September that Miami’s cadre of shooters, including Robinson, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, Jae Crowder and Kendrick Nunn, seemingly punished the Bucks over and over for conceding all that space in the middle of the floor. One jumper after another fell, each one making Milwaukee’s base defensive scheme look more specifically suited for regular-season play.
But as we discussed prior to this series, that style of defense did what it was supposed to do. Miami essentially never got to the rim, and it was more through a variety of other defensive mistakes – doing the drop with small lineups, an inability to switch, losing track of shooters, fouling – that Milwaukee’s defense broke down. Brook Lopez protecting the rim is a part of the team’s identity. They were always going to show the same look.
“Their base coverage I think is what’s unique,” Erik Spoelstra said in the week before Game 1. “There aren’t a lot of teams that can do what they do in terms of protecting the rim and protecting the paint.”
So while Robinson was springing free at his heart’s content…
…the Bucks had already baked in the possibilities of those shots falling into their thinking. There would be no kneejerk adjustments.
“We knew going in that’s what we were going to see,” Robinson said. “That’s what [Lopez] does, he’s one of the best in the league at it, protecting the rim. They do a good job of keeping him back there and bullying and muscling through screens, trying to slide under and make it tough on guards. It’s give and take. If he’s going to be back there, there’s going to be opportunities for guys to come off.”
Eventually the Bucks did as Robinson says, muscling through screens to contest more of those threes as the game wore on. That Miami eventually settled on a franchise-postseason high 20 makes from deep was more a testament to their own shotmaking, and ability to make plays in random offense, than any looks the Bucks were outright conceding. All the while, the HEAT took just 16 shots at the rim (making six). Forced into 33 non-rim two’s, and those shots not falling (10 makes), Miami finished with an Offensive Rating of 97.3. It was their worst offensive night in over month.
“We missed a lot of easy ones, mid-range shots, that definitely hurt us a little bit,” Dragic said.
Most notably, gone were the cuts and lobs that so often sustained the team’s offense through the dry spells of the season. If shooters were run off the line, Miami’s playmakers could attack as much as they wanted – to a degree. There was still Lopez, perched under the rim and unwavering in his stance, inviting shots of lower expected value.
“We had stretches where they didn’t go in, but you try not to get too caught up in the results,” Robinson said. “We know what they want to do, it’s protect the paint and force those tough twos.”
“You miss shots. You got days like that. That’s ok. You just have to bounce back,” added Butler.
The HEAT have the shooters to take advantage of those opportunities, regardless of whether or not they’re the shots Milwaukee wants them to take. They proved as much last year. And even if Lopez eats up the cuts and lobs, there are still ways the HEAT can use their off-ball movement to get the Bucks in rotation. Toward the end of the first half, a designed Robinson cut seemingly had nowhere to go, but he took the ball baseline and found a shooter as the defense collapsed.
There’s more of that gold to be mined. The HEAT can’t afford to stop moving. Stagnation is strangulation for their offense.
“They’re not going to all the sudden give easy baskets at the rim,” Spoelstra said. “You’re going to have to do things with pace and purpose and move them.”
Lopez does have a man he is defending. He doesn’t get to just sit under the rim all day long picking daisies. This is where Adebayo factors in.
We don’t need to fully relitigate Adebayo’s offensive role. We talked over that plenty a month ago. It doesn’t have to be a commentary on his entire career track every time he struggles against a team that drops into the paint and protects the rim – and he did struggle in shooting 4-of-15 for just nine points. Those 15 attempts were third on the team, by the way. It’s not like he wasn’t putting the ball up.
“I just have to make the shots,” Adebayo said, keeping his commentary short and to the point. “I didn’t make shots today.”
Truth is, Adebayo has a ton of responsibility creating shots for others. The only way for most of his teammates to take advantage of Lopez playing deep drop is for Adebayo to set a screen or deliver a handoff. It’s a pick-and-roll coverage, after all. Every mid-range shot he takes is an open look his teammates don’t get. Adebayo has to make sure everyone gets fed, for the good of the team.
And yet there’s a balance. If you’re never attacking the space given to you, you’re letting the defense off the hook. Just as Adebayo asks his teammates, across the spectrum of defensive capabilities, to Guard Your Yard, they ask him to Attack The Block.
“I feel like he needs to be more aggressive,” Dragic said. “I’m not saying to take that mid-range shot, but he got that ability to put the ball on the floor and be more physical and try to challenge him at the rim. I know Lopez is big, but I think Bam has that quality that he can do it many ways against him.”
In the end, it’s not all on Adebayo to beat Milwaukee’s drop coverage. The team needs, collectively, for just enough to fall. They made their threes and tough two’s at elite rates last year and games were still nip-and-tuck affairs. Even on a poor shooting night for Adebayo and Butler, they were two makes away from a 1-0 series lead.
“We probably, in this game, didn’t need to have great shooting nights from different guys,” Spoelstra said. “Just make one or two more that were in your wheelhouse. It’s not like we’re trying to get a certain percentage for an entire season. These are small game samples.”
In other words, whether it’s open threes or tough twos, make what you need to win.
A Page From The Finals
While the drop coverage was expected, where Milwaukee surprised out of the gate was in having Giannis Antetokounmpo defend Jimmy Butler from the start.
This was a bit of a sticking point for the Bucks last year. Coach Mike Budenholzer appeared to be reluctant to put Antetokounmpo, one of the league’s premier help defenders, on Butler even as Butler was running rampant through fourth quarters with nobody capable of stopping him. Eventually they did go to that matchup, but with Antetokounmpo picking up Butler beyond the arc the HEAT were fairly easily able to screen him and get Butler going downhill. Milwaukee threw down their ace in the hole. Miami had the spades.
This time around, Budenholzer didn’t hesitate. Instead of Antetokounmpo trying to defend Butler as though he were the size of Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee adopted a blueprint put forth by the Los Angeles Lakers. Like Anthony Davis before him, now Antetokounmpo was, often though not always, going under the screens. And if the HEAT attempted to use a smaller player to force a switch, the Bucks would have the small defender show out onto Butler and hold his position for just a beat to allow Antetokounmpo to find ideal recovery positioning.
Not only did Budenholzer use a creative Los Angeles strategy to stymie Butler’s downhill motivations, that style of switch avoidance is exactly what Miami used to avoid getting defenders like Robinson, Herro and Dragic caught on an island with LeBron James. The HEAT may have knocked them out of the playoffs, but the Bucks were paying attention.
If you were wondering why Butler took nine three-point attempts, one off his career-high, there’s your answer.
“Taking what they’re giving,” Butler said. “I may shoot nine next game as well. They’ll fall, I know that. Get in there, work on some touch. Touch was a little bit off. I’m cool. I think we’ll all live with that.”
The good news is that while this is a far more creative solution for Butler than any Milwaukee tried last season, it is not infallible. The Lakers won Game 4 of the Finals largely off Davis going under on Butler’s screens, but the HEAT adjusted and through a series of screen manipulations and timed attacks were able to spring Butler loose on his way to 35 points in a Game 5 victory.
Going under sounds all well and good, but to go under a screen you have to know when and from where the screen is coming.
Butler had one of his worst shooting nights of the season going 4-of-22 – one off his high for attempts in a HEAT jersey – with just four attempts at the rim, but as was once carved into a picnic table south of the border by one Ms. Connor, there’s no fate but what you make for yourself.
“I think that’s on me,” Butler said. “I have to do a better job of attacking downhill, forcing some help and getting the ball to the perimeter. Bam as well. Goran as well. That’s been our jobs all year long, Maybe we got away from it a little bit. But back to the drawing board. Watch some film. Go through some things and get back to that.”
Depending on who you ask, both teams have something to feel good about one game in.
Fans of the HEAT might say their two best players shot a combined 8-of-37 and they only lost by two points. In overtime at that. A little progression to the mean and they’re just fine.
Fans of the Bucks might say their team shot 5-of-31 from deep, their worst shooting game of the past two seasons, and they still won. A little progression to the mean and they’re just fine.
Both sides would be correct. But there’s another layer to this. The Bucks shot poorly from three but they weren’t getting a ton of open looks. Per Second Spectrum, their Shot Quality of 49.6 (expected effective field-goal percentage) on three-pointers was their second-worst mark of the season. They only created one lonely uncontested three all game.
Meanwhile the HEAT, despite generating a ton of open jumpers, themselves had their second-worst overall Shot Quality of the season at 48.7 because they weren’t getting any high-percentage two-point shots.
Both teams have better offense in their futures, but both teams missed their shots for good reason. The swing factor will probably be whether or not Miami’s defense on Antetokounmpo, who scored 26 points on 27 shots, is as real as last year. The HEAT weren’t able to build a wall in the same way as before with Antetokounmpo being used less as a blunt object this time around, but they still swarmed his dribble and played him with their own brand of physicality. Nothing we saw on the court Saturday guarantees one of the league’s most efficient players any level of future success, but there’s seemingly also a little more breathing room this time around.
For the moment, all of this favors Milwaukee. They have the series lead, and the threes they missed are more valuable than Miami’s mid-range twos. It can’t be a bad thing for them that Saturday looked more like a hard reboot of the series, complete with cleaner and more effective switching, than a sequel.
But the thing about moments is they don’t last very long if you don’t let them.