The Miami HEAT beating the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season was only a surprise if you didn’t watch the games. On paper you see that the No. 5 seed knocked off a No. 1 that had been on a 63-win pace and think, ‘Oh, that doesn’t happen very often.’ And on that you would be correct.
But in the games, where records don’t matter, the HEAT looked like the better team. They were sharper. They were more physical. They presented more unsolvable problems. They looked comfortable. They had Milwaukee on their heels. For anyone watching, the surprise would have been if the HEAT lost.
Fast forward from there, through an NBA Finals run and an incredibly short offseason, through all the Health and Safety Protocols and condensed schedules, and we’re right back in the same spot. The HEAT are again the lower seed, coming off an inconsistent regular season, trying to knock off a team with clear championship aspirations. They are, again, dangerous.
In less than a year, so much has changed on both sides that we can’t just play the hits. The HEAT want to build on everything that worked in their favor to make this is a classic sequel (and not like Aliens, which rules but is a rare breed in Sequel Town). The Bucks want to flip the script and remake the entire nature of this matchup.
Only one team can have it their way. Let’s look at some things that matter.
ADJUSTING THE DROP
Coming into The Bubble a year ago, the Bucks were the No. 1 defense in the league. They had size and length across the board and they ran a conservative system that sealed off the rim at all costs, dropping bigs like Brook Lopez and forcing teams to operate in the in-between areas with Giannis Antetokounmpo lurking as a help-side defender. They gave up a ton of threes in the process and didn’t force many turnovers, but night-to-night the system wore teams down as the math worked out again and again. Teams either hit their jumpers on Milwaukee, or they lost.
Then they got to the playoffs and the Bucks did the same thing. The same one thing.
It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that Milwaukee’s defense “didn’t work” against Miami. It actually worked exactly as intended. With all that length protecting the paint, the HEAT only took 23.3 percent of their shots at the rim in that five-game series – a mark that would have ranked dead last by a wide margin during that regular season, where San Antonio was No. 30 in rim frequency at 28.6 percent. Milwaukee’s defense had a clear priority, and it succeeded in meeting that goal.
“I’m still of the belief that last year our defense held up in that series,” Pat Connaughton said this week.
The issue was that 82-game math isn’t the same as 7-game math. The HEAT may have been pushed away from the rim, but they made 47.7 percent of their non-rim paint shots, 42.5 percent of their mid-range jumpers and 40 percent on above-the-break threes. Outside of the corners, if it was a floater or a jumper then it was going down at an elite rate.
And for long stretches of the series Miami was getting those shots whenever they wanted them.
When it comes to Lopez, who can devour the entire restricted area by himself and cut off both the lobs and cuts that Miami often thrives on, we’re going to see more of the same. Even with Miami raining makes, the Bucks had a defensive rating of 108.4 when Lopez was on the floor. Just fine. When Lopez was off the floor and Antetokounmpo split the frontcourt minutes with now-retired Marvin Williams, that number ballooned to 114.3.
The way the league has gone, with smaller and smaller lineups over the past decade, most teams have also shifted toward switching screens to capitalize on the added mobility. That was one of Miami’s big adjustments last season post-trade deadline. They swapped in Jae Crowder next to Bam Adebayo and started switching everything, which they still do today, as often as the Houston Rockets teams that almost switched the Golden State Warriors into an early postseason exit.
But when Milwaukee went small last year, they were still in drop. Gone was the size and length of Lopez, now the HEAT had Williams, or even Wes Matthews, as the only resistance between them at the basket.
In the 36 minutes Williams and Antetokounmpo shared the floor during that series, the Bucks were outscored by 18.8 points per 100 possessions.
Milwaukee rethought their approach and started switching more often, but it wasn’t something they had built up positive habits and instincts on. It showed.
The numbers on this can be a little finnicky because of how the cameras pick up blown switch coverages like those shown above, but Miami scored 1.09 points per pick-and-roll when the Bucks switched. That’s better than the league-leading Dallas Mavericks pick-and-roll last season which landed at 1.05, and the Utah Jazz which hit 1.06. With handoffs, it looked even better for Miami.
In short, the HEAT forced the Bucks into an adjustment they weren’t ready for. Coach Mike Budenholzer, for his part, did what all coaches do after a playoff loss. He reassessed. Clearly making defensive flexibility a point of emphasis, Budenholzer took a team that practically never switched the season prior and made them do it at a league-average rate. Since they acquired P.J. Tucker, the key switching cog for those Houston teams alongside Miami’s Trevor Ariza, they switch with a Top 10 frequency per Second Spectrum data – about as high as they’re going to get considering Lopez still being a major piece of their defense.
It hasn’t always looked perfect. Even when the Bucks were up double digits on Miami last weekend there were still plays like Kendrick Nunn – a looming threat given his three-level scoring package – forcing a blown switch and getting right to the rim for a free dunk. But it’s part of who Milwaukee is now. Along with making some other changes to their perimeter coverage, stunting help like the Utah Jazz as players like Duncan Robinson come around handoffs, not to mention employing players like Holiday who are incredible at chasing players around screens, the Bucks have set themselves up to be a more dynamic and flexible defense.
Milwaukee still has to prove the changes can work when it counts. The HEAT aren’t going to allow for any sort of easing in process. With just about every shooter rounding into form over the past six weeks, along with plenty of guys who can pull-up at range, Miami has plenty of options to punish drop coverage. Switching can flatten the HEAT out, but they know how to beat it – Hello, Bam Adebayo slip screens – without getting forced into late-clock isolations. There are certainly switch matchups the HEAT can chase should they choose to.
“With the switching, we’ve built so many habits off of being guarded different ways, if we see a different coverage we can adjust,” Adebayo said. “It’ll be beneficial to me because if they’re switching, the pocket pass [is there] and I get to make plays.”
The Bucks might not be quite as comfortable in what they do right off the bat this time around. Miami will want to keep it that way.
WHITHER THE DUNKER
We don’t need to spend too much time rehashing The Wall. It wasn’t unique to last season. Years ago Erik Spoelstra, among other coaches, took a defensive scheme once built for LeBron James – thank San Antonio – and made it their own to use against Antetokounmpo. Whatever the cost, keep the force-of-nature out of the paint. If he shoots it, he shoots it. Make or miss.
Nowadays that wall is practically Miami’s base defense regardless of opponent. If the ball threatens the paint, they shrink the floor and bring some pesky arms with veteran hands attached into the gaps. Whether they’re playing a true zone or not, it’s a shell drill. If the ball ever breaks the seal in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it, something went wrong.
There’s a bit of a question as to who starts off with the Antetokounmpo assignment, it being Crowder’s job last year but it could be Adebayo or Ariza this time around, but the two-time MVP shouldn’t have any easier time getting right to the rim.
Milwaukee knows this, and again they’ve made some small adjustments. They made a huge leap three years ago when they acquired Lopez and went to a full five-out offensive system, maximizing the space Antetokounmpo would have to attack the rim. It worked. Wonderfully so. Those MVP’s didn’t come by mistake. But as more and more teams started to lock in to Miami’s, and Toronto’s to their credit, defensive style all that space being created on the interior wound up working against Milwaukee in a backwards sort of way. With nobody to defend inside, teams had all the more bodies to cover driving lanes. The paint could be made null and void.
Look at this spacing from the series a year ago. In clearing out the paint, the Bucks only gave the HEAT more bricks for the wall.
The adjustment has been to put players, including but not limited to Lopez, in the dunker spot along the baseline. Or, as the HEAT used to refer to it during their battles with the Indiana Pacers, The Bird Box. An affectionate name for where Chris Andersen was stationed on the floor as the steady release valve for James and Dwyane Wade when they could draw the attention of Roy Hibbert.
Here’s what it looked like last weekend at the moment the HEAT stymied Antetokounmpo with another wall.
Notice the gap in space between Donte DiVincenzo in the right corner and Bryn Forbes on the left wing. That’s a massive entry point to the paint for Antetokounmpo to drives into, and a longer gap for Kendrick Nunn and Robinson to close as they pinch in. The result of this play was Antetokounmpo swinging it to Forbes who, after ducking a long closeout from Nunn, hit a three. In essence, by taking a piece out of the perimeter the Bucks can stretch the defense out to a breaking point. Sure, now Adebayo is in the paint if Antetokounmpo does break the shell, but that’s the decision Milwaukee has made.
It also makes them a better offensive rebounding team simply because they have a player stationed near the rim more often.
“They’ve surrounded Giannis with really good shooters and playmakers in Holiday and Middleton, but they also get extra opportunities at the basket with their spacing, whether that’s on cuts or spacing on drives or offensive rebounds,” Spoelstra said. “You have to account for them on the baseline where you tend to lose sight of them.”
How is this new spacing going to play out in this series? That remains to be seen. The Bucks clearly had offensive success against Miami this season as they posted Offensive Ratings of 120 or better on two separate occasions, setting the all-time record for made threes (29) in a game in one of those, but Jimmy Butler didn’t play in any of those games and Butler is one of the best, if not the best, weakside defenders in the league. All those passing lanes Milwaukee has opened up are also potential passes Butler or Ariza or Andre Iguodala can take the other way.
All we know for now is that it’s going to look different. Considering Milwaukee scored just 100.4 points per 100 possessions against Miami with a force like Antetokounmpo on the floor during that series, they’ll take any different that they can get.
THE JIMMY BUTLER PROBLEM
The fact that Jimmy Butler didn’t play one minute against the Bucks this season isn’t just important because he’s very good. It’s because he’s also very good specifically against the Bucks.
Butler used 26 isolation possessions against the Bucks during last season’s playoffs. Care to guess how many points he scored out of those?
Typically, if you can score one point on average for every isolation, you’re doing just fine. The most prolific isolation player in the league this season, Julius Randle, scored about 1.02 points per isolation.
Against Milwaukee, Butler scored 36 points on those 26 possessions for a whopping 1.38 per isolation.
The Bucks had zero answers for him.
Butler scored 40 points in a Game 1 comeback, including 27 in the second half and 15 in the fourth quarter. He hit the game-winning free-throws in Game 2. Added another 17 in the fourth quarter of Game 3. He got to the line for 54 free-throws in five games, making 46. And he added 5-of-11 shooting from three just because.
Mid-series there was the notion that Budenholzer should put Antetokounmpo on Butler and try to contain him with length. That wound up playing right into Miami’s hands as they easily screened Antetokounmpo – a defensive monster but not the fleetest of foot for fighting around picks – 20 feet from the rim and got Butler a mismatch or a lane.
Butler might not have sustained his scoring rate from the first game, but that performance had a ripple effect on the entire series. It forced Milwaukee to be the first to adjust, and those adjustments didn’t pan out.
Now the Bucks have Holiday, one of the league’s best and most versatile defenders. Wes Matthews had his moments, but Holiday will immediately be the most versatile option Milwaukee has had to deal with Butler, including ball denial, and he won’t be easily screened.
“Definitely my type of guy,” Holiday said of Butler. “I’m a big fan of Jimmy Buckets.”
There isn’t much more to say on this, given that we have yet to see the two of them match up. How it plays out will be relevant to this next section.
QUESTIONS IN THE FOURTH
Upfront, answers are not readily available for this one.
Here is what Miami’s fourth quarter Net Rating looks like over the past two seasons.
2019-20 Regular Season: -5.8 per 100 (Rank 28)
2019-20 Playoffs: +19.6 per 100 (Rank 1)
2020-21 Regular Season: -5.3 per 100 (Rank 28)
If you slice it down to only Clutch Minutes, up or down five points in the last five minutes, the results are pretty much the same. Miami has flat out not been very good in fourth quarters during the regular season, and then they blew teams out of the water during the postseason at a historic rate.
Some of that was Butler. We’ve covered that. Some of that was Adebayo running roughshod over the Boston Celtics to clinch that series. Those two will have to have moments of greatness to win close games, to be sure.
It’s Miami’s series-defining fourth in Game 3 against Milwaukee that may be most illuminating. The HEAT were trailing by double digits through three, with Milwaukee looking like they were slowly gaining some traction on the offensive end. Then Miami ran off a 40-13 quarter and went up 3-0.
Butler and Adebayo combined for 27 in that period, but it wasn’t a takeover from either of them. There was plenty of random offense. Steals that they took the other way. Off-ball movement. Offensive rebounds. Big threes from Dragic, Crowder and Herro. It was what so many HEAT runs have looked like over the past two years. Not always pretty or full of highlights, but through sheer force of play everything went their way.
One number that might carry relevance here is this: when the HEAT shot the ball on a touch lasting less than two seconds in that series, they shot an effective field-goal percentage of 61.3. Between two and six seconds? 50 percent. Over six seconds, which accounted for about 14 shots a game, the percentages fell to 41.1 percent. Those are consistent, if more dramatic, with the regular season. They can get bogged down, and the game is never slower than in the fourth. They don’t need to play fast, but having a pace to their half-court execution has always been to their benefit.
Can Miami’s sudden late-game effectiveness in the postseason be fully explained? Probably not. Maybe they were just in better shape. Maybe it was a mental thing. Or maybe it’s just small sample size, with all those close game representative of a smaller margin for error that still exists. Or maybe, with a player like Butler who raises his game in the postseason in a non-talking point kind of way, they’re built for the style that comes out in the playoffs.
I can’t fully explain the plot dynamics of Frozen 2, either, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be good.
THE POST-HANDOFF POST ERA
Handoffs are still a major part of Miami’s offense. But while they are No. 13 in handoff volume, they were No. 7 a year ago. The efficiency was elite back then. This year it fell just below league average. The actions keep the offense flowing and the bodies moving. It just hasn’t been quite the weapon it was before.
Considering how important those handoffs with Adebayo were, this hasn’t affected anyone as much as its affected Duncan Robinson.
“There’s not a team that will let him come off a handoff or some kind of pindown cleanly anymore,” Spoelstra said in March. “Those days are behind him. He’s not going to get those days ever again in this league.”
Those adjustments started even before the playoffs. Every once in a while, a team would throw at new wrinkle at him. Toronto. Utah. Top locking. Help. The rest of the league would catch it on film and suddenly every other opponent is running the same coverage. Even against the drop coverage, the Bucks were physical with Robinson, making it as difficult as possible for him to round the corner clean. He only took 7.4 shots per game against the Bucks in the playoffs, and that number has remained consistent against Milwaukee this year.
Spoelstra made two significant tweaks. One was to put the ball in Robinson’s hands even more. Let him run pick-and-roll with Adebayo. Let him attack. Against the Bucks there could be plenty of dribble-jumpers available to him when they stay in drop. If they switch and jump him, he’s proven adept at hitting Adebayo with those pocket passes he mentioned earlier. We went in depth on this a few months ago.
The other change has been to change the playmaking angle for Adebayo, along with Butler, by putting them in the post. Neither is what you would call an elite post scorer, though they can more than get theirs against the right matchups, but they have been absolutely top-shelf creators.
“It’s just a slight adjustment,” Spoelstra said. “[Adebayo] spent a lot of his time at the elbow and high post area last year and the year before. This is just getting a little bit lower and then we’re continuing to put him in both spots.”
While Adebayo and Butler hold in the post, an angle inside the teeth of the defense that proved beneficial to James and Wade all those years ago, the HEAT run dozens upon dozens of variations on off-ball screens to free up shooters and cutters. Time and time again, Robinson or Ariza springs free as defenders overplay the threat of the spot-up three. Time and time again, it’s a layup.
The most efficient post-up team in the league? The HEAT, producing 1.12 points per post counting assists per Second Spectrum tracking data.
“How active they are definitely makes them tougher than other teams,” Holiday said. “They’re active, they never stop moving and they have shooters. It makes it tough.”
Miami’s offense has been trending in the right direction. No. 5 since April 1, in large part because the shooting of Robinson, Dragic, Ariza, Nunn and Herro all hitting the upswing. To that, there’s no doubt. Yet it’s these cuts, and all the offense they create off their defensive stops, that sustains them.
If the Bucks are going to switch, the HEAT can work their playmakers in the post if they play with the right halfcourt pace. The adjustment to Milwaukee’s adjustment is already baked in.
SO WHO WINS?
I don’t know. We’re all just guessing.
Last year there was a more than ample case for how Miami could knock off the Bucks, and that case proved more than convincing.
Both sides have made changes. Milwaukee is ready to put a more flexible defensive scheme on display. Their offense has tweaks built in to let Antetokounmpo’s game breathe again. They’ve added an All-Star and some helpful veterans which unlock more dynamic lineups. They’re better than last year.
The HEAT have leaned further into the style that took them to the Finals. We haven’t even mentioned the blitzing they’ve brought back into style from a decade ago. They’re aggressive. They’re a little bit mean, in a good way. The numbers don’t exactly scream out that they are better than last year – if they made the Finals again they would do it with the lowest Net Rating (+0.0) since the ABA merger in 1976 – but they’ve evolved into something more. Their numbers didn’t jump off the page last year, either. Didn’t seem to matter then.
Spoelstra and his team have been here. Their schemes are built on the shoulders of decades of work. They know how to gameplan. They know how to adjust. All the tools are still there, even if some of the names on the jerseys are different.
That doesn’t mean they’ll win, but this isn’t at all far from where they were at the same stage last season. They can beat anyone. It’s no mystery which boxes need to be ticked each night. They just have to do everything the hard way.
“You can’t expect a series to be easy,” Spoelstra said.