2023 Playoffs: East First Round | Bucks (1) vs. Heat (8)

Series preview: Heat face ultimate challenge in Giannis, top-seeded Bucks

Breaking down the Milwaukee-Miami matchup with 3 things to watch, 1 X-factor and a series prediction.

Miami split the regular-season series 2-2 but will have its hands full after Milwaukee won 29 of its final 36 games.

Last May these were two of the last four East teams standing, and all seemed well and promising when this season began; neither the Bucks or Heat suffered any major personnel losses. Yet lo and behold, only the Bucks held up their end of the bargain by posting the most wins in the conference and gaining home-court advantage throughout these playoffs, while the Heat … well, we’re still not sure what exactly happened to Miami and why this club had to play its way into the playoffs.

There is one simple answer for why the Bucks are flexing, and it has much to do with Giannis Antetokounmpo, an MVP finalist and arguably the finest talent in the game, especially when you factor his impact at both rims. That’s not the entire story; the Bucks bring a solid starting five, good help off the bench, splendid defense and plenty of chemistry given that their core has been together for a few years now. That’s a big deal come playoff time.

The Heat dealt with a few injuries this season, most notably to Jimmy Butler, and couldn’t break from its malaise and into the top six in the East standings. But that’s all in the past. Miami has a chance to save face by inviting some suspense in this series which, on paper, seems the most lopsided of all the playoff series. Remember, this Miami team with Butler, Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry isn’t bad. It’s just perplexing.

Regular-season results

Jan. 12: Heat 108, Bucks 102
Jan. 14: Heat 111, Bucks 95
Feb. 4: Bucks 123, Heat 115
Feb. 24: Bucks 128, Heat 99

After turning back the Bulls in Miami, the Heat must now regroup to face the Bucks.

3 Things To Watch

1. Jrue Holiday vs. Jimmy Butler. Normally you don’t see guard vs. forward matchups, but this might be different — at least from the Bucks’ end when it comes to defense. Yes, initially, Holiday will see Tyler Herro and perhaps Kyle Lowry; both are more natural matchups. But in the moment of truth — as in, the final minutes of a tight game which is defined as clutch time — Butler will likely see Holiday in his grill. Keep in mind that Butler is one of the three finalists for the Kia Clutch Player of the Year award. Butler demonstrated as much in Miami’s play-in victory over the Bulls when he took over the game in that situation, not only by scoring, but decision-making and passing and defense. Anyway, Holiday is a superb on-ball defender with size to match the physicality that Butler brings. There’s also the likely chance the Bucks, by virtue of being the No. 1 seed, won’t see many, if any, close fourth quarters in this series. But just in case, the potential drama between these two players will be worth the price of admission.

2. Khris Middleton’s comeback. To say the least, the Bucks missed him last spring; he suffered a late season wrist injury and was out for the entire postseason, which ended with a Game 7 loss to the Celtics in the East semifinals. But that’s in the rearview and Middleton seems fresh and ready, although he didn’t get through this season totally unscathed, either, as he dealt with knee issues. He’s the secondary 20-point scorer the Bucks need to be complete, someone who can shoot from mid-range or deep and will keep defenses honest when it comes to doubling Giannis. The recent injuries perhaps robbed him a bit defensively, but the Bucks are pretty well covered in that area, in case you didn’t know. If Middleton has a big series, everyone in Milwaukee will feel optimistic about a second title in three years.

3. Miami’s 3-point shooting. The Heat dragged along one of the most pedestrian offenses in the league this season — the only team in the NBA that averaged under 110 per game — and making matters worse in this series, the Heat will face a Bucks’ team loaded with solid defenders. Therefore, Miami might need to stretch the floor as much as possible and pray those 3-pointers fall. Of course, that raises another issue: Miami shoots just 34% from deep, a bottom-five team in that regard. The Heat will need Play-In star Max Strus to go gusto against the Bucks as he did against the Bulls, and for Tyler Herro to shoot efficient from deep off the bounce. Otherwise, Miami will be forced to try and score in the paint against Giannis and Brook Lopez, no easy feat there. Wouldn’t it be great for Miami if all of a sudden Duncan Robinson, the forgotten man, somehow had a bubble flashback and became a factor in this series? Well, he’d actually need to get playing time for that — and Erik Spoelstra still doesn’t see Robinson’s defense as being good enough.


A key factor in the Bucks' 2021 championship run, Bobby Portis remains vital to their current title hopes.

Bobby Portis, Bucks. Actually, “X-Factor” should be his nickname, because Portis is always considered the unsung weapon in any series where the Bucks are involved. He’s sneaky good as a top sixth man and brings hustle (9.6 rebounds in just 26 minutes per game) and a streaky 3-point shot (37%). In a sense, he’s a Pat Riley-type of player. The Heat president has always valued players with Portis’ spirit and energy and toughness. Unfortunately for Riley, Portis plays for the Bucks.

Portis became a fan favorite in Milwaukee a few years ago during the championship run and endeared himself even more when he took a hometown discount to stay during free agency. Portis wouldn’t be bashful about guarding Jimmy Butler or fighting Bam Adebayo for rebounds. He’s the perfect complement to Giannis and fits in well with the Bucks’ scheme.

Number To Know

236 — The Bucks had the best record in the league this season, even though Holiday, Middleton and Antetokounmpo played a total of just 236 minutes together. That made them the 35th most-used trio on the team and the 1,113th most-used trio in the NBA. All three were available for just 25 games (one against the Heat), and Middleton was in the starting lineup for only 12 of those 25.

So the Bucks seemingly have a higher level they can reach. They ranked just 15th offensively this season after finishing in the top five in each of the past two seasons, but they scored an efficient 122.9 points per 100 possessions in those 236 minutes with their three stars all on the floor. That was the best mark among the 42 Milwaukee trios that played at least 200 minutes together. And if all three are healthy, the Bucks have the ability to have at least two of the three offensive anchors on the floor for large stretches.

It’s very possible that these three will play more minutes together in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. When the Bucks won the championship two years ago, Holiday, Middleton and Antetokounmpo played 565 minutes (26.9 per game) together in the postseason. That included almost 45 minutes together in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

— John Schuhmann

The Pick

Let’s begin by saying Butler has plenty of pride and Herro is coming home to Milwaukee, where he was a high school standout, and Adebayo doesn’t lack for confidence. So there — we just listed all of the positives for Miami in this series. Everything else swings heavily in Milwaukee’s favor. From nearly all corners, the Bucks are simply better, and their defense will be a steep challenge for Miami’s slingshot offense. The biggest issue: How do you (or anyone else) slow Giannis? He’s the riddle that must be solved, and there’s no indication that he will prove vulnerable, at least not this early in the playoffs. Milwaukee brings too much at both ends of the floor and the Heat will be fortunate to pull off one surprise night in this series, let alone multiple. Bucks in 5.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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