If Miami’s 115-104 victory over Milwaukee Monday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series confirmed anything, it was this:
That “Fear The Deer” slogan the Bucks have gotten so much mileage from in recent seasons now officially, verifiably requires a question mark at the end.
Fear The Deer?
>> Game 2: Wednesday, 6:30 ET (ESPN)
See, that’s more like it, based both on how mortal Milwaukee has looked in the NBA restart and on some definite leakage in the Bucks’ image over the past 16 months, ever since the Toronto Raptors pulled back a curtain on them two victories short of the 2019 Finals.
This isn’t to suggest that somehow the No. 1 seed both this year and last isn’t a terrific basketball team anymore. Or that they don’t have enough talent and passion to get where they want to go — heck, pretty much need to go — in this postseason to deem it a success.
This isn’t to claim their 56-17 regular season record was fool’s gold, somehow unworthy of the Bucks spot among the league’s top championship contenders this year.
All we’re saying, all we got confirmation of again thanks to the Heat in Game 1, is that opponents no longer are afraid of the Bucks. Nobody’s nervous about being shown up by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s freakish athleticism. No one flinches if Milwaukee does go up big — the way it did to lead 40-29 after one quarter — because there’s been a lot of elastic in those leads lately.
So if the Bucks are going to fire back to beat Miami four times in the next six meetings, they will have to do so with little or no momentum, and no sense that one good game means a thing when it comes to the next.
Miami might even be glad it’s not facing Toronto or Boston in this round.
The more a rival team can solve what you’re doing, the more comfortable and confident it becomes. Comfort and confidence can lead to swagger, something the Heat showed in nailing down the series opener at The Field House on the Walt Disney World campus.
Jimmy Butler swagged enough for them all, scoring 27 of his 40 points in the second half and 15 in the final quarter. Doing whatever he wanted in isolation plays, Butler was nearly flawless down the stretch, his aggressiveness putting to shame what had been the NBA’s No. 1 defense in 2019-20.
Butler probably didn’t say a word to rattle the Bucks, either. He was cocky enough just talking to the guys on his side. During his takeover, Butler said, he knew he was feeling it and made sure they knew too. “Say what you will, but I told my teammates I probably wasn’t going to pass the ball,” Butler said. “I made a couple of shots and they said, ‘That’s fine with me.’”
Closing time for Butler and the Heat, however, was made possible by what they did to dislodge the Bucks from some of their favorite basketball things.
Milwaukee likes to shut down the lane and defy opponents to score from the perimeter? The Heat attacked into and through the paint, winning that turf battled 42-24. Defend without fouling? Nope, that didn’t go the Bucks’ way either. Miami shot 27 free throws and outscored them by 11 from the line.
Butler (12-of-13) led the way on that, chipping away while Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton got into foul trouble that either cut into their minutes or fiddled with their style. Antetokounmpo put himself in a bind by picking up offensive fouls — he played only 15 minutes in the first half — and then made it all worse by missing eight-of-12 free throws when Miami sent him to the line.
Much of that can change with the officials in Game 2, though Miami seemed always to have defenders between Antetokounmpo and the rim. The “build a wall” strategy is standard operating procedure now for Milwaukee’s foes, one of the reasons the shock and awe has fizzled.
In playoff series, coaches such as Toronto’s Nick Nurse, Orlando’s Steve Clifford and now Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and their staffs have time to lock in that doesn’t exist in the regular season. Heck, nobody’s even getting on airplanes now. It’s all film work, floor work and more film work.
Middleton and Lopez carried the Bucks through Antetokounmpo’s shaky first half, scoring 40 of their team’s 63 points. But they combined for 12 the rest of the way, with Middleton wondering just what had him skidding sideways. “I’ve got to figure out what they did, what they changed, or if it was just me,” he said.
The Bucks sagged, too, because they played without point guard Eric Bledsoe, a late scratch with a strained right hamstring. Bledsoe has been an adventure the previous two postseasons, so there was no guarantee he’d swing an 11-point outcome.
But with 11 turnovers in the first half fueling 17 Miami points, the Bucks looked as if they missed the guy who normally starts their attacks. And considering Heat counterpart Goran Dragic’s 27 points and romps inside, it’s fair to think Bledsoe’s all-NBA level defense would have helped.
Antetokounmpo likely will play better, but for a night, his misleading numbers (18 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) had less impact than the Heat’s third-best guy. If was almost as if Bam Adebayo wanted to show the network TV audience that he should have finished first, not second to New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram, in the Kia Most Improved Player award results announced Monday. Adebayo had 12 points, 17 boards and a slick six assists for Miami.
Spoelstra publicly stayed humble and respectful following the victory, expecting a response from Milwaukee on Wednesday and giving away nothing of what the Heat did or might do. “You are who you are at this point,” he said. “But we’re not cramming for a test or reinventing the wheel in the last two days.”
Miami does seem perfectly content, though, to challenge Milwaukee’s etched-in-stone formula of taking, making and yielding 3-point shots. The Bucks were a better than usual 16-of-35 from deep, Heat sniper Duncan Robinson was only 1-of-4 and Spoelstra’s team still won by double digits.
So nothing to fear there, either. Oh dear.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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