2021 Playoffs: East First Round | Bucks vs. Heat

Series Preview: Bucks have chance for payback in matchup vs. Heat

Two-time reigning Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Milwaukee against Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Miami.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will face the Heat in the first round.

After finishing with the league’s best record and then failing to reach The Finals each of the last two years, the Milwaukee Bucks were given the “Let’s see what you do in the playoffs” treatment all season. They made changes to their roster, upgrading at point guard with the addition of Jrue Holiday and then acquiring P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline. They made changes to their offense, spacing the floor differently and attacking the glass more aggressively. And they made changes to their defense, switching screens and playing zone more often. They took a huge step backward on that end of the floor, hoping that adaptability is more important than consistency in the postseason.

The postseason is here. And appropriately, the Bucks will have an immediate opportunity to exorcise their demons with a first round series against the Miami Heat, the team that eliminated them in five games in last year’s conference semifinals. The Heat have had an up-and-down season, seeing little carryover from their run to The Finals last year. But they still have the elements – Jimmy Butler, flammable 3-point shooting and rim protection – to test (or beat) the Bucks again. The top three teams in the East have been head and shoulders above the rest of the conference all season. But the Heat are that “tough out” lower seed with experience and toughness that the top three might have hoped to avoid. The Bucks got ’em, and there’s no time like the first round to see if the offseason and regular-season changes they’ve made can produce better postseason results.

Three things to watch

1. Jimmy Butler makes a big difference: Butler didn’t play in any of the three regular season meetings between these two teams. In last year’s playoff series, Butler led the Heat with 23.4 points per game, shooting 53% from the field and getting to the line for 10.8 attempts per night, while also being his usually disruptive self on defense. This season, the Heat were 11.1 points per 100 possessions better with Butler on the floor (+5.0) than they were with him off the floor (-6.1), with significant differentials on both offense and defense. So there’s not much to be taken from a regular-season series that didn’t include one team’s most important player. Still, there remains a question of how many minutes Butler (who missed Saturday’s meeting with the Bucks due to back tightness) can play and how the Heat withstand those minutes he’s on the bench.

2. How much does Tucker play the 5?: The Bucks acquired Tucker for more versatility and switchability on defense. A lineup with a frontline of Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Tucker can switch all screens, keep Duncan Robinson from breaking free, and make it tougher for Butler and Goran Dragic to get downhill. But in Tucker’s 20 regular season games with the Bucks, he played just 56 total minutes alongside Antetokounmpo in lineups that didn’t include another big. You could envision a scenario where that total gets surpassed in a long playoff series, maybe in this one. It would help if Tucker was a little more eager to shoot on the other end of the floor; He’s attempted just 46 shots (31 of them corner 3s) in his 397 minutes since arriving at the trade deadline.

3. Will Adebayo switch or stay?: Bam Adebayo is one of the league’s most liberal switchers of ball-screens, and there’s not a better big man at defending guards one-on-one. But when he switches onto guards, he can create an undesirable situation elsewhere on the floor. And there may not be a more undesirable situation than Antetokounmpo being defended by a guard. In the regular season, Adebayo was Antetokounmpo’s primary defender and did switch ball-screens less often than he did against other teams. But he did still switch some, he’ll switch more in this series, and that’s when the chess match begins.

Number to know

5.7 — This could be a pace battle more than any other first-round series. The Bucks ranked second in the league in pace, averaging 102.8 possessions per 48 minutes. The Heat ranked 29th, averaging just 97.1, 5.7 fewer than Milwaukee. Miami’s offense wasn’t exceedingly slow – the Heat ranked 17th in the percent of their possessions that were in transition – but they allowed just 10.4 fast break points per game, fewest for any team in the last three seasons.

The Bucks “won” the pace battle in the regular season series, which averaged 103.2 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes. The Bucks’ 31 fast-break points on Dec. 29 were both their own season high and the most for any team against the Heat. But they had just 10 in each of the other two meetings, and the Heat won the fastest-paced game of the three. Two of those games took place in December, and all three took place without Jimmy Butler. Last year’s conference semifinals series was a similar pace battle and it was played much slower (97.6) than the regular-season series (105.2).

The pick

The Heat had the Bucks’ number last year, scoring efficiently against the league’s No. 1 defense over the first three games and winning an ugly Game 5 (without Antetokounmpo) to close out the series. And by the numbers, this Bucks team isn’t as good as that one was. But this Heat team isn’t as good as that Heat team was, either. Miami had a top-10 defense and the offense picked up late in the season, but even as they started to put it together, the Heat struggled to beat the best teams in the league. They were 12-21 (6-9 after the All-Star break) against the other 14 teams that finished with winning records (they were 17-14 against the teams that finished over .500 last season). The potential for an upset is there, but we haven’t seen enough from this version of the Heat to predict another upset against a team that remains a title contender and has been preparing for this series for five months. Bucks in 6.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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