2020 Playoffs | East Semifinals: (1) Bucks vs. (5) Heat

Series Preview: Can Bam Adebayo, Heat slow down Giannis?

With all eyes on Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler-Khris Middleton matchup could decide series

The Milwaukee Bucks will face yet another Eastern Conference playoff opponent that it can send packing via automobiles, not airplanes, if they prevail. But the Miami Heat aren’t the Orlando Magic not even close.

Milwaukee and its fans like to think their team found itself after some mediocre play just before and early into the Disney bubble. Miami is tougher, more aggressive and more tireless in every way than Orlando. Its defense has the potential to take away, well, if not Milwaukee’s first two scoring options, at least 1.5. Then there’s the regular season results: Miami won two of three meetings, almost bracketing the “normal” part of the season with impressive displays on Oct. 26 and March 2. (The Bucks won an Aug. 6 seeding game, but neither Jimmy Butler nor Goran Dragic participated.)

The Heat are brimming with confidence and lofty ambition after their sweep of Indiana and some newly clicking lineup combos. The Bucks need to dial up their intensity and physical play, because this is a test that will either eliminate them or make them stronger.

Three things to watch

1. Who guards Giannis Antetokounmpo? Any series with Milwaukee can swing based on the answer to this question. With Miami, the best option would appear to be Bam Adebayo. At 6-foot-9, the third-year forward and first-time All-Star in 2020 gives up a few inches to Antetokounmpo, but he has the energy, athleticism and defensive chops to bother the Bucks star for 24 seconds each time down. That might mean an undersized matchup at center, if Jae Crowder bodies up with Brook Lopez. But the opportunity to pester the Greek Freak with Adebayo and then Derrick Jones makes that the Heat’s best option.

2. How will the extended layoff affect the Heat? By normal playoff standards, Miami going a week between games probably wouldn’t be a big deal. Happens all the time each spring, with the league and the TV networks trying to achieve maximum exposure and ratings. But the week between the Heat ousting Indiana and the opener of this series Monday will have been spent in the bubble, with no work/home normalcy in play. And the emotions stirred up by the three-day protest postponement is also uncharted territory. Several Heat players told reporters the team has bonded through the layoff, and if that’s the case, it might prevail over any staleness.

3. What’s the key matchup? Jimmy Butler vs. Khris Middleton. Both these guys carry heavy responsibilities. Butler has proven to be Miami’s go-to guy offensively, and even if he doesn’t defensively draw the Bucks’ No. 1 threat, making life miserable for their No. 2 weapon could isolate and overwork Antetokounmpo. Middleton sometimes treats his scoring role as a burden, and while he is solid defensively, it’s a less physical style than Butler favors. A fair barometer for this series might be whichever guy outplays the other — Butler averaged 19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists this season, to Middleton’s 20.9, 6.2 and 4.3 — will lead his team into the conference finals.

The number to know

5:44 — After starting at power forward and guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo for 6:04 in the Heat’s overtime victory over the Bucks in October, Bam Adebayo guarded the MVP favorite for just 5:44 over the final two regular-season meetings between these teams. In both of those games, Adebayo started at center, with Derrick Jones Jr. starting in the Heat’s win in March and Kelly Olynyk starting in the Bucks’ win in the restart (in which Adebayo dealt with foul trouble and played just 22 minutes).

Having Adebayo defend Antetokounmpo would put Crowder on Brook Lopez, who was 3-for-3 with five free throw attempts with Crowder guarding him in the regular season. The Heat didn’t start their current lineup – Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Crowder and Adebayo – in any of the three meetings against the Bucks, though it was a plus-6 in nine minutes in the March game. That lineup should be able to space the floor well against a Bucks’ defense that will give up 3-pointers (no East team shot better against the Bucks from 3-point range this season than the Heat), though only three of its 17 field goal attempts in those nine minutes came from beyond the arc.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Both these teams like to pack the paint and protect the rim, preferring any softness in their defense to come way outside. The Bucks have thrived doing that for two seasons, but Miami — with Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic — have serious deep threats to thwart that. Milwaukee’s perimeter shooting is less reliable unless George Hill and Kyle Korver get longer minutes. The rest of the game, the Heat’s toughness can dictate terms, especially if Antetokounmpo is picking up early offensive fouls. Still, the Bucks’ growth and lessons in the 2019 postseason, and Antetokounmpo’s peak powers, should be enough. Bucks in 7.

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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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