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The Bucks’ Worst Nightmare

Milwaukee Bucks. Photo by RMTip21. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Heading into this year’s playoffs there was one team the Bucks did not want to meet early on, the Miami Heat. But after the Heat swept the higher-seeded Pacers in the opening round, the Bucks are now facing off against the team many analysts say is the dark horse to make it to the finals. In their first meeting pre-pandemic the Heat dismantled the Bucks, winning 105-89, and have carried that dominance into the postseason, taking a commanding 3-0 against the No. 1 seed Bucks. So this begs the questions: are the Heat the Bucks kryptonite? My answer after seeing the start to this series is a resounding and heartbroken yes, and here’s why.

The Heat’s Interior Defense:

For the regular season the Heat finished in the top-10 in defensive rating and more significantly the top-5 in opponents points in the paint, allowing roughly 44 per game. With a defense composed of players like Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Bam Adebayo, the Heat have been able to set up a brick wall, forcing a tough shot almost every time Giannis attempts to bully his way inside. This is where his one-dimensionality as a player really hurts the Bucks, as the Greek Freak has averaged just 23 points on 44% shooting in the series and boasts a team worst -34 +/- when he’s on the court. Giannis tried to adjust his game by attempting more shots from deep, but this played right into the hands of Miami and he ended Game 3 0-7 from 3-point territory. And once you expose one of Giannis’ weaknesses, you expose the whole team.

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Believe it or not, the Bucks are a 3-point shooting team. Similar to LeBron’s teams of old, Giannis is surrounded by solid deep threats to give them a reliable option should he choose to kick the ball on his drive instead of go to the basket. Names like Kyle Korver, Dante DiVincenzo, Wesley Matthews, Brook Lopez and more are great shooters from deep when they are open, but if Giannis isn’t a threat on the interior like he hasn’t been this whole series, there is no need to send everything to stop him. So shots that are normally wide open for these guys are now contested enough to make them difficult, and given their specialty as spot-up shooters, it is incredibly difficult for them to create their own shots, essentially shutting down their entire offense.

In short: Stop Giannis, stop the Bucks.

The Buck’s Perimeter Defense:

Like the Bucks, the Heat have some of the best perimeter shooters in the game. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson alone make them terrifying from deep and are a nightly threat to drop 30 points on 3-pointers alone. The even scarier part is that they haven’t caught fire yet, as the Heat are only averaging 16 3-pointers made this series at a 38% clip. Regardless of that the Miami has still found ways to devastate the Bucks both from mid-range and beyond, an aspect of the game that despite being the highest ranked team in the league in defensive stats, they have struggled with mightily all season.

After Game 1 finished and Giannis was named Defensive Player of the Year, fans started questioning why he wasn’t guardian Jimmy Butler, but it isn’t nearly that simple. Butler himself said Giannis is one the best help-defenders in the league, specializing in the paint. Similarly, Brook Lopez has been a dominant force on that side of the court, but also limited to within six feet of the basket. Beyond that point it has to be up to the likes of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Matthews to pick up the slack and show their prowess as perimeter defenders, something we have yet to see in this series.

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Coach Bud:

Since joining the team in 2018, I have had nothing but good things to say about Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. He helped Giannis win his first MVP, put good pieces around him to help Giannis and the franchise and earned the Bucks two straight No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference. But that just makes this next part all the more difficult to write. 

Simply put, coach Bud is getting severely outcoached by Erik Speolstra this series, to the point where he may not be fit to serve as their head coach after this season. The biggest reason for this is potentially the most important part of his job, game management. In Game 2 you have Khris Middleton leading the way, working excellently on and off the ball to get the Bucks points in a tight game, but once the second half rolled around Bud decided to go back to old reliable Giannis, benching Middleton for an extended period of time and essentially allowing the Heat back into the game they would ultimately win by free throws. In game 3, the Bucks were up almost the entirety of the game, Giannis was playing on an injured ankle but still doing well, so what does coach Bud do? Bench him to start the fourth quarter of course. Miami then started the quarter with a big run and never looked backed, eventually outsourcing Milwaukee 40-13 on route to a 15-point win. 

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I would be mildly frustrated with the team if this were during the regular season, but in a playoff game when you are already down 2-0, why are you even considering sitting the reigning MVP in the fourth quarter? Giannis has averaged a hefty 36 minutes per game this series, but it’s moments like these where your star should be on the court for as long as they can physically manage, doing everything in their power to earn their team the win. But instead he got to rest his injury and Milwaukee finds themselves down 3-0, a deficit no team has ever come back from in the playoffs.

As for how the rest of the series will pan out, there are a lot of questions. I could see Milwaukee bouncing back angrily in Game 4, potentially riding that momentum into a Game 5 to put the pressure back on the Heat. But winning four games in a row against a Jimmy Butler-led team is no small feat and despite my optimistic tendencies telling me otherwise, it looks like the Bucks’ playoff run comes to an end here. The lone positive is that this Heat team showed Milwaukee exactly what problems they need to address by next season.

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