The NBA Playoffs tip off on Saturday with the first game of arguably the most compelling first round series; the 3 vs. 6 matchup in the Eastern Conference between the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat. The series will be a rematch of last season’s second round when the Heat put the basketball world on notice and beat the Bucks in just five games on their way to the NBA Finals. Have the Bucks made the right adjustments on both ends of the court? Or will the Heat be able to neutralize Milwaukee’s game plan for the second straight year?
When the Bucks lost to the Heat last season, it was clear Milwaukee has some questions to answer.
Milwaukee had gone two straight seasons where they finished as the top seed in the East with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the MVP that ultimately resulted in disappointing playoff exits. It was no longer a question of if a change needed to be made, but what changes would be made.
The most notable change for the Bucks from a personnel perspective was replacing Eric Beldsoe with Jrue Holiday. Holiday gives the Bucks another playmaker beside Antetokounmpo who can help run the offense at times and is an elite defender at the guard position who can also switch onto some smaller forwards. Holiday is also a capable scorer putting up 17.7 points per game on career highs in three-point percentage (39.2%) and field goal percentage (50.3%) with the Bucks this season. Another offseason move that turned out to be great for the Bucks was signing Bobby Portis, who is having the best season of his career coming off the bench for Milwaukee. Like his new teammate Holiday, Portis is having a career year from an efficiency standpoint, shooting 52.3% from the field and an unbelievable 47.1% from three. The final key acquisition came in the middle of the season when the Bucks traded for PJ Tucker. Tucker is a solid outside shooter but most importantly a tough, savvy defender that allows the Bucks to be more ‘switchable’ on defense, which is a problem they have struggled with in the past.
Despite their roster changes the Bucks also had to improve schematically if they want to succeed in the Playoffs. In the past, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer was reluctant to stray away from their game plan even when it was being exploited by their opponent. This season, Milwaukee has seemed to be adjusting a bit better defensively, but the real test will come in the Playoffs.
Milwaukee is still getting MVP level production from Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton continues to be one of the most efficient scorers in the league and has improved as a playmaker and the fit with Jrue Holiday has gotten better and better throughout the season.
The Bucks are one of the most talented teams in the league and have put in work all season to be ready for a series like this. If the adjustments they have made carry over to the playoffs they should feel very good about their chances in this series.
After upsetting their way to the Finals last season, the Miami Heat were expected to come into this year and prove their Eastern Conference Championship was no fluke. Unfortunately, the Heat never got the chance. Miami was ravaged by injuries and players missing time for health and safety protocols and seemingly could never get a consistent stretch of games together as a group. There was a lingering expectation all season that Miami would eventually break through and make a run up the standings, but it just never happened for the Heat.
With that being said, the Heat still had some impressive individual performances this season. Bam Adebayo took another step in his offensive game and proved he is both an All-NBA and All-Defensive team level player. Jimmy Butler was outstanding overall and had the best playmaking season of his career with over seven assists per game, Duncan Robinson continued to shoot the ball at an elite level from three and Tyler Herro improved throughout the entire year after a rough start to the season.
Not much is different for Miami from last season, they still have their main core of guys and know who they are as a team. From a roster standpoint, the biggest change come at the forward spot with Trevor Ariza replacing Jae Crowder. Ariza’s raw stats for this season are pretty similar to Crowder’s but Ariza is not the defender or three-point shooter that Crowder was for the Heat last season.
Miami may seem to be throwing things together on the fly, but the same thing could be said for last year and it ended up working out for them. The Heat are a tough, gritty team that should not surprise anyone if they go on a run again like they did last season.
The Bucks and Heat played three games over the course of the regular season with Milwaukee winning two out of the three, but those games can be thrown out seeing as Butler did not play in any of them.
All evidence has shown that Miami has the advantage from a coaching perspective. Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra has proven throughout his career he’s capable of making the right adjustments at the proper moment in the playoffs. However, Budenholzer has done a nice job of sprinkling in new adjustments throughout the regular season and will have a chance to right his wrongs in these playoffs.
In last season’s playoff matchup, the Heat were able to slow down Antetokounmpo by throwing different looks at him, cycling between Butler, Crowder and mostly Adebyao defending him while also building the infamous ‘wall’ to cut off his drives the paint. The deciding factor for Milwaukee will be if Antetokounmpo can make the right reads when he is forced to, if Holiday and Middleton carry the offense the rest of the way and if the Milwaukee defense can be versatile enough to deal with all of Miami’s screens and off-ball movement.
If both teams are able to execute their game plans its sure to be a war of a series, but the Bucks are the more talented team and have shown enough versatility this season to be a real contender to win the NBA Finals.
Series Prediction: Milwaukee Bucks (4-2)
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