Giannis Antetokounmpo is having the best season of his career, and he won MVP last season. He has expanded his range beyond the arc, averaging nearly 31% of his threes on 4.8 attempts. But will he be ready for what’s coming in the playoffs?
Although the Bucks have essentially clinched the Eastern Conference with the best record in the league, history has shown that your regular-season record does not mean a whole lot in the playoffs. A prime example is the 2016, 73-win Warriors losing a 3-1 lead in the Finals. Milwaukee went on a three-game losing streak entering the hiatus, so hopefully, they can turn this around. If the current standings hold, Milwaukee would play a menial Orlando team in the first round. Assuming they defeat the Magic, they would most likely face the Heat in the conference quarterfinals. Coach Budenholzer is going to need a new plan to stop Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo’s fast-paced offense.
Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com/
Regular Season Woes
Milwaukee has lost both games to the Heat this season, the first at home, and the second by 16. In fact, in the first game, Miami didn’t even have all-star Jimmy Butler. Those losses were shocking, especially given how deep Milwaukee is. The Bucks have two-time all-star Khris Middleton, who’s averaging a jaw-dropping 50% field goal percentage as the primary shooter on the team.
Then there’s three-point shooting big man Brook Lopez adding to the already dominant frontcourt. Lopez was also in the DPOY race earlier this season, averaging over two blocks and nearly one steal per game. Adding to this, you have one of the fastest guards in the league in Eric Bledsoe. Milwaukee has several more scrappy players and a very deep bench. They were playing like the best team in the league before the break. Yet even with this, Miami cannot be counted out.
Powerhouse in Miami
Now the Bucks have a quick eight games before the playoffs, and one is against the Heat. The question is if whether or not they will be ready to face Miami. You have attacking guards in Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragic. You have lights-out shooters in Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Jae Crowder. Dominant big-men in all-star Bam Adebayo and Meyers Leonard. To put the cherry on top, one of the best two-way players in the game in Jimmy Butler.
Butler is playing the best ball of his career. On his fourth team, he has not only found his place as the alpha but also has such a loaded team on both ends of the floor. Butler’s agility and courtside vision allow him to make his typical in-n-out crossover and attack the basket, stop and pull up for his favorite mid-range jumper, or draw the defense in and kick out for a three. Not to mention his innate ability to anticipate passes and average nearly two steals per game.
Butler has led the Heat to a 41-24 record thus far, but this doesn’t reflect the level of basketball they were playing at. As a team, they are fifth in the league in assists per game and have some of the best ball movement overall in the league. Miami makes the defense move so much that it opens up driving lanes or leaves shooters. Also, Miami’s pick-and-roll game is like no other in the league.
Although Milwaukee may be an outstanding team on both ends of the floor, it will definitely be hard for them to keep up with Miami’s fast-paced ball. During the two games they played this season, Milwaukee has not played like the best team in the league. Giannis, in fact, was held to a season-low 13 points in 31 minutes in their second game back in March; he’s only been held to under 15 points three times this season. Middleton only had 12 points in 28 minutes; Bledsoe, 7 in 21. Miami forced 13 Milwaukee turnovers and had nine more assists.
The focal point of Miami’s success vs. Milwaukee has been Adebayo’s lockdown defense on Antetokounmpo. In their second matchup, it was Adebayo who held Giannis to 13 points. When he was guarding Giannis, Adebayo held him to just one of ten shots made. In addition, Adebayo had three blocks and a steal in the win, with one ferocious block on Brook Lopez. Adebayo’s length and quickness make him one of the most versatile big men in the game right now. As much as Giannis’ athleticism makes him unstoppable in transition, he had zero transition points against the Heat in March.
You can certainly see how Miami figured out Antetokounmpo and slowly dismantled the Bucks in that game. You may say, how can you judge the Bucks performance off only one game? Well, take a look at the first game they played. Butler did not play, and seven Bucks players scored in double figures, led by Antetokounmpo with 29 and Middleton with 25. They still lost.
Miami is the Dark-horse of the 2020 Playoffs
Adding onto Miami’s impressive resumé, they are 2-0 versus the Raptors (Butler had a 22-point triple-double in the first game), 2-0 versus the Mavericks, and 3-1 versus the 76ers (one a 31-point blowout). In all of these games, either Butler or Adebayo was the deciding factor. This is not to say that the key role players did not contribute, but without Butler’s quickness or Adebayo’s strength, it has been tough for the Heat to win games.
Clearly, Coach Erik Spoelstra has formed a very well-rounded team, with highly-dominant players at each position. It will certainly not be surprising to see the Heat, not the Bucks, in the Eastern Conference Finals.