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#pounditFriday, January 22, 2021

Bucks-Heat series preview and analysis

Jimmy Butler

After dismantling inferior opponents in the first round, the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat are primed to deliver one of the most entertaining second-round series this postseason. The Bucks finished atop the Eastern Conference for the second straight season, leading many to believe they are poised for their first Finals appearance since NBA-legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1974 MVP season.

Out of all their intraconference adversaries, the Heat present one of the most formidable challenges for Milwaukee. While regular-season results hold less merit in playoff matchups, it’s worth noting that Miami was the only team from the East to post a winning record against the Bucks this season. Although the sample size from the regular season was limited to three matchups, those games provided both teams with a blueprint for winning their playoff duel.

Ranking third and sixth respectively in total three-pointers made this year, the Bucks and Heat rely on the long ball for a substantial portion of their offense. The winner of the three-point line will be a significant determining factor in the series’s outcome, but how each team generates its looks from deep will be even more crucial.

The Heat and Bucks have both done outstanding jobs surrounding their superstar players with the right role players to maximize their strengths. Each team has adopted their star player’s playing style, resulting in two teams with opposed basketball ideologies.

For Milwaukee, that means an up-tempo brand of basketball that allows Giannis Antetounkmpo to fly through defenses in transition on his way to the rim. Miami and Jimmy Butler prefer a more methodical pace as they slowly dissect the weaknesses in their opposition. Controlling the pace will be crucial in a battle that pins the fastest team in the NBA in Milwaukee, against the third-slowest, Miami.

THE ANTETOKOUNMPO DIFFERENCE

The difference between the Bucks and other teams that shoot high volumes of threes is that no other team has the reigning MVP. The Bucks’ spacing is predicated on four shooters flanking Antetounkmpo, enabling him to penetrate the defense and generate open looks from deep for their marksmen. With the amount of stress that his drives put on the opposing teams’ defense, conceding open three-pointers to Antetokounmpo’s teammates is inevitable.

When Antetokounmpo catches the ball in the play above, he’s the only player for Milwaukee standing inside the three-point line. After a quick cut through the lane by Eric Bledsoe, Antetokounmpo has Nikola Vucevic at his mercy isolated at the elbow. Following a quick crossover, Antetokounmpo rises over Vucevic for the comfortable mid-range jumper. The further the Bucks go in the postseason, the more vital shots like this will become. Antetokounmpo was more than ever this season to expand his range beyond looks at the rim to diversify his offensive arsenal for the biggest stage.

Milwaukee was a great passing team during the regular season, and their leader is no exception. Standing 6-foot-11, Antetokounmpo can utilize his height to pass over the defense in a similar fashion to LeBron James. But it’s not just Antetokounmpo that continually made the right pass during the regular season. The team finished fifth in the NBA in assists per game, displaying the ability to find the open man on the fast break countless times over.

Brook Lopez’s unique skillset has a similar effect on Milwaukee as PJ Tucker’s does for the Houston Rockets. Lopez and Tucker are vital components for their teams on both sides of the ball. Either player’s absence would render their teams incapable of playing their unique systems to maximum capacity. For the 6-foot-5 Tucker, that means battling opposing centers with absurd height advantages allowing Houston to redefine what it means to go small in the NBA. At 7-feet tall, Brook Lopez’s rare ability to protect the rim and knock down deep three-point attempts makes him the perfect front-court partner for Antetokounmpo.

HEAT STYLE

While the Heat do not have a reigning MVP running their offense, Jimmy Butler’s first year in South Beach was arguably the best of the five-time All-Star’s career. Pairing Butler’s drive to win with Miami’s head coach, Erik Spoelstra’s tactical brilliance is a match made in basketball heaven. Spoelstra has channeled the optimal version of Butler. Despite shooting a distressing 24 percent on just two threes a game, Butler was essential for Miami’s long-range attack. As a slashing playmaker this season, he averaged a career-high in assists and free throw attempts per game.

Butler deserves credit for the confidence he injected into one of the most well-run franchises in the NBA, but he has not done it alone. Miami’s other All-Star, Bam Adebayo, has turned himself into one of the league’s most coveted bigs capable of defending any position while also providing playmaking creativity on the offensive end. His chemistry with long-range assassin Duncan Robinson has made their dribble hand-off one of the most unstoppable plays. The play below from the regular season highlights the effectiveness of their dribble hand-off and Miami’s preference to play with pace.

Milwaukee will be prepared for this action and will likely fight over the screen to keep Robinson from getting open looks. But when defenses adjust, that’s when the duo’s chemistry shines through.

Spoelstra is one of the best in the league at drawing up plays designed to free his shooters for open looks in the halfcourt, evidenced by Miami’s second-place finish in catch-and-shoot threes made this season. The Heat have the luxury of surrounding their two non-shooters, Adebayo and Butler, with snipers like Robinson, standout rookie Tyler Herro, and Goran Dragic. Guys like Andre Iguodala, Kelly Olynyk, and Jae Crowder are capable of heating up from deep and can’t be left alone on the perimeter.

FREE THROW LINE IMPORTANCE

While controlling the three-point line will be a primary focus for both teams, there’s another line that looms large. During their first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, Miami shot close to 30 free throws per game. Miami continuously gets to the line primarily thanks to Butler. During the regular season, his 9.1 free throw attempts per game ranked fifth, with that number only growing to 10.5 in the playoffs. Nothing will slow the pace of Milwaukee’s transition attack down more than a parade to the free throw line.

The Bucks shot only 72 percent on close to 22 attempts per game in their first-round matchup with the Magic. If both teams were to continue at their same pace, the Heat would gain close to an eight-point advantage from the foul line alone. While the gap between attempts at the line will likely get smaller during their series, their percentages are reflective of their stars. Milwaukee finished with the fourth-lowest team percentage from the line, as Antetokounmpo’s 63 percent shooting on 10 attempts per game cratered their team percentage. A solid 83 percent shooter, Miami shares no similar qualms about Butler.

Although each team’s shooting will be a primary factor in how well they perform, playoff basketball often comes down to the play of the star players. It’s hard to imagine Miami besting Antetokounmpo’s offensive onslaught to the rim four times in a seven-game series. Still, the Heat feel confident in Adebayo’s ability to at least limit the Greek Freak. No one defended Antetokounmpo more during the regular season as Adebayo held him to 43 percent shooting on 28 field goal attempts. But the number one reason for optimism in Adebayo’s defense is the fact that he fouled Antetokounmpo just twice, leading to only five free throw attempts.

Playoff matchups take on a different intensity when they feature teams with opposite agendas. The winner will likely be determined by the team that enforces their tempo. With some of the league’s biggest stars and most prominent attitudes, this Eastern Conference semifinals series is a must-see matchup.

Jack Reining covers the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JackReining3

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