The First Round of the NBA Playoffs showed many fans and pundits which teams looked like they had the real desire to get to the Finals this season. The Milwaukee Bucks stumbled in their only loss to the Orlando Magic to start their playoffs campaign but picked up momentum, whilst the Miami Heat were one of the teams to put the Eastern Conference on notice as they swept past the Indiana Pacers. Now the Bucks and Heat face off in what is expected to be an enthralling series.
The case for the Bucks
The Bucks have been here before, with a high level of expectation on the team, but they’ve faltered under the weight of that pressure in the past. Milwaukee have only made it to the Conference Semi-finals stage twice, in 2000-01 and last term, 2018-19 and they will be hoping to get past this phase by beating the Miami Heat. Last season Giannis Antetokounmpo was in the midst of his MVP award-winning form during the playoffs but it wasn’t enough to catapult his side past the Conference Finals and into the big time.
The Bucks had won the Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season, as they’ve done again this term. They had romped past the Pistons and Celtics in the first two rounds of the postseason in 2018-19 and they’ll hope that they continue that trend but taking down the Heat this campaign. The Bucks have made it to the Conference Finals twice in 20 years, in 2001 and last year. On both of those occasions, they fell short and didn’t make it to the NBA Finals. Coach Mike Budenholzer, twice an NBA Coach of the Year award winner, will be eager to get over this hurdle and get his team to the main event.
Coach Bud has led two teams to the top of the Eastern Conference at the end of their respective regular seasons in the Atlanta Hawks and the Bucks, and both franchises have failed to live up to their top billing in those playoffs. Budenholzer is aware that he needs the 2019 Most Valuable Player Giannis, as well as his supporting cast in All-Star Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Ersan Ilyasova, the Lopez twins and everyone in-between to be focused and ready for action. The NBA Finals and a potential championship win are within sight, but they will need to beat a supremely tricky Heat team that doesn’t back down before they can dream of playing in the main event.
The Bucks ended the regular season with a record of 56 wins and only 17 losses. They led the NBA in points per game (ppg), averaging 118.7 and only allowing their opponents 108.6ppg, making them the eighth best defence in the NBA, ahead of the Heat who ranked 10th. Their star player is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP who just recently won the NBA Defensive Player of the year award, he ended the regular season as the 5th highest point-scorer in the NBA, averaging 29.5ppg, he came 2nd in the rebounding stats, averaging 13.6 rebounds per game. Giannis is the engine of this team and he will have to be as good as he always is if the Bucks have any hope of beating Miami.
The case for the Heat
The Miami Heat have been one of the better teams in the NBA this season and ended the regular season as the 5th seed in the East. Their demolition of the Pacers in the First Round of these playoffs saw Indiana fire their coach Nate McMillan, so impressive was their team display that many people have started to question whether or not Eric Spoelstra’s side have what it takes to go all the way to the Finals. Miami have to get past the more fancied Bucks, but they won’t be afraid of Giannis and the gang, because during the season the Heat beat the Bucks twice in their three showdowns.
The game the Bucks won was after the season restart and both Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic didn’t take part for Miami. This Heat team have a solid defensive make up as they defend well collectively, add in some deadly 3-point shooting and you have a winning combination, especially for teams who have beaten the Bucks before. Milwaukee are the favourites in this clash with Antetokounmpo the talisman of that team, but in Jimmy Butler, the Heat have a talismanic player of their own. Butler might not be an MVP but he has a game that thrives on adversity and his fight and doggedness seem to have rubbed off on his teammates.
Veteran players like All-Stars Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala, rookie stars Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro have all risen to the occasion as they’ll follow Butler’s lead. Young Nigerian-American power forward/centre Edrice ‘Bam’ Adebayo was selected as an All-Star this season because of his rapid improvement on court. He seems to have benefited from playing with and learning from Butler as well. Adebayo was 18th in the NBA in blocks per game, 10th in rebounds per game with 10.2 per contest and was 12th in field goal percentage. Butler might not be a scoring powerhouse, averaging 19.9ppg, but his defensive work is high octane as he ended the regular season 7th in the league with 1.8 steals per game.
The Heat have a secret weapon in 3-point shooter Duncan Robinson who averaged 3.7 made 3-pointers at the end of the regular season, that was good enough to leave him 5th in the NBA in that category. If they can maintain their high effort levels and drain the big shots when the opportunities arise, then Miami could upset the NBA apple cart.
The Bucks lead the NBA across these stats, points per game, rebounds per game and points differential and they were second in field goals per game. The Heat were 15th in ppg, 10th in field goal percentage but crucially they were second in 3-point percentage, scoring 37.9% of their 3-point shots. The Heat are also better at the Bucks at making their free throws, as they averaged 78.3% of their shots from the charity stripe, compared to Milwaukee who manages only 74.2, for the 4th worst percentage in the NBA.
In close playoff games, teams who shoot the ball better from long range and also make the majority of their free throws tend to win more. This might seem like the Heat have a good advantage, but all of the Bucks’ strong points should stand them above Miami. The Bucks are taller and score more, they control the glass by grabbing more rebounds which could be decisive if they get more offensive rebounds. The crucial point in determining the series winner is, who can stop Giannis? If you stop him then you have won half the battle. It is a tough, but not impossible task. Miami might not have enough to stop him though, and that could be the critical consideration.
Series Prediction: Bucks win in 6 games.