On December 30, 2020, in their first meeting since the Heat eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble, the Bucks hit 29 of 51 3-pointers to set an NBA record for threes by a team in a game en route to a 144-97 demolition of the defending Eastern Conference champs. However, while this was an impressive performance by Milwaukee, it did not change hearts and minds regarding who would be the better team when the postseason comes around.
As fate would have it, the two teams would draw each other in the first-round playoff matchup to be closely watched. Both teams have somewhat fallen under the radar, with the seasons Brooklyn and Philadelphia being the main storyline in the conference this year. The Heat dominated the Bucks in the bubble and posed many questions about Milwaukee’s ability to deliver in the postseason.
On the back of a franchise playoff record 22 three-pointers made, Milwaukee won the game and, more importantly, showed they have an answer for the different defensive schemes that Erik Spoelstra might throw at them over the course of the series. Giannis dominated Game 1 and continued his aggressive brilliance early, attacking the Heat’s man-to-man coverage from both the top of the key and the post, eventually leading to a barrage of wide-open threes by Khris Middleton and the rest of the Bucks wings.
The game got out of hand early, and Milwaukee just continued to apply relentless pressure on a team visibly struggling and one that sometimes looked fatigued. The Bucks did not only shoot well but did perform at a championship level on the defensive side of the ball, led by their two hard-nosed veterans in Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker. Miami simply had no answer for the Bucks’ potent offense and did not get much scoring done themselves as Dwayne Dedmon led the team with 19 points, while Jimmy Butler was only 4-of-10 from the field and unable to create opportunities for others.
“If you look at the bright side here, you can’t play any worse than how we did tonight.”
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Butler is right, this performance was forgettable, to say the least, and he of all people knows that he can do much better. He also understands that there is no need to panic since his team seemed to have Milwaukee’s number in the bubble. Also, the Bucks have led 2-0 after winning the first pair of games at home only to lose four straight to the Toronto Raptors, so now it is simply Miami’s turn to take care of business and win their two upcoming home games. Even if the team up 2-0 in a series goes on to win around 94% of the time, the Heat know that if there is any team that can defy the odds and still pull out a series win, it’s them.
On last night’s episode of Inside the NBA on TNT, Charles Barkley stated the Bucks are in control and gave credit to the two defensive aces that the Bucks added to their roster this year, citing their addition as a key factor in improving the mindset and approach that the team has shown this year.
“Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker are great defensively, but they are also very tough mentally.”
Charles Barkley, Inside the NBA
Barkley may be right as the difference in how the Bucks compete and the confidence they have in their big games against the Nets and the first two games of the playoffs is noticeable compared to last year’s team. Giannis is looking to dominate more by being more aggressive on both ends of the floor, and Khris Middleton seems to be playing with much less pressure and load on his shoulders; this can be attributed to the intangibles that Holiday and Tucker bring to the team dynamic.
In what seems right now as an impending second-round matchup between the Bucks and the Nets, the three-point shooting will be important to keep Brooklyn honest when defending Giannis. However, what may prove to be the real difference is Milwaukee’s ability to withstand the overwhelming firepower of the Nets to find different ways to grind out four wins against the team favored to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.