The Milwaukee Bucks were no more than 10 minutes removed from winning their first-round series, and coach Mike Budenholzer had already shifted his thinking to what awaits against the Miami Heat.
Such is life for coaches in the NBA.
Budenholzer’s message was clear: “We’re going to have to be a lot better against a really good Miami team,” he said.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal matchup between the top-seeded Bucks and fifth-seeded Heat is Monday night in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The Bucks are trying to return to the East finals for the second straight season. Miami is trying to get there for the first time since 2014.
Milwaukee needed five games to dispatch Orlando in a series that ended Saturday; the Heat swept Indiana in the first round. Miami has had a week off to get ready, part of that time including the stoppage of the playoffs — which started when the Bucks wouldn’t take the floor on Wednesday in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“We’re not reinventing the whole wheel on how we prepare for a game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You just get into your routine. Each opponent is going to present really different challenges. This is a really good team, obviously an MVP player on their team … you’re going to have to do things well.”
That MVP is likely about to become a two-time MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, the front-runner for this year’s award, leads the Bucks in just about every imaginable way, and Milwaukee won each of the last four games of its series against Orlando by at least 14 points.
Antetokounmpo is also this year’s Defensive Player of the Year; he’ll likely see plenty of Miami’s Bam Adebayo, a Most Improved Player finalist who also got some DPOY first-place votes.
“It’s going to be a great series,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said.
Miami won the season series 2-1. The Heat rallied from a 21-point deficit in the third quarter to win at Milwaukee 131-126 in overtime on Oct. 26 without Jimmy Butler. Miami outscored Milwaukee 54-21 from 3-point range on the way to a 105-89 win on March 2. And the Bucks rallied from 23 points down to beat Miami, playing without Butler and Goran Dragic, 130-116 in the bubble on Aug. 6.
It seems likely that 30% of the starters on the floor for Game 1 — Butler and Jae Crowder for Miami, Wes Matthews for Milwaukee — will be Marquette products. Butler said Matthews, who began his NBA career in 2009, helped set a tone for future Marquette guys like himself and Crowder. “Whatever rank that you put us three in, you’ve got dogs. You’ve got guys that want to win, that are going to compete at the highest level,” Butler said.
Even in a season shortened by eight games because of the pandemic, the Bucks have reached 60 wins — counting regular-season and playoff games — for the 11th time in franchise history. This is the third instance of the Bucks having a multi-year streak of 60-win seasons: They did it in five consecutive seasons from 1969-70 through 1973-74, did it again in 1984-85 and 1985-86, and have now pulled it off in each of the last two seasons.
Both teams rely on their benches and depth, proven by the fact that it’s rare for either coach to have someone log big minutes. Miami has had 27 instances of players logging 40 minutes in a game this season, but only seven of those since Jan. 1. And Milwaukee has had just one such game — Khris Middleton played just under 41 minutes in an overtime contest against Washington on Feb. 24.
Heat rookie Tyler Herro — born in Milwaukee — hasn’t played like a rookie in his first playoffs. Herro played 32.3 minutes per game for the Heat in the first round, all of it off the bench, and averaged 16.5 points in that sweep of Indiana. He’s the first rookie in Heat history to score 15 points in each of his first four playoff games.