After a Friday night loss to the Detroit Pistons, the defending champion Miami Heat will continue their tour of the Midwest in Milwaukee. There, they will take on the young and feisty Bucks at the Bradley Center. Milwaukee has done a great job keeping pace in the Central Division this season, and sits just half a game out of first place.
Miami has looked as dangerous as ever this season.
The Big Three have been playing some phenomenal basketball, and their recent tear has established them as the force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James is putting scoring on the backburner in favor of distributing, and that will only help Miami against the Bucks and over the course of the season.
Of course, the Bucks are not a team to be taken lightly. Despite being a young team, they have proven that they can play with the big boys. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are a deadly backcourt duo, and head coach Scott Skiles runs a tight defensive ship that calls for everyone to put in an equal amount of effort.
Miami will thus fully appreciate the return of star guard Dwyane Wade from a one-game suspension, as his defense will be key in shutting the Bucks down. Milwaukee made their last game against Miami a close one from start to finish, and the Heat would prefer to avoid that happening again the second time around.
Time: Saturday, December 29th, 8:30 p.m. EST
TV: Sun Sports, Fox Sports Wisconsin
Records: Miami Heat (20-7) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (15-12)
Betting Line: Miami (-4.5), Milwaukee (+4.5)
Injuries: Tobias Harris (elbow, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Miami Shake Off Last Meeting With Milwaukee?
Miami first faced Milwaukee on November 21, and came away with a victory. The only problem was that the win was way too close for comfort.
Despite superior experience, the Heat were forced into overtime against the Bucks before winning 113-106. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade each had 28 points, while Chris Bosh chipped in 24 and also had 18 rebounds.
The story of the game, however, was Bucks rookie John Henson. The former Tar Heel finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds in 27 minutes off the bench, and established that he could definitely make an impact on the NBA level at some point.
But Henson has not had many big games since then. In fact, he's gone back to being a benchwarmer.
The stage thus appears set for the Heat to dominate this game, but fans should not count their chickens before they've hatched. Milwaukee's defense is not to be written off, ranking 10th in points allowed and 11th in rebounding.
Miami ranks 16th and 29th in those respective categories, which will make for a solid game on the road. Nothing is guaranteed, but the team's deadly trio will be fully locked in and ready to avoid a repeat of their first meeting with the Bucks.
Key Matchup: Larry Sanders vs. Chris Bosh
Chris Bosh is more of a scoring power forward than he is a true center, but he still managed to turn in one of the best defensive performances of his career when Miami faced Milwaukee earlier this season. The former Georgia Tech star has done a fine job as the Heat's starting center this year, averaging 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds on the season, and will look forward to having another good defensive game tonight.
Unfortunately for Bosh, the matchup will be a bit different this time. Samuel Dalembert was the Bucks' starting center in November, and his low production has banished him to the bench.
Instead, Bosh will have to battle with a defensive diamond in the rough in Larry Sanders, who has emerged as one of the league's best big men this season.
Sanders is the exact same size as Bosh at 6'11" and 235 pounds, but his work on defense is far superior despite the fact that he is only 24 years old. On the season, the former Virginia Commonwealth Ram has posted 8.5 rebounds and three blocks per game.
Over his last five games, he has turned on the afterburners in rebounding, posting 12.4 over that stretch.
Bosh could thus have a hard time against Sanders, despite his youth. He and his teammates have struggled against pure defensive centers all season long, and Sanders' tenacity in the paint could prove tough to handle. He's second in the league in blocks for a reason, and the Bucks will be depending on him to help bring home the win.
If he can outperform Bosh on defense, that would make victory all the sweeter.
X-Factor: Mario Chalmers
The Bucks' greatest weapon on offense is point guard Brandon Jennings, who has averaged 17.6 points and 5.9 assists per game on the season, plus 2.1 steals. In Milwaukee's loss to Miami earlier this season, he scored 19 points and also had seven rebounds, six assists and five steals.
To ensure a victory, Miami needs to shut him down.
That means having Mario Chalmers guard him, not an easy task for even the peskiest of pests. However, don't call Chalmers' defense of Jennings the first time around a failure.
Though Jennings did score a good number of points, he did it on 9-of-25 shooting. In fact, taking too many contested shots has been a bug-a-boo for Jennings all season, as he is shooting just under 40 percent from the field.
Chalmers just has to force the young Bucks point guard to keep that up. No open looks, no drives to the basket, no nothing. Milwaukee is 6-9 when Jennings shoots less than 40 percent from the field in a game, and their lack of offensive consistency outside of him, Monta Ellis and Mike Dunleavy could sink them against powerful Miami.
Chalmers is a defensive beast who is averaging 1.7 steals on the season, and he can also be deadly from long range. This season, he has made 38.5 percent of his threes.
If he can hold Jennings to a low field-goal percentage and also sink some key shots of his own, then the Heat will definitely not have to worry about grinding out an overtime win against the Bucks for the second time in a row.
After taking the Heat to overtime in South Beach back in November, the Bucks will be hungry for a repeat performance at the Bradley Center. The only difference is that this time, they will come out as the winners.
The sad truth is that all giants are eventually slain and such will be the case for Miami tonight. Sanders' defense will prove to be too much for Bosh to handle, and not even the versatile attack of LeBron James will be able to carry the Heat.
Who will win?
Brandon Jennings will once again get trigger happy and be held to a low shooting percentage, courtesy of Mario Chalmers' defense, but Monta Ellis will find a way past the tight defense of Dwyane Wade, who will have an off-shooting night.
After scoring just nine points on 4-of-16 shooting in his team's first game against Miami, Ellis will score in double figures and lead the Bucks to a photo-finish victory. There will be multiple lead changes and some trash talking on both sides, but the Bucks will be the team that makes the important shots in the fourth quarter.
By the final buzzer, Milwaukee will have won an extremely close game. All that the Heat will be able to do, once the dust settles, is stare at the scoreboard in shock.
Milwaukee Bucks 99, Miami Heat 96
All statistics in this article are accurate as of December 28, 2012.