The Miami Heat have won 20 games in a row, and they'll look to make it 21 against a Milwaukee Bucks team they will most likely face in the playoffs. However, for the Bucks to get their second straight win against the Heat, it could prove to be tough.
Though Miami is a far better team on paper, the Bucks actually defeated them the last time the two faced off on Dec. 29. Moreover, since trading for guard J.J. Redick, Milwaukee has gone 6-4.
The Bucks also have a slight advantage in that the game is to be played at the Bradley Center, where they handily defeated Miami in their last meeting. Though the Heat are red hot right now, there's always the possibility that their momentum will run out in facing a feisty Milwaukee team being cheered on by its home fans.
It should also be noted that this is the first time the Bucks will face the Heat with interim coach Jim Boylan in charge, both previous meetings having been coached by Scott Skiles, who stepped down in January.
The stage is thus set for what should be a fine third round of battle between these two teams, and NBA fans would be wise to tune in.
Time: Friday, March 15, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV: Sun Sports, FSN Wisconsin
Records: Miami Heat (49-14) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (32-31)
Injuries: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (toe, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Can Bucks Stop Miami's Streak?
The Bucks are entering this game with one mission: stop Miami's winning streak. The two teams have already faced off twice this season, and Milwaukee has proven capable of going toe-to-toe with the defending champions.
Their first meeting took place in Miami on Nov. 21, and believe it or not, the Bucks were able to force overtime. Unfortunately, thanks to Miami's Big Three scoring a combined 80 points, plus 18 rebounds from Chris Bosh and 17 bench points from Ray Allen, Miami won 113-106. Not even 18 points and 17 boards from rookie John Henson could bring home the win for Milwaukee.
Round 2, however, was far different. That took place on Dec. 29, in Milwaukee, and the Bucks outscored the Heat 35-14 in the fourth quarter to win 104-85. Star point guard Brandon Jennings led the way with 25 points and seven assists.
Round 3 should not be any less exciting, and the Heat had better be prepared. Though on an epic streak, they are still the worst rebounding team in the league, though their on-ball defense has been excellent as of late.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, ranks fifth in rebounding and is playing with an extra bounce in its step with the playoffs fast approaching. A win would give them lots of confidence over the season's final weeks and since they will likely play Miami in the first round, defeating them again would certainly add some drama to the mix.
On Miami's end, it will be all about dominating from start to finish, but that's not going to be easy against a feisty Bucks squad. Certain players are going to need to step up their effort, or else the streak will come to an abrupt end.
Key Matchup: Chris Bosh vs. Larry Sanders
One way to defeat Milwaukee is to beat them on the boards, and Miami faces an uphill battle in that department. In order to win it, Chris Bosh is going to need to be more aggressive on the inside.
Though he has great size for center at 6'11", 235 pounds, Bosh plays more like a scoring power forward than a true defensive 5. Rather than work the low post and stay in the paint, he likes to use his jumper and, occasionally, a three-point shot.
This season, Bosh is averaging 16.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 54 percent from the field. Over his last five games, he has posted 16.2 points, five rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Though a solid scorer and on-ball defender, it's clear that his interior game needs a lot of work.
There will be no better time to start upping his effort there than against Milwaukee's Larry Sanders, who has come out of nowhere this season to become one of the league's top defensive centers. The former VCU Ram is only averaging 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds on the season but leads the league with 3.2 blocks per contest.
Over Milwaukee's last five games, of which he has appeared in four, Sanders has basically been par for the course, if not a little better. Through that stretch, he is averaging 11.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
When matched up against Bosh, Sanders just has to fight past his inexperience and let defense lead the way. Both men are exactly the same size, so it's just a matter of Sanders focusing on forcing Bosh out of his comfort zone and not letting him use his jump shot.
If just one member of Miami's Big Three can be taken out of the game, then the Bucks have a chance. However, if Bosh can defeat Sanders and run the table in their battle, then the Heat's streak is as good as extended.
X-Factor: Mario Chalmers
As I mentioned before, Miami's on-ball defense has looked far better during its winning streak. The team currently ranks third in steals with 8.8 per game, and also eighth in points allowed at 95.9 per game.
This means that against the Bucks, pest extraordinaire Mario Chalmers needs to be at his best.
The former Kansas Jayhawk is only averaging 8.3 points per game this season, but has managed 1.6 steals and shot 41 percent from three-point range. Over his last five games, he has posted 12 points and 1.4 steals while shooting 53 percent from the field and 44 percent from downtown.
The Heat won't need Chalmers to be a top scorer against Milwaukee, but lockdown defense from him is a must. He'll likely be guarding Brandon Jennings, so forcing the dynamic point guard to take bad shots as well as forcing turnovers is one of Miami's major keys to victory.
If Chalmers can stop the Bucks at the point, then the Heat essentially have the game in the bag. If not, then the game will definitely be much closer.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Mario Chalmers
SG: Dwyane Wade
SF: LeBron James
PF: Udonis Haslem
C: Chris Bosh
PG: Brandon Jennings
SG: Monta Ellis
SF: Mike Dunleavy
PF: Ersan Ilyasova
C: Larry Sanders
While the Bucks would love to defeat Miami once again, it's just not going to happen. The Heat have too much momentum coming into this game, and it's hard to believe that a team as young as Milwaukee will be the ones to stop them. The defending champs' defense will just be too good, and the young Bucks won't have an answer.
Pick your winner!
LeBron James will have another excellent game and almost have a triple-double, while Dwyane Wade sinks key shots and helps shoulder the load. Chris Bosh won't necessarily outclass Larry Sanders in the paint, but his on-ball defense of the man will make his superior experience shine bright.
The Heat will also be helped by the excellent defense of Mario Chalmers, who will take the Bucks' offense out of the game while also sinking clutch three-pointers in the second half. He may not be in the spotlight as much as some of his teammates, but he will be the man of the hour at certain points in tonight's game.
Miami's streak will thus extend to 21, and Milwaukee will just have to watch the defeat happen.
Miami Heat 104, Milwaukee Bucks 96