Can the Bucks do anything to slow down LeBron James?
In the NCAA Tournament, this is what might be called a soft bracket.
The Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics are all currently on the same side of the NBA's Eastern Conference playoff bracket. That means, to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat will encounter the Milwaukee Bucks and—if there are no changes in the standings— either the Brooklyn Nets or the undermanned Chicago Bulls.
That's hardly daunting.
Still, first things first. And that means a look at the likely matchup between the first-seeded Heat and eighth-seeded Bucks.
Does Milwaukee, a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since Ray Allen was its leading scorer in 2001, have any chance to make this interesting?
The Bucks have won four of the 10 games that the teams have played since the Heat's "Big 3" came together.
It should be noted, however, that Milwaukee has undergone considerable roster turnover over that time. Only four players are still around from the 2010-11 season. And Scott Skiles, the coach whose style the Heat often cited for giving them trouble, is no longer on the Bucks' sideline.
With Miami hungry for a second straight title, and likely healthy after clinching the East three weeks early, at least five things will need to go right for the Bucks to stretch the series past five games.
(Quotes and information for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics are accurate as of Monday night.)
Larry Sanders is a candidate for Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year... when he stays on the floor.
The Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling, lasted six seasons on HBO.
On the court for the Milwaukee Bucks, the Larry Sanders show sometimes lasts just a few minutes.
Sanders, one of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player, also leads the NBA in technical fouls.
And he's been ejected five times.
One of those five occurred November 21 in Miami, early in a 113-106 loss.
Sanders committed three fouls in six minutes, picked up two technicals, and was tossed.
On December 29, Sanders controlled his temper... and controlled the paint. He was a force on both ends, contributing 16 points and 11 rebounds in a 104-85 Bucks victory.
With as much as the Heat players attack—especially LeBron James and Dwyane Wade—it is critical for the Bucks to have Sanders available as the last line of defense. He is second in the NBA in blocks at 2.9 per game, and he's a step quicker to spots than Samuel Dalembert at this stage.
There's no way to know how he will respond to the pressure of his first postseason in the NBA.
But if his response is giving the officials a hard time and a sarcastic thumbs-up on his way off the floor, that bodes well for Miami.
Luc Mbah a Moute wasn't in the mix in the teams' last meeting.
No one in the NBA has an ideal counter to LeBron James.
Some teams, however, are even more limited than others.
That appears to be the case for the Milwaukee Bucks, at least with their current starting lineup. It's the same lineup, with Marquis Daniels at small forward, that the Bucks tried against the Miami Heat in a 107-94 loss on March 15.
Perhaps at some earlier point in his career, Daniels could be expected to be more effective. But 32-year-old with an elevated defensive rating of 106 per 100 possessions isn't capable of bothering James all that much on either end.
That means Luc Mbah a Moute, who missed the teams' last meeting with an injury, could get the starting call.
Mbah a Moute plays bigger than his size suggests, and so he has often drawn this assignment. Still, James has still averaged 29.3 points on 51.7 percent shooting against Bucks teams the UCLA product over the course of his NBA career.
What are the Bucks' other options?
They could try to body James, and at least keep him off the boards, with Ersan Ilyasova.
Or they could just give up on defense entirely, and focus on getting more shooters on the floor. This would mean J.J. Redick (four inches shorter than James) or Mike Dunleavy (not the quickest afoot) taking a few turns.
Bucks fans might want to turn their heads in those instances.
Well, that's one way to keep J.J. Redick from shooting...
The Miami Heat have felt the effects of the J.J. Redick trade.
And surprisingly, they felt them when the Heat played the Orlando Magic later in the season, and had to deal with the Magic's young forward acquisition, Tobias Harris.
Harris was given an increased role, showed off an impressive skill set and made the Heat work down the stretch.
Well, he was the biggest name moved at the NBA's 2013 trade deadline. Miami had been torched by him earlier in the season when the then-Magic guard scored 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting in a tight Heat win.
After joining the Milwaukee Bucks, Redick got another shot at the Heat on March 15, and he wasn't nearly as effective, missing seven of 11 shots in a 13-point loss.
Even so, Miami remains well aware of Redick's ability to stretch the floor. He has faced the Heat 20 times in his career, and averaged 10.2 points in just 22.5 minutes, while shooting 42.2 percent from behind the arc.
The Heat tightened up its three-point defense as the season progress.
Still, it will require lights-out shooting for a team like Milwaukee to stay in games against the Heat. And a three-guard lineup, with Redick, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, has the potential to get Miami scrambling out to the perimeter.
As always, an underdog's best shot is to make shots.
And Redick is the purest shooter on the Bucks' side.
Monta Ellis will have his chance to upstage Dwyane Wade.
In a December interview with a local television crew, Milwaukee Bucks guard Monta Ellis made quite a pronouncement.
"To be honest, I would put myself in the same category as D-Wade. At the end of the day, the only thing that he has that I don't have is more wins and two championships. That's it. As far as playing on the same level, competing every night, both ends, shooting inside and outside, fast break, transition, Monta Ellis have it all."
You can make a case that, in playing style, Ellis does resemble Dwyane Wade more than most. They are close to the same height and Ellis, a full four years younger, may be more consistently explosive.
It should be noted, however, that Ellis has never outscored Wade in a head-to-head matchup, with Wade shooting 53.7 percent and Ellis shooting 36.4 percent in those games.
Simply, they remain worlds apart in terms of basketball IQ and in efficiency.
Wade is shooting a career-best .521 this season.
Ellis is close to a career-worst at .417.
Ellis, like Wade, does handle the ball quite a bit and actually averages more assists (6.0 to 5.0).
But Wade remains the superior defender, especially off the ball. He's also proven on the grand stage, as all those wins and those two championships suggest. Ellis, meanwhile, hasn't played in the playoffs since 2007 for Golden State—and, at the time, he appeared scared.
He's older now, and perhaps quite a bit better.
Better than Wade?
For the Bucks' sake, he better be.
Brandon Jennings has scored at a high level... but can he be efficient?
Monta Ellis isn't the only Milwaukee Bucks with irrational confidence.
Read what Brandon Jennings told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
The two games that we played Miami so far, we matched up well against them. If you ask me, that's who I would want to play first round, Miami.
Just the fact over the years, a lot of the games have gone down to the wire with us and Miami. Right now we haven't really played well against the Knicks. I just feel better if we play Miami first round, just the fact we have good games against them.
I don't know if it's because they're the champs or what, but we always play harder against Miami.
That was said prior to the Miami Heat's rather comfortable win in Milwaukee on March 15.
Still, the Bucks have won 33.3 percent of the games they have played against the Heat this season. And that's not all that far below what Jennings has shot against the Heat over the course of his career. In a dozen games, Jennings has shot 34.8 percent overall.
That won't be enough to make this a series.
He needs to be perform closer to the way he did in his first and only playoff series as a pro, when he shot 40.8 percent and averaged 18.7 points to push the Hawks to seven games.
Now Jennings will be motivated to put on a show, with the potential of offseason free agency.
If Jennings can splash some shots, while getting into the paint to set up other shooters—such as J.J. Redick and Mike Dunleavy—this may not be the Miami romp that many anticipate.