The Bucks head into the postseason as one of the worst playoff teams in recent memory. Their 38-44 finish gives Milwaukee by far the worst record of any postseason team this season and things haven't gotten any better of late. The Bucks finished the regular season on an extreme downslope, losing 12 of their last 16 games.
What's more, Milwaukee's personnel moves haven't bore expected results. J.J. Redick has been mediocre at best since being acquired at the trade deadline, while a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the entire team with free agency looming for Brandon Jennings (and likely Monta Ellis).
It's quite the opposite journey from the Heat, who come in fresh off their finest regular season in franchise history. Should-be unanimous MVP LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have morphed into an unstoppable three-headed monster of destruction, leaving the entire NBA in their wake this season.
Miami finished 66-16 this season, becoming just the 13th team in NBA history to win at least 66 games, per Basketball-Reference.com. That overall record was buoyed by a 27-game winning streak, which is the second-greatest in NBA history, finishing just six behind the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Regular-season winning streaks aside, this journey is nowhere near complete for Miami. The Heat have had one goal and one goal only since season began and that's to become repeat NBA champions.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of the Heat's first round series with Milwaukee.
First Round Schedule
|1||Sunday, April 21 at 7 p.m. ET||AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami||TNT|
|2||Tuesday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. ET||AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami||NBATV|
Thursday, April 25 at 7 p.m. ET
|BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee||TNT|
Sunday, April 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
|BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee||ABC|
Tuesday, April 30
|AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami||N/A|
Thursday, May 2
|BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee||N/A|
Saturday, May 4
|AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami||N/A
Regular Season Record and Stats Leaders
Points Leader: LeBron James (26.8)
Rebounds Leader: LeBron James (8.0)
Assists Leader: LeBron James (7.3)
First-Round Matchup vs. Bucks
Biggest Strength: Brilliant Ball Movement, Offensive Strategy
Early in the Big Three era, it became a running joke how poorly Wade and James played together. While one of the duo took over the game with hard dribble-drives that became a staple of their early careers, the other was essentially absent. Somewhere twiddling their thumbs as a non-entity. The vision of James standing in the corner during the 2011 NBA Finals like a max-contract Matt Bonner still has to haunt Heat fans.
Even last year it was a major problem during the regular season. James was working in the post a ton more than he had previously, but Miami's offense was still prone to long stretches of stagnation. It wasn't until Bosh's injury during the 2011-12 playoffs until the Heat truly realized where they could be most effective—a spread-the-floor, pass-happy attack that went often with five non-paint players.
And that efficiency has certainly carried over to this season. The Heat head into the postseason scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions, which is neck-and-neck with Oklahoma City for the league lead, per NBA.com. That represents a six-point increase from Miami's mark last season, which ranked sixth.
Essentially, the Heat have gone from a very good offensive club to elite—a massive ascent courtesy of a wholesale change to that aforementioned five-out strategy. Much ado has been made of LeBron James becoming an ascendant post figure, and rightfully so. His commitment to becoming a force down low, not only through scoring but passing and defense as well has been extraordinary. It's allowed Chris Bosh to be a non-traditional center, while also opening the floor up for shooters on the outside.
But the beautify of Miami's offense is that it doesn't overly rely on one thing. James is a Swiss Army knife of efficiency, and Miami has learned how to use him as such.
The Heat know who and where their shooters are, asking them to do little else. In transition, that leads to James or Wade barreling into the defensive middle at times with no intention of shooting the ball. They are trying to draw a shooting foul or open up a three-pointer on the outside, which James does here with Ray Allen.
For all of their greatness in transition, though, the Heat are a half-court-oriented team. They keep their pace controlled, essentially playing playoff basketball every night on that end. What makes Miami's offense special is that it creates a multitude of looks for its shooters even against elite defense.
Take the play above from earlier in the season against Memphis for instance. Marc Gasol plays James' dribble-drive perfectly, faking a hard hedge and forcing James into the air. But the Grizzlies' rotation is just sloppy enough—notice how James has the option of either Shane Battier or Allen on that play—that an open three pointer comes.
Miami is great because it doesn't miss those opportunities. And that's something the Bucks are going to have an awfully difficult time stopping.
Biggest Weakness: Rebounding
One of the unfortunate byproducts of Miami's offensive system is that it leaves little room for offensive rebounding. By spreading the floor with five guys who often aren't in the paint, it's easy for smart teams to box out and keep Miami from getting second-chance opportunities.
Therefore, it's little shock that the Heat finished last in the league in rebounding. When LeBron is your top rebounder, as great as he is, that's going to be a bit of a problem.
That being said, Miami isn't the league's worst rebounding team as that number suggests. Counting stats are prone to bias for teams that run a higher pace, thus creating more opportunities via a greater number of possessions. Just the same way we normalize scoring efficiency by taking into account a per-100 possession database we must do something similar for rebounding.
According to NBA.com, the Heat ranked 22nd in rebounding rate this season. The differing between the counting stats and rebound rate is a byproduct of Miami averaging just a shade under 93 possessions per game, a bottom-10 rate. Ranking 21st isn't great by any stretch; it's just not the upset fodder that many think it could become later in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, the Heat's lack of rebounding prowess could become an annoyance against Milwaukee. While the Bucks are no team full of 1992 Dennis Rodmans, they do the one thing that so often comes up in individual-game upsets: offensive rebound proficiently.
Some of Milwaukee's excellence on the offensive boards is obviously a product of its shoot-happy guards. But Larry Sanders and John Henson are both excellent on the boards, and the former has had success against Miami this season.
Anyone with even a modicum of basketball knowledge knows this series is a done deal. Still, if the Bucks are able to pound the glass once in Milwaukee, they may be able to force the series back to Miami for Game 5.
Best Matchup: LeBron James/Dwyane Wade vs. Milwaukee Perimeter Defenders
When playing the Heat, every team asks itself how it can best defend LeBron James first. There's no way of completely stopping him, especially not when he's turning in one of the best individual campaigns in league history.
During the regular season, the Bucks were a surprisingly strong defensive team. They've vacillated in and out of the top-10 in defensive efficiency, finishing 11th at 102.5 points per 100 possessions allowed, per NBA.com. Opponents shoot the fourth-worst rate on corner three-pointers against Milwaukee—a staple of Miami's offense—and Sanders is considered one of the better young rim protectors in the league. There are very good pieces here that have the makings of a top-10 defensive squad.
The problem is that none of these defenders matchup very well against Miami.
Each possible option for James comes with a host of problems. Jennings and Ellis are terrible defensively; Luc Mbah a Moute kills offensive spacing; Larry Sanders lacks the lateral quickness; John Henson lacks the strength. You can go on and on forever and a day with the rest of Milwaukee's roster and those five aforementioned players—I was only noting the most obvious flaws.
For Jim Boylan, the answer probably starts with Mbah a Moute. While the Artist Formerly Known as Luc Richard has never developed into anything resembling an offensive force, he's still a strong perimeter defender who has enough strength to not be completely overwhelmed by James. It's still a mismatch—just not as big as the others present.
If Mbah a Moute fails, the onus would probably slip to Sanders, who may well get taken to the hole by LeBron on every possession.
One problem: Even if Mbah a Moute or Sanders does a bang-up job on James, Boylan is still left to cover Wade on the outside.
While W.O.W. has had a host of injuries this season, the Heat's ability to rest him down the stretch should prove paramount. Last season Wade battled through considerable pain and seemed no more than 75 percent throughout the postseason. By getting enough time off to recover on the fly, Wade should theoretically be as close to 100 percent as he's going to get.
That will obviously be bad news for the Bucks. The notion that Ellis or Jennings can guard Wade is obviously silly, and while J.J. Redick remains underrated defensively, he's struggled since coming over from Orlando.
The combination of Wade and James is too much for about every team in the league. Milwaukee will just be the first to find out how truly ill-equipped it really is.
Worst Matchup: Milwaukee in Transition
It's hard to call the Heat a bad or even mediocre defensive team—they rank ninth in points per 100 possessions, which is just fine—but they have had their dalliances with disinterest defensively. Whether due to a malaise or simply a pressing of the gas only when needed (the likelier scenario, admittedly), the Heat have had their fair share of questionable defensive outcomes.
Interestingly enough, the Bucks have been successful creating transition opportunities for themselves against Miami this season. Milwaukee knocked down 11 transition shots in the teams' last meeting, a 94-83 Heat win, and has hit an average of eight field goals in transition for the season versus Miami, per Synergy Sports.
Whether the Bucks are getting good shots is another question entirely. Many of their transition opportunities end with a bad long-range jumper from either Jennings or Ellis, as was the case in the teams' previous meetings. Even Mike Dunleavy has become prone to taking those off-the-dribble shots in transition. These are looks aren't great, but give Milwaukee credit for knocking them down.
Now will the Bucks be able to continue their relative success against Miami over a longer series? That's highly questionable. Milwaukee is only a league-average transition team for the season, per Synergy, so one would have to expect a regression to the mean against an elite Miami defense.
But for Milwaukee, success in this series isn't about giving the Heat an actual test. The Bucks can give candy-coated "we think we can beat these guys" answers all they want—everyone knows it isn't true barring catastrophic injuries to both Wade and James.
Success will be determined purely by getting one victory. Few expect this to be anything other than a sweep, so if Jennings, Ellis and Co. can get a game where they're knocking down shots in transition, then they might be able to pull one out.
Key Player: Chris Bosh
For all of the credit James gets for embracing his new power forward role, Bosh should get an equal amount of pub (if not more) for his ability to transition to the 5 spot. He of course doesn't play a traditional bang-in-the-post center offensively—it's not needed in Miami's system—but Bosh has spent many games banging on the defensive end against the Roy Hibberts, Marc Gasols and Dwight Howards of the world this season.
Bosh is vastly undersized in those situations, yet has done an admirable job. Opposing bigs only average 0.78 points per possession against him in the post and he's been great at defending the pick-and-roll all season, per Synergy. (Bosh does struggle in isolation sets.)
The Heat are nearly five points worse per 100 possessions with Bosh off the floor, per NBA.com. They are a full four points less efficient offensively, a fact that is almost wholly based on whom is replacing Bosh.
Perhaps the most underrated facet of Miami's switch to the five-out spread is that it's rendered Joel Anthony a non-factor. Anthony was the long the stinkbug in the Heat's offensive rotation, a guy who did anything and everything possible to not touch the ball. By putting Bosh at the center spot, Erik Spoelstra was able to cut Anthony's minutes by more than half this season. And since Chris Andersen came to Miami, Anthony has been almost a ghost.
Bosh makes this all possible. If he weren't so Three Musketeers about the whole scenario and willing to sacrifice himself for the team, Miami's entire offensive scheme would cease to exist. He'll be facing talented bigs underneath this series in Sanders and Henson, so it will be interesting to see how he handles their athleticism.
If the weaknesses and worst matchup sections seemed like they were stretching a bit, that's because they were. Miami is a juggernaut for a reason and its weaknesses are always the difference between ascendant and mediocre. This team does almost nothing wretchedly, which of course is why the Heat finished with the best record in the league.
Who ya got?
Playing Milwaukee shouldn't and won't make the Heat sweat one iota. They beat the Bucks thrice in the regular season and looked like the far better team each time, with the exception in their 2012-13 foursome being strange 19-point loss to Milwaukee in December.
It's certainly possible we see a repeat of that latter performance this postseason. Miami was prone to playing down to its competition at times during the regular season, and Milwaukee has the type of players who can get hot for one game.
That being said, sweep it. The Heat could arguably continue their rotation of resting starters and still manage to beat Milwaukee in five games. With the Big Three all in action, though? The Bucks really don't stand much of a chance, nor should anyone expect them to.
Series Prediction: Heat win in four games.