Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat: Eastern Conference Round 1 Preview

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 18, 2013

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 21:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat shoots over Ersan Ilyasova #7 of the Milwaukee Bucks  during a game  at AmericanAirlines Arena on November 21, 2012 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Miami Heat's title defense will start in earnest with their first-round clash with the feisty Milwaukee Bucks, beginning on Sunday, April 21, in Miami.

The two clubs couldn't be on more opposite ends of the playoff spectrum.

Miami secured the best record in the league a while ago and has since continued its winning ways, while still finding time to rest key contributors. Milwaukee, meanwhile, limps into the series playing some of its worst basketball of the season, losing 12 of its final 16 games.

Still, this is a matchup the Heat can't afford to overlook—not even with many pundits tabbing this series as the most likely sweep of the opening round.


Seeds: Milwaukee Bucks No. 8; Miami Heat No. 1

Records: Milwaukee Bucks 38-44; Miami Heat 66-16

Season series: Miami Heat won 3-1

Schedule for series: Game 1 Sunday, April 21, 7 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 2 Tuesday, April 23, 7:30 pm. ET (NBA TV); Game 3 Thursday, April 25, 7 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 4 Sunday, April 28, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 5 Tuesday, April 30, TBD; Game 6 Thursday, May 2, TBD; Game 7 Saturday, May 4, TBD (TNT).


What Everybody's Talking About

There's been a three-word barometer set for the Heat ever since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the summer of 2010—"championship or bust."

Last season's success did nothing to lower those lofty aspirations. If anything, it only heightened the importance of cashing in on what could be the final two runs with Miami's Big Three intact.

Their blistering 27-game winning streak earlier this season provided plenty of fodder for the national media, but the Heat will lose some, or all, of their luster if they fail to realize their championship potential.

The Heat have separated themselves further from the competition than any team has since at least the Los Angeles Lakers of the early 2000s, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Miami doesn't have the rings (yet) to fully infiltrate the discussions of the NBA's greatest all-time collections of talent, but its incredible 42-4 record since Jan. 16 suggests it's not that far away from doing so.

As for the Bucks, this series could play a pivotal role in determining how this franchise plans to move forward.

With Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick all possibly hitting the free-agent market over the summer, Milwaukee will have to choose which star player is the best option to lead the organization.

It will take a physical, grinding effort for any of those three to impact the series. Miami's roster overflows with perimeter defensive stoppers, all of whom attack that end of the floor with the ferocity capable of pushing any of the Bucks players well outside of their comfort zone.


What Nobody's Talking About

Milwaukee's upset chances?

Kidding aside, there are a few things working in Milwaukee's favor.

For starters, the Bucks battled with the Heat in all four of their meetings this season. The Heat had the 3-1 edge in the season series, but the four games were decided by an average margin of just three points.

It may clash with conventional wisdom, but Milwaukee's best upset chance may lie in its ability to dictate the tempo and run right alongside Miami coach Erik Spoelstra's gazelles. A starting backcourt combo of Jennings and Ellis inevitably brings two things to the hardwood—a lot of points and a lot of poor decisions.

The Bucks can't afford to have the series decided in the half-court setting. They have neither the competent decision-makers to consistently solve Spoelstra's defensive puzzles nor the individual defenders to lock down Miami's scorers in a more controlled tempo.

However, the Bucks do have shooters at four different positions and athletic big men comfortable with running the floor. If Milwaukee can bring a horde of long-range shooters into the equation, it might be able to follow the blueprint the New York Knicks laid out in their three regular-season wins over the Heat this season.


Don't Forget...

Running with the Heat brings a host of problems to the table. No team turns opponents' turnovers into points faster than Spoelstra's squad.

When James and Wade start channeling their inner Joe Flacco, firing off full-court, alley-oop bombs, there's just no way of stopping it. Not to mention that Miami's more conventional transition chances feature James or Wade attacking the basket with a full head of steam flanked by a horde of competent shooters waiting for transition threes.

Of course, this is also a team that embodies Spoelstra's creative approach to the floor. Even when a defender thinks he's made the right play, Miami's orchestrators can conduct awe-inducing symphonies with the basketball.


Key Matchup: Monta Ellis vs. Dwyane Wade

It will be like watching two clones battle it out on the basketball floor. At least that's how Ellis may view his matchup with the Heat star.

In a sense, Ellis will get what every boisterous athlete could ever dream of—the chance to live up to a ludicrous claim.

In reality, though, this has been anything but the ideal matchup for the Bucks star this season. During the three games in which Wade and Ellis squared off this season, Wade has outperformed, outworked and outclassed Ellis in every respect.

The head-to-head splits weigh decidedly in Wade's favor. In those three games, he enjoyed a sizable edge in points (24.0 to 10.0) and rebounds (5.3 to 2.3) while connecting at a much higher rate of his field-goal attempts (50.9 percent to 28.9).

Still, this is a matchup that Milwaukee must at least keep respectable to realize its slim chance of stopping Miami's title defense.

Ellis is a flawed player in many respects, the definition of a bad shot-taker and shot-maker. He's still a gifted scorer (19.2 points per game for 11th-best in the NBA) and Milwaukee's best bet to expose Miami's lack of a shot-blocking threat in its starting five.

If Ellis can find his way around Wade—no small task by any stretch of the imagination—he's a 58.2 percent shooter within five feet of the basket (via

The biggest challenge for Ellis will be refusing to let his frustration set in whenever Wade halts his dribble-drives. If Ellis can avoid settling for outside shots, something he's struggled with all season (4.0 three-point attempts per game and a woeful 28.7 perimeter success rate), there are points to be had in the teeth of Miami's defense.


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