This series stands where everyone thought it would be—the Milwaukee Bucks in a 2-0 hole to LeBron James and the Miami Heat—but that's the way a playoff series is supposed to run. Every team must win their games at home, and now Milwaukee comes up to bat.
If there's a silver lining for the Bucks heading into Game 3, it's that the Heat let them hang around for a bit longer before taking control of Game 2. The score was a 68-65 heading into the fourth quarter, but Miami led by 10 points less than 90 seconds later.
Milwaukee must win at least one home game to extend the series and head back to South Beach. While there's reason to believe they can do so, and perhaps even defend home court outright in both games, they face a tremendous uphill battle where execution must be perfect.
Game 3 Time: Thursday, April 25, 7:00 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee, WI
Series Record: 2-0 Heat
Game 3 Key Storyline: Consistency
During Game 2, the Bucks probably felt like a dorky guy on a date with the girl who's way, way out of his league. Everything is going swimmingly until the cameramen emerge from their hiding places to reveal you've been punked.
The Bucks should have known they were getting clowned from the first possession of the fourth quarter.
Leading by just three points, the Heat had the following sequence: Chris Andersen missed shot, LeBron offensive rebound, LeBron missed shot, Andersen offensive rebound, Andersen missed shot, Andersen offensive rebound, Andersen makes two point shot, fouled by Mike Dunleavy, Andersen makes free throw.
It just wasn't Milwaukee's night. The key for them will be combining the things they did well from Game 1 with their successes from Game 2, and getting past the Heat will require a near flawless performance.
On Sunday, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings totaled 48 points while no other Bucks player managed more than six. On Tuesday, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders totaled 35 points, while Mike Dunleavy added 16 points, six boards and five assists off the bench. Great news for the Bucks offense!
But Ellis and Jennings went M.I.A., managing only 15 points on 5-of-22 shooting (0-of-10 from downtown) and torpedoing the Bucks' chance at an upset. If Milwaukee can put it all together, they will be able to win at least one home game and avoid a sweep, for what that's worth.
Series Star So Far
Dwyane Wade has been doing his best LeBron James impersonation so far, and it's hard to tell which is which.
When LeBron posted a ridiculous 9-of-11 shooting performance for 27 points in Game 1 (plus 10 boards and eight dimes!), it was easy to overlook D-Wade's versatile night: 16 points, five boards, five assists, two steals, a block and a team-high plus-26 rating, which was 10 points better than any of his teammates.
Flash didn't let up in Game 2, dropping 21 points, seven rebounds, three dimes and two steals. While LeBron has posted superior numbers, Miami needs Wade to play at a high level as well. He's proven to be somewhat fragile in the past and rested his balky knee for most of the regular season's final month.
Obviously, Wade's knee recuperated significantly while he sat out, and the Heat are clicking on all cylinders.
Projected Starting Lineups
Milwaukee: Monta Ellis, PG; Brandon Jennings, SG; Ersan Ilyasova, SF; Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, PF; Larry Sanders, C
Miami: Mario Chalmers, PG; Dwyane Wade, SG; LeBron James, SF; Udonis Haslem, PF; Chris Bosh, C
Heat Injury Report (via ESPN.com)
Bucks Injury Report
Larry Sanders (back, knee), day-to-day; Ersan Ilyasova (wrist), day-to-day
Heat Will Win If...
They don't get lost on the way to the arena. The Heat are so good that they don't even appear to be trying their hardest against Milwaukee. And why should they? Their lackadaisical efforts at half-throttle are enough to beat the Bucks.
This is not to say that the Heat are dogging it, but they have been playing a game all year of "how much can we keep in the tank and still win?" That strategy had led to plenty of wins and plenty of energy left for the postseason.
There's no specific change to the most basic game plan here (score efficiently, play solid defense, minimize mistakes), and Miami is versatile enough to adjust on the fly if something isn't working.
This subheadline should instead read "Heat Will Lose If..." because there are 100 ways they can win, but they would essentially have to beat themselves to miss out on the sweep.
Bucks Will Win If...
They do a better job on the boards, especially the offensive glass. Miami finished the season ranked dead last in rebounds and 28th in offensive boards.
The Bucks are adapting to survive, but they only have two more strikes left before they get kicked out of the cash cab and receive no money. Milwaukee raised its field-goal percentage by 8.5 percent between Games 1 and 2 (no thanks to their star guards), but they're still shooting just 11-of-44 from three-point range in the series.
Of course they have to hit their shots, but they must work harder up front to control the boards. On Sunday, the Bucks were out-rebounded 46-31; on Tuesday, they narrowed the gap to 43-33, but they got destroyed on the offensive glass 12-4. Remember that sequence to open the fourth quarter of Game 2?
Milwaukee can't sit idly by and let the Heat dominate them. With the series back in Wisconsin, the Bucks must make Miami feel them with physical play and dogged determination. Minimizing easy second-chance buckets will make things much more difficult on the Heat.
Perhaps the only advantage Milwaukee has in this series is the number of doubters they could prove wrong, even by notching just a couple of wins.
The Bucks showed signs of life in Game 2, but as their frontcourt heated up, the backcourt went sunbathing on Miami Beach. There's no way that Jennings and Ellis will repeat their dreadful shooting performances from Tuesday, but neither one has ever been a model of consistency
Ellis shot 28.7 percent from beyond the arc this season and still persisted in attempting four treys per game, while Jennings shot 39.9 percent from the field. They both need to get hot and do so ASAP.
If they can add to the production of Sanders and Ilyasova up front against Miami's undersized frontcourt, the Bucks will have a fighting chance. Milwaukee will also have to play frantic defense and attempt to force turnovers in bunches as they did in Game 1.
This game is a must-win for the Bucks to maintain any shred of hope about the second round. They are staggering underdogs, but beating the Heat is not outside the realm of possibility, especially up in Wisconsin.
During the regular season, Milwaukee took the Heat to overtime on Nov. 21, losing by three in Miami, and then beat them outright on Dec. 29, 104-85.
Sure enough, the Bucks' only win in the season series came from strong scoring (five players in double digits), even offensive rebounding and a massive turnover advantage (20 to five).
But those are too many stars to align for the erratic Bucks, and they will fall deep into a dark 0-3 hole.
Prediction: Miami Heat 102, Milwaukee Bucks 85