Mike Budenholzer earned criticism for his work in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, as the Milwaukee Bucks flopped in a five-game loss to the Miami Heat. While at least some of the underwhelming performance can be attributed to the players (and plenty of credit belongs to what the Heat did to the Bucks), Budenholzer’s reputation proceeded him as a coach hesitant, or sometimes unwilling, to make adjustments at the highest levels and, by the time Milwaukee made some changes after Giannis Antetokounmpo’s injury, it was simply too little, too late for the Bucks to make it a series.
As Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals looms on Tuesday evening, the Boston Celtics are in an interesting position, with five games of tape on how the Miami Heat were able to upend the top-seeded Bucks. To be fair, the Celtics had their hands full in a seven-game battle against the Toronto Raptors but, with a schedule that included a brief hiatus between series, Boston had time to regain their legs and dive into some of the high-level strategic analysis needed to attack a top-flight coach in Erik Spoelstra.
While much of the attention paid to Budenholzer’s showing in the last round centered on the limited deployment of his best players, one significant criticism was Milwaukee’s inability to make adjustments on either end. The Bucks laid back in their conservative defensive scheme, failing to attack the Heat with consistent ball pressure until very late, and the results didn’t swing their way in the fashion that led to Milwaukee’s No. 1 defensive rating in the regular season. That was, in many ways, predictable, but it was actually the other end of the floor that arguably led to Milwaukee’s downfall.
The Bucks simply didn’t score enough to beat the Heat, averaging only 1.06 points per possession over the course of five games. Again, some of that is tied to struggles of players like Eric Bledsoe but, in short, Milwaukee did not take full advantage of a Heat defense that, while solid, has some holes to exploit.
Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are tremendous two-way players, operating at a star level on offense and performing well in both individual and team concepts on defense. From there, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala are strong veteran defenders, with experience at the highest levels and the ability to function in various matchups over the course of an extended series. However, Miami wasn’t quite as dominant defensively during the regular season, ranking ninth in the NBA in defensive rating, as one might think, and a look at the team’s rotation reveals some tangible concerns.
Late in the conference semifinals, the Bucks (finally) elected to let Khris Middleton hunt favorable matchups, and the All-Star wing averaged 29.5 points per game in the final two contests. Milwaukee arguably didn’t do it enough but, when they did, it was tough to ignore, and the Heat have some potentially flammable defensive lineups.
For example, Duncan Robinson enjoyed a breakout season, knocking down a mesmerizing 44.6 percent of his three-point attempts while getting up almost 14 per 100 possessions. He is one of the best shooters in the NBA and, when he’s cooking, the opposition is almost powerless to stop him. However, one of the adjustments the Bucks did make in the last round was keying on Robinson, culminating in Game 5 when Robinson played fewer than 14 total minutes. While Robinson’s gravity still aids Miami’s offense even when he’s not firing away, his defense is a potential question, and he isn’t alone among Miami’s perimeter players.
The Heat were actually outscored by 5.8 points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the floor against Milwaukee. The sample size of 136 minutes is relatively small but, on the defensive end, Miami was torched to the tune of 117.6 points per 100 possessions. That figure is hideous under any construct, but it is something that the Celtics can aim for again, using their cavalcade of wing options to attack Robinson. To be fair, the former Michigan sharpshooter isn’t a completely hapless defender but, much like one of his well-chronicled archetypes in Kyle Korver, there are certain danger matchups for Robinson, and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, with their ability to isolate, would qualify.
Elsewhere, the Heat deploy the likes of Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragic on the perimeter, all of which could be targeted by Boston. Herro is feisty and athletic but, as a rookie, he can be hunted and, for all of his offensive promise, he is still a 6’5 combo guard with limited length and physicality. Nunn may be out of the rotation at times, as evidenced by only 67 minutes in the last round, but he isn’t a fantastic defender either, and the Heat may lean on other more capable options against a Boston team that gives you nowhere to hide.
As for Dragic, Miami’s veteran point guard has found rejuvenation to this point in the playoffs, averaging 21.1 points and 4.7 assists per contest in the first two rounds. By any standard, Dragic has been fantastic offensively and he, along with Butler and Adebayo, is the biggest reason for Miami’s offensive jump when compared to the regular season. Still, Dragic has never been an excellent defender, and he is limited in size, physicality and on-ball tenacity.
There are varied ways for the Celtics to attack Miami’s perimeter deficiencies on defense, and Brad Stevens would appear to be a more likely candidate to exercise them than Budenholzer proved to be. Can Dragic hold up on Kemba Walker over the course of a full series? That remains to be seen. Can Herro, Robinson and/or Nunn avoid being hunted by the likes of Tatum and Brown? Quite honestly, even Marcus Smart might have the edge against any of Miami’s quartet of offense-leaning players, especially given his brute force and aggressiveness.
To be fair, the Heat can (and will) field lineups with only one shaky defender, surrounding Dragic (or Herro or Robinson) with Butler, Adebayo, Crowder and Iguodala. That is a five-man unit that can hang with anyone defensively, as the problems don’t begin to mount until you have more than one defensive hole.
As the series persists, Spoelstra’s goal must be to find a way to succeed defensively while keeping his offensive firepower on the floor. On the other side, Stevens must attempt to force Spoelstra to take his offensive weapons off the floor, taking advantage of the fact that Boston’s best offensive lineups also feature limited places for the opposition to attack on the other end.
Robinson, Herro and especially Dragic are capable of being so good on offense that it (almost) doesn’t matter how the other end of the floor unfolds. Still, the Celtics will likely attempt to bet against that reality and, if nothing else, Miami’s non-Butler perimeter options will need to prove they can hold up defensively, or risk being marginalized over the course of what could be a lengthy series.