On Tuesday evening, the Milwaukee Bucks took the floor in a playoff game without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the first time since April 28, 2013. While the top-seeded Bucks performed valiantly in his absence, the Miami Heat finished off an upset series victory, outlasting Milwaukee by a final score of 103-94 in Game 5.
Here are three takeaways from what transpired.
1. Miami had to turn it on after a shaky start
Though the Heat entered as solid favorites against the Giannis-less Bucks, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Miami scored only 11 points, while committing six turnovers, in the first eight minutes of action, and Milwaukee took a double-digit lead as a result.
Some of Miami’s issues could be traced to strong work from Khris Middleton, who opened the game with nine points and four assists in the first quarter.
Khris finishes off the 21-11 run. pic.twitter.com/uPhrMqLnby
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) September 8, 2020
From there, the Heat came alive, though, using a 30-9 blitz to take a 45-37 lead, and a buzzer-beater from Goran Dragic got things going at the end of the first quarter.
Miami held Milwaukee to 30 percent shooting and 1-for-6 from three-point range in the second quarter, seemingly setting the stage for a comfortable victory. The Bucks didn’t go quietly, though, with Donte DiVincenzo scoring seven quick points to open the third quarter.
Eventually, the Bucks climbed within one but, almost on cue, Milwaukee’s offense sputtered, failing to score for more than six minutes and allowing the Heat to zoom to a 12-point advantage. Milwaukee did maintain relative contact, even slashing the margin to four in the final three minutes, but Jimmy Butler then scored four straight and found Dragic for the eventual dagger in crunch time.
GORAN DRAGIC LIVES FOR THESE MOMENTS pic.twitter.com/cnzdTGlOxI
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) September 9, 2020
Given the absence of Antetokounmpo, this was not a performance to be disappointed with for the Bucks. Middleton, carrying the weight of the world, struggled with efficiency, but Milwaukee was competitive and pushed Miami to the point where key plays were needed to preserve the series-clinching victory.
2. An uncertain, and highly important, offseason looms for the Bucks
At this point, everyone knows the stakes. Antetokounmpo can sign a record-setting supermax extension during the off-season and, if he chooses to do so, a lot of the noise will dwindle in Milwaukee. That decision will be litigated at every turn in the coming days but, even beyond the looming decision for the reigning MVP, the Bucks have questions to answer.
Can they bank on Eric Bledsoe? The veteran point guard was named to an All-Defensive team on Tuesday and, against Miami, he performed at a high level on that end of the floor. On the flip side, Bledsoe converted only two of his 12 attempts from the floor in Game 5, leaning into the perception that he falls short on the offensive end in playoff settings.
What about Mike Budenholzer? The former NBA Coach of the Year is established as a fantastic culture builder, lifting the Hawks to impressive heights during his first head coaching stint and transforming the Bucks into the best regular season team in the NBA. Still, Budenholzer did absolutely nothing to quiet doubters about his playoff coaching style during this run and, if anything, he could be on the hot seat if the Bucks elect a nuclear option.
Remember that Malcolm Brogdon decision? Without litigating it yet again, the Bucks had the ability to bring Brogdon back and they chose not to do so. Milwaukee did get some value in a sign-and-trade but, in observing this series, it is impossible ignore the contributions he might have made.
How aggressive can Milwaukee be? Even if Antetokounmpo signs up for the future, the Bucks don’t have much, if any, salary cap flexibility and Antetokounmpo is due for a substantial pay raise. If Milwaukee was worried at all about the luxury tax previously, that will be an issue moving forward, and the Bucks will need to reassure Antetokounmpo that they are the place to provide him with a championship situation.
That might be a tall task after this series but, if nothing else, the Bucks did string together a heck of a regular season. In a few weeks (er, months?), they may be able to take solace in that but, at the moment, this feels like a monumental failure, even with the caveat of Antetokounmpo’s injury absence at the end of the series.
3. The Heat are live underdogs in the Eastern Conference Finals
Miami will have a rest advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals, even if the Boston Celtics manage to close things out in Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday. If that doesn’t happen, the Heat will have even more time to rest but, broadly speaking, Miami is probably the underdog in the next round.
That isn’t a shot at a Miami team that executed brilliantly against Milwaukee, but the Heat were a dreadful matchup for the Bucks and that was on full display. Against teams better suited for their attack, the Heat will need to be even better to reach the NBA Finals, though it helps to lean on a pair of genuine stars in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
Miami’s next step will be quite interesting, with Erik Spoelstra given a bit of time to prepare for his next challenge. This is a team that, at its best, can deploy lights-out offensive lineups with shooters like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. In the same breath, Miami can pivot to defensively stingy units with Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, all while pressing the right buttons with the strength of a top-flight head coach.
A full-blown series preview can’t arrive until Boston and Toronto are done battling but, in the coming hours, Miami will be able to rest and prepare for what should be an entertaining and uber-competitive series with a trip to the Finals on the line.