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Two of the last three Eastern Conference champions meet as the Milwaukee Bucks take on the Miami Heat in Game One of the first round of the NBA playoffs Sunday.
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The Bucks head into the playoffs as the number-one seed in the conference and on the broad shoulders of two-time MVP and top-three MVP finalist Giannis Antetkounmpo. They moved past the Boston Celtics for first place in the conference in the middle of the year and managed to hold onto a one-game lead despite coming under serious pressure in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Milwaukee’s game plan is known throughout the league by now, yet it is still incredibly hard to stop. Their style of encouraging opponents to shoot threes if they cannot funnel them into their interior defenders around the rim has forced teams to run offensive styles they aren’t usually accustomed to, creating headaches and mistakes.
Miami’s game plan is also fairly well known, yet they do not execute at as high of a level as the Bucks—especially not this season. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro all had impressive seasons, but the team’s overall inability to make long-range shots has constantly come back to bite them. There is a real argument to be made that they wouldn’t have made it out of the play-in tournament without Max Strus’ six threes against the Chicago Bulls.
The Heat do, however, have one of the most versatile defenders in the league in Adebayo and a leader in Butler that is willing to go toe-to-toe with any big-name player when the money is pushed to the center of the table. They are still severely undermined but have a spirit about them that has translated well to the playoffs.
Miami is a heavy underdog, and its offensive struggles mean that it will have an extremely tough time responding if it goes down early. Milwaukee also tied for the best home record in the Eastern Conference at 32-9 and has the benefit of having not played two games already this week, unlike the visitors.
Despite all of that, both teams and coaches have championship pedigree and a level of pride about them. Every game is 48 minutes of mystery, one that will only be told with time.
The Bucks are captained by the “Greek Freak,” Antetokounmpo, who had a career year with averages of 31.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 5.7 assists. Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez also had outstanding defensive seasons, and the once-injured Khris Middleton has raised his scoring average in each of the last four months since returning from his hiatus.
Game One’s hometown heroes also ranked fifth in net rating in the regular season and had the best clutch win % by a wide margin at 77.1% (the Celtics were second at 64.9%). Against a team that is frustratingly tough to put away like Miami, that could come back to be a major factor.
As solid as Milwaukee’s starting five is, it can expect a heavy dose of Bobby Portis, Jae Crowder, and others off the bench. The Heat do not have the same firepower off the bench aside from Kyle Lowry, who was injured in the second game of the play-in tournament and could not return for a fourth-quarter stretch he would have likely been a part of if at full health.
The Heat have one of the most underrated and underappreciated core trios in the league in Butler, Adebayo, and Herro, but those three were not responsible for them going 44-38. Instead, repeated lapses in concentration on defense and offensive misfires from role players dealt most of the damage reflected in the record.
It was only one year ago that Miami finished with the best record in the East, although that feels like a distant memory at this point. They finished the regular season ranked 21st in net rating, and the supposed post-All-Star turnaround saw them rank in exactly the same spot. Their defense is also relying heavily on the tradition of “Heat culture” of teams past and is quite shaky in spots.
What the Heat do have going for them is that they are familiar with the Bucks and have performed well against them. Their last eight games have been split at four apiece, although the Bucks won the two most recent matchups—one by eight and the other by 29.
The Bucks are somehow a juggernaut and also a sleeping giant. Their excellence is expected to the point that regular-season performances, no matter how outstanding, are rendered mundane. That means that they are under tremendous pressure to perform in these playoffs.
The Heat’s ability to rise and shine in the playoffs would lead one to think that taking them on the spread would be the best pick, but that is not the case. They looked resoundingly unimpressive in each of the play-in games, one of which they lost at home, and now they are going into a hostile environment with a 17-24 road record. Expect the Bucks to handle business and kickstart a deep playoff run with a huge win.
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Grant is a sports and sports betting journalist who prides himself on delivering breaking news and insightful analyses of the industry. Grant graduated from Virginia Tech in 2021 and is feverishly pursuing his ambitions in the sports betting field.
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