PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Miami: 66-16, best record in the league and number one seed in the East

Milwaukee: 38-44, eight seed in the East

SEASON SERIES

The Heat won three of the four matchups in the regular season, with one of the games in Miami going to overtime before the Heat secured one of those victories. But the close games were in November and December, and these two teams have been heading in opposite directions ever since.

KEY INJURIES

None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Heat: offense 110.3 (Best in NBA), defense 100.5 (7th in NBA)
Bucks: offense 100.9 (21st in NBA), defense 102.3 (12th in NBA)

Differential: Heat +9.9 (2nd in NBA), Bucks -1.4 (18th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR MILWAUKEE:

Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, at the same time: On paper, Milwaukee should have one of the league’s deadliest backcourt tandems in Ellis and Jennings. The problem has been that when one has a big game, the other shrinks in the moment. That can’t happen against the Heat — if the Bucks are to win even a single game in this series, it’ll have to come on a night when both of their scorers light it up simultaneously.

Larry Sanders, under control: Sanders is a leading candidate for Most Improved and is on the list of guys in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Unfortunately, he’s been out of control with the officials all season long until just recently, finishing the season tied for second in the league for the most technical fouls with 14. Sanders needs to focus on the task at hand instead of the officiating this series, especially considering the fact that the Heat were the source of one of his bigger frustrations with the referees this season.

Limit transition opportunities defensively: The Heat are devastating in a lot of ways, but the last thing you want to see while trying to defend them is LeBron James or Dwyane Wade running free on the fast break, while outnumbered in transition. Milwaukee has to get back defensively and make Miami work for its offense in its half-court sets.

THREE KEYS FOR MIAMI:

Don’t overlook the opponent: The last time Miami faced Milwaukee, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh both sat out, yet the Heat cruised to a double-digit victory anyway. That was only a little more than a week ago, and with Miami at full strength to open the postseason, it might be tempting to view this series as already being won. As long as the Heat bring playoff energy to their performance, they should be more than fine in this series.

Contain either Ellis or Jennings: It doesn’t matter which of the Bucks’ guards the Heat decide to shut down; either is capable of going for 30 on any given night, Miami simply can’t have them both get going at the same time.

Do what you do best: The Heat play dominant, championship-level team defense when they want to, and when they do, it leads to fast break opportunities that are impossible for the defense to stop. Let the defense lead to offense as it has all season long, and Milwaukee, like most teams, will be in deep trouble for the majority of this series.

OUTLOOK

While the Heat have peaked in the second half of the season by entering the playoffs on a ridiculous run of winning 37 of their last 39 games, it’s been the opposite for the Bucks, who have struggled as of late and closed the season by winning just four times in their last 16 games. This series will be a bloodbath pure and simple, unless the Heat take their foot off the gas and approach one of the games in the series as if it were a meaningless regular season game in November. Not likely.

PREDICTION

If the league allowed a series to end in three games, this would be the perfect candidate. Since that’s not an option, Heat will sweep in four.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

AP
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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

AP
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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.