Three things Miami must do to upset Milwaukee in second round

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Miami is a dark horse favorite in the playoffs — the Heat have a lot of fans in and out of league circles.

Milwaukee has its share of doubters, people who think the Bucks are overrated and a one-trick pony.

Does that mean we have an upset brewing in the East? The “Unpredictable bubble playoffs” largely have followed form so far, but the No. 5 seed Heat present matchup problems for the top-seeded Bucks that make this possibly the first big upset of the playoffs. It’s why this second-round series — which tips off Monday night — has drawn a lot of interest.

For the Miami Heat to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, these three things have to come together for them.

1) Bam Adebayo and company must slow Giannis Antetokounmpo

Nobody is stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo right now — he is the best player in the world. The reigning MVP is about to win that award back-to-back (and he was just named Defensive Player of the Year).

Antetokounmpo is going to get his, the important thing is to slow him down, get him in the halfcourt, and have someone who can just make the Greek Freak less efficient.

Enter Bam Adebayo.

Adebayo has the length, athleticism, and strength to bother Antetokounmpo as much as any human can. According to NBA.com advanced stats, Antetokounmpo shot 12-of-28 this season when guarded by Adebayo. Which is great, but this cannot be a one-man show (and the Heat can’t afford to get Adebayo in foul trouble). Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Jones Jr. all likely will get time guarding Antetokounmpo. More importantly, there has to be smart and decisive help defense on the Greek Freak to put him in difficult spots.

There is a blueprint for slowing Antetokounmpo and Eric Spoelstra is going to stick to it: Get back and take away his transition buckets, double him inside the three-point line (and encourage him to take as many threes as he wants), and pack the paint. Those play to Miami’s defensive strengths. Antetokounmpo will dish to Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and the other Bucks — and that’s okay. Make those guys beat you. As always with Milwaukee, it comes down to the other players on the team stepping up.

2) Miami’s shooters have to hit above-the-break threes

The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season but their Achilles heel is no secret: No team gives up more three-point attempts than Milwaukee — 39.3 a game in the regular season. Their protect-the-paint-at-all-costs defense has to surrender something, and threes are it.

However, all threes are not equal and Milwaukee is smart about the threes they give up. They close out hard and chase guys out of the shorter corner threes. Also, the Bucks are the ultimate know-your-personnel team — they don’t give sharpshooters room at the arc, just the lesser threats. In the first round against Miami, Markelle Fultz was at the all-you-can-eat buffet at the arc, but notice how the Bucks ran Evan Fournier off the line when he got the ball? They knew.

What happens when the Bucks run into a team full of shooters? That’s Miami. They are loaded with players who can knock down the three, hitting 37.9% from deep as a team this season (second-best in the league). More importantly, the Heat shot 38.2% on above-the-break threes and have some shooters who are particularly deadly straight on.

Look for Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic to get a lot of clean looks out high. If those two — and other Heat shooters such as Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, and Kelly Olynyk — hit their threes, the Heat can put up points against the league-best Buck defense.

As a side note, Miami — and Butler in particular — have to finish inside to balance things out. Butler isn’t much of a three-point shooter, but he has to hit at the rim and his midrange shots to get his and help make the offense click.

3) Mike Budenholzer’s adjustments have to fall short again

Eric Spoelstra will have a plan when Game 1 tips off. And, when parts of that plan don’t work, he will adjust. Fast. When a player proves to be a poor matchup in this series, Spoelstra will ruthlessly make a change.

Will Mike Budenholzer make the needed adjustments? And when he does, will they work?

That’s the book on Budenholzer, fair or not — the man sticks with his plan to a fault. And when your plan is “get the ball to Antetokounmpo and get out of the way,” that plan is going to work almost every night. He was slow to adjust against Toronto, slow to ramp up Antetokounmpo’s minutes.

Budenholzer says he’s learned from his mistakes. And to be fair, he has done things this season like role-out lineups with Antetokounmpo at the five for lengthy stretches. Or post up Brook Lopez because that was the best matchup. The problem for Budenholzer has been — and was against Toronto last playoffs — his players didn’t always execute his adjustments.

They need to this season. They need to this series.

Spoelstra and the Heat have almost no margin for error this series, they need to slow Antetokounmpo and execute their offense (hit their threes) at a high level to have a chance. You know Spoelstra will put his guys in the right positions.

Will Budenholzer have the counters?

Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely dominated the regular season.

That can be easy to forget. Coronavirus caused a lengthy interruption. In the spotlight when play resumed, Antetokounmpo underwhelmed. The Bucks flamed out in the second round.

So, this timing is awkward.

But MVP is a regular-season award, and Antetokounmpo will deservedly win his second straight.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Antetokounmpo’s performance comes as speculation intensifies about his future in Milwaukee.

He’ll be eligible for a super-max extension this offseason. If he bypasses it, he’ll also be eligible for a super-max contract in 2021 free agency.

Because of this award, Antetokounmpo will now also be eligible to sign a super-max deal in 2022 free agency.

Maybe he won’t be a free agent that offseason. But this opens his options if he takes a shorter contract to let league-wide revenue rise post-pandemic and/or further assess the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo has that type of leverage. At just 25, he put himself in the pantheon of players to win consecutive MVPs:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Stephen Curry
  • LeBron James
  • Steve Nash
  • Tim Duncan
  • Michael Jordan
  • Magic Johnson
  • Larry Bird
  • Moses Malone
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Wilt Chamberlain
  • Bill Russell

Antetokounmpo has a bright future, especially with the mentality to fix his shortcomings. He must polish his skills (and maybe approach) to thrive in the playoffs. But it’s easy to project growth there.

Already, Antetokounmpo has the regular season solved.

He joins Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Fun fact: Jordan’s Bulls also lost in the second round in five games the year he claimed both awards. It got better for Jordan and Chicago from there, eventually.

LeBron and James Harden finished second and third in some order for 2020 MVP. The NBA will officially announce the winner at 2 p.m. Presumably, we’ll also get full voting then.

Report: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown bickered in Celtics’ locker room

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After their Game 2 loss to the Heat last night, the Celtics – especially Marcus Smart – made a commotion in their locker room.

What actually happened?

Apparently, Smart and Jaylen Brown got into it.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown had a heated confrontation inside that locker room after the Game 2 loss and needed to be separated by teammates, multiple sources told The Athletic.

Sources told The Athletic that Smart stormed into the Celtics postgame locker room saying that other players needed to be held accountable and not simply point the finger toward him when things are going wrong. As Smart continued and his voice grew louder, sources said Brown snapped back and shouted that Celtics players must stay together and that their actions must come as a team, not individually, and that Smart needed to cool off. Those sources added Smart had verbal exchanges with a couple of the assistant coaches during the game.

None of this is new for Smart. Not jawing with a Boston assistant coach during a game. Not getting hot after a loss. Not even clashing with Brown.

This is who he is – sometimes for good, sometimes not. But the same reasons Smart thrives as a feisty player are the same reasons he was going off last night.

Brown, via Justin Leger of NBC Sports Boston:

“He plays with passion, he’s full of fire, and that’s what I love about him most, to be honest. He has that desire and that will and we need him to continue to have that. There’s ups and downs with families all the time. But we embrace each other for who we are. And who Marcus is, I love him for it.”

Brown doesn’t mind a little chaos if it serves a greater purpose. He’s emotionally mature enough to handle this.

But will last night’s incident actually help the Celtics? Maybe it’ll light a fire under them to keep their foot on the gas when leading.

Offensive sets that can beat a zone defense would probably go further, though.

Gordon Hayward reportedly feels good, hopes to return for Game 3

Gordon Hayward return
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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After a frustrating come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics need a boost.

Like the return of Gordon Hayward.

That is on track to happen in Game 3, although nothing is official, reports Jared Weiss of The Athletic.

Hayward has been sidelined since he suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He left the bubble for a time to get treatment, but has been back with the team, working out and going through a practice.

Gordon Hayward could be Boston’s X-factor in the conference finals — and his return may be the lift it needs. He gives the Celtics another versatile wing player — along with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — who can create his own shot and knock down open looks. Throw in Kemba Walker, and Hayward would be the fourth scoring option for Boston, making the Celtics deep and difficult to defend. Hayward also spent time guarding Butler during the regular-season matchups.

 

Celtics try to play down postgame yelling, things thrown in locker room

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“You’re not supposed to be happy when you’re down 0-2. Nothing out of the ordinary, just talking about the game.”

Jayson Tatum is right in his postgame comments, to a point. The Boston Celtics should be frustrated after blowing a 17-point lead and losing to the Miami Heat Thursday night, putting the Celtics in an 0-2 hole.

However, that part about “nothing out of the ordinary” and “just talking” in the locker room postgame? That’s not what went down, according to multiple reporters on the scene in the bubble.

After the game, the Celtics tried to play it all down. That started with coach Brad Stevens.

“Guys were emotional after a hard game, hard loss.”

Kemba Walker wouldn’t even discuss it.

“It was nothing. It was nothing. I’m not speaking about it.”

Enes Kanter took to Twitter to echo the comments of several Celtics, that they are still a family.

Boston may have just been venting postgame, but if they don’t bring the fire from the locker room out onto the court Saturday for Game 3, or this may be a very short series.