By the fourth quarter of Thursday’s Game 3, the Bucks had long since answered any questions we might’ve had about how they matched up against the Heat. If there was any uncertainty about how Milwaukee felt about Miami, though—about the prism through which it views this opening-round rematch of the 2020 series that saw Jimmy Butler and Co. flat-out embarrass Giannis Antetokounmpo, the debacle that put a perma-Bunsen burner beneath Mike Budenholzer’s seat on the Bucks’ bench—the answer came with 6:28 to go.
That’s when Jrue Holiday—who, as you might recall, wasn’t a Buck during the 2020 playoffs, and who, much to the Heat’s chagrin, sure as hell is now—took a hit-ahead pass from Khris Middleton, spun right past Nemanja Bjelica, and laid the ball in ahead of a too-late contest by Bam Adebayo. It gave the Bucks a 100-73 lead, and it spurred Erik Spoelstra—clearly a believer in Lawler’s Law—to call timeout so he could empty his bench and remove starters Adebayo, Butler, and Duncan Robinson from a contest that Miami was no longer interested in contesting.
Budenholzer, on the other hand, made no changes out of the timeout; he sent Holiday, Middleton, Brook Lopez, P.J. Tucker, and Pat Connaughton back onto the court. (Giannis had already been pulled a couple of minutes earlier.) Only after setting up a Connaughton triple to push the lead to 30 did he sub out Holiday and Lopez. Only after answering a Gabe Vincent jumper with a floater of his own, thus restoring the 30-point lead with just over five minutes to go, did Middleton check out for good. Subtlety’s for suckers.
The Bucks had a chance to duck the Heat this postseason. When they faced Miami in the second-to-last game of the season, they were entrenched in third place in the East, but the Heat, Hawks, and Knicks were all jockeying for position; they could’ve decided to rest everybody, punt the game to the Heat, tiptoe softly past the grave of their 2020 failures, and get ready for either Atlanta or New York in Round 1. They “had internal discussions about potentially doing” it, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, but ultimately they didn’t: They played everybody, they smacked the (admittedly Jimmy-less) Heat around, and they locked in the rematch against the 2020 Finals participant.
This is where we remind you of what Giannis told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes after losing in the bubble: “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it.” You don’t get where Giannis and the rest of the Bucks want to go by rolling over and showing your belly a week before the playoffs start, even if you think doing so will pave you a preferable path. You get there by baring your fangs and going for the throat.
The Bucks remember every indignation they faced after crumbling last postseason, every sling and arrow sent their way over the past eight months. They want to beat the living shit out of Miami—to break the Heat, to make the team that bullied them in the bubble tap out, in front of a national audience.
Milwaukee survived the flop sweat of overtime in Game 1 and hasn’t looked back since. They want to leave absolutely no doubt that this year ain’t last year, that these Bucks are better than the old model, and that this iteration of the Heat absolutely, positively does not belong on the same floor with them. And man, are they doing an awfully good job of it.
Two nights after destroying the Heat at home by 34 points, the Bucks ravaged them on the road by 29, dominating the full four quarters in a 113-84 pummeling that rarely even felt as close as that final lopsided score. Milwaukee now holds a commanding 3-0 lead, and has the chance to end Miami’s season in Game 4 on Saturday.
The Heat held just one lead in Game 3, after Adebayo lofted a floater over Lopez from just inside the foul line. The shot put Miami up 2-0. Seventeen seconds later, Lopez knotted things up with a short hook; that kick-started a 21-6 run, giving the Bucks a double-digit advantage that they’d just keep building and building and building until Miami buckled under its weight.
After scoring 46 points in the first quarter in Game 2, Milwaukee managed only 49 in the first half of Game 3, shooting just 40.4 percent from the field and 5-for-20 from 3-point land. That hardly mattered, though, because the offensive woes that had bedeviled Miami through the first two games continued unabated: Heat players not named Jimmy Butler combined for just 20 points on appalling 8-for-33 shooting before intermission, unable to shake loose of a smothering and attentive Milwaukee defense that’s been firing on all cylinders.
This is just really good defense from the Bucks, even Lopez up on Robinson in the switches and the denials. Just super impressive from Lopez. pic.twitter.com/nk4gY2Qou5
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 28, 2021
Adebayo again struggled with Lopez essentially ignoring him outside the paint to wall off the rim, largely settling for short jumpers and not facilitating much for his teammates. Robinson, whose 3-point shooting was Miami’s main offensive lifeline in Game 1, managed just four shots against Middleton’s hectoring defense in the first two quarters, and missed all of them. Goran Dragic, one of the few Heat players who made shots and played with juice through the first two games, entered the starting lineup in place of Kendrick Nunn and promptly got swallowed up by a long, nasty Bucks defense. The Slovenian veteran missed his first five shots as he, like the rest of the Heat, attempted unsuccessfully to navigate both Milwaukee’s size on the perimeter and Lopez’s drop coverage.
“They made us take those midrange shots and floaters,” Dragic told reporters after the game. “Lopez is doing a great job of getting inside the paint and challenging everything.”
By the time the Heat finally started to generate some possessions that looked kinda-sorta like the team we remember during the third quarter—Bam rolling hard to the rim, Robinson hitting a back-door cut, Tyler Herro (remember him?) sliding to the corner while Jimmy drove baseline—the Bucks had thawed out, scoring on 11 of their final 12 possessions of the third (including five 3-pointers) as the lead ballooned to 26, rendering the fourth quarter little more than extended garbage time.
The numbers in this series are mind-numbing. The Heat have shot just 38 percent from the field as a team. They’re scoring just 93.2 points per 100 possessions against Milwaukee—nearly 10 points-per-100 worse than the postseason’s second-worst offense (which belongs to a Celtics team that isn’t very good and is without its second-best player).
Miami made the Finals last season. It still boasts a do-everything All-NBA wing in Butler, a legitimate offensive hub in Adebayo, multiple dangerous shooters, and one of the savviest coaches in league history. And yet, the Heat look like a collection of disparate talents lacking connection, cohesiveness, or any belief that they can get the job done. That’s the box the Bucks have put them in.
“The rhythm is off,” Dragic said after the game. “It’s way off. We lose our confidence.”
Such an admission would’ve been unthinkable in the bubble, when the Heat snarled and stomped their way through the East buoyed by Butler’s irrepressible swagger. But three games of being guarded by Giannis and Tucker—who have held him to 3-for-20 shooting combined, according to NBA.com’s matchup tracking data—with active, long-armed helpers like Holiday and Middleton flanking them and Lopez forever lurking behind them has dimmed Jimmy’s light, leaving Dragic and the rest of the Heat in the dark, unable to find the answers they need.
“[I’m most surprised by] just how fast it got out of hand,” Butler said after the loss. “We’ve got to pick who we want to be.”
Milwaukee faces no such identity crisis. With Antetokounmpo (17 points, 17 rebounds, five assists), Middleton (22 points, eight rebounds, five assists), and Holiday (19 points and 12 assists) fitting together perfectly, and a handful of shooters, defenders, and tough, versatile veterans surrounding them, the Bucks know exactly who they are. Not who they were eight months ago, but who they are right now, and who they might still become. The defending Eastern Conference champions are getting to know them the hard way; once the Bucks wrap this up—perhaps as soon as Saturday—it’ll be the Nets’ turn for a reintroduction.