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The Walls Are Closing in on the Heat

Milwaukee is stifling Miami’s two stars, shutting down its offense and possibly its Finals repeat bid. Is there any hope for the Heat, down 0-2?

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Game 1 of Bucks-Heat felt like a prolonged panic attack—not only a “cage fight,” to borrow Bam Adebayo’s term, but one that was contested for nearly three hours within the claustrophobic confines of a three-possession clinch. The anxiety felt appropriate; a playoff rematch between two rugged, physical teams whose meeting in the bubble propelled one to the NBA Finals and left the other facing an existential crisis should begin with a game that goes down to the final second, right?

Heat fans trumpeted their team’s chances coming out of a series opener in which Miami was right there despite stars Adebayo and Jimmy Butler shooting a combined 8-for-37 from the floor. Bucks backers highlighted a silver-lining stat of their own: Milwaukee had won Game 1 despite making only five of 31 3-point attempts, including a 3-for-24 mark on triples marked “open” or “wide open” by NBA.com’s shot charting. What might it look like when a team that ranked fifth in the NBA in 3-point makes and 3-point percentage during the regular season regressed to the mean?

We found out on Monday: an avalanche of knives.

Milwaukee blitzed the visitors from the opening tip, needing just over three minutes to build a double-digit lead that it never relinquished. Fueled by a franchise playoff record 22 3-pointers, the Bucks annihilated the Heat 132-98 to take a 2-0 series lead. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 31 points, but sharpshooting guard Bryn Forbes led the way from distance, coming off the bench fresh dipped in flames and knocking down his first four triples en route to a playoff career-high 22 points on 6-for-9 shooting from 3. The starters had already set the tone before he checked in, though, opening the game on a 19-4 run that knocked the Heat flat on their backs. After tension comes release, and after going down to the wire in Game 1, Milwaukee led wire-to-wire in Game 2; Miami never even got within 25 points in the second half.

On one hand, you’d forgive Erik Spoelstra and the Heat coaching staff for feeling like they shouldn’t overreact to a game in which the opponents hit damn near everything they put up and scored at a rate—145.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—that would put the full-strength Nets to shame.

“This is the playoffs,” Spoelstra told reporters after the game. “They all count the same, whether you win in a possession game or like this. But we need to be better.”

That’s the other hand. Outlier shooting or no, the Heat now find themselves in an 0-2 hole; only about 6 percent of NBA teams that have dropped the first two games of their series have come back to win it. (The last one to do it, though? The 2019 Raptors, against the Bucks. Hope springs eternal.) Overcoming the odds will require a dramatic change in fortune, and it’ll have to start on the offensive end, where Miami is shooting a dismal 38.1 percent from the field in two games.

Milwaukee’s shot-making level for the rest of the series will likely fall somewhere between the frigid Game 1 and the torrid Game 2. But with limited exceptions—Duncan Robinson splashing 3s off handoffs and screens, Goran Dragic attacking downhill, Dewayne Dedmon’s brief bid for glory—the Heat have struggled mightily to generate and convert good looks against a tenacious Bucks defense. Miami has scored a measly 98.6 points per 100 possessions through two games against Milwaukee—a full four points-per-100 below what the last-place Thunder managed during the regular season.

I cannot stress this enough: Dewayne Dedmon led the Heat in scoring on Monday. With all due respect to the eight-year vet, this is not a viable recipe for success for Miami.

The Heat go as Butler and Adebayo go, and the Bucks are doing everything they can to make Miami’s two stars uncomfortable.

Last postseason, Mike Budenholzer put just about everybody but Giannis on Butler, preferring to keep the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year in the help-side role from which he keyed his team’s no. 1-ranked defense; it didn’t work, and when Miami ousted Milwaukee in five games, Bud got raked over the coals for not putting his best defender on the opponent’s best scorer. Well, lesson (at long last) learned: Giannis has taken the primary assignment on Jimmy in both games, has already spent more time defending him in this series than he did in all of last year’s, and has held up awfully well, holding Butler to 2-for-7 shooting with three turnovers and one blocked shot attempt in their matchups.

As was the case at times when Anthony Davis checked him in the Finals, Butler has had a hard time finding daylight against a defender as massive and mobile as Antetokounmpo. Giannis’s quickness allows him to duck under screens and recover to meet Butler on the other side before he can put the pedal to the metal; his length allows him to contest shots others couldn’t, to deflect balls others wouldn’t be able to reach, and to lurk as an ever-present threat even if Butler can get a step on him off the bounce. Giannis has been the tip of the spear in a total team effort to take away Butler’s driving angles and playmaking opportunities. P.J. Tucker and Jrue Holiday have provided secondary ball pressure, Khris Middleton and Donte DiVincenzo have been on point off the ball, and Brook Lopez has dutifully patrolled the paint, leading to Butler missing three-quarters of his shot attempts through two games—a disastrous start made all the more damaging because Adebayo, the other major engine of Miami’s offense, is getting stifled, too:

Bam’s a combined 3-for-13 when defended by either Lopez or Antetokounmpo through two games, and he looks especially uncomfortable attacking Lopez. His approach thus far has evoked a boxer who hasn’t quite sussed out his opponent’s reach; he knows he needs to establish the jab, but he’s also not too keen on putting himself in harm’s way. (It also makes me think of those drills in which coaches make players shoot over brooms to try to add more arc to their shots. Brook Lopez: Human Broomstick.) The result: Rather than using his speed and athleticism to drive around or through Lopez, Adebayo has taken 18 of his 26 shots outside the restricted area, and made only five of them.

When Bam’s attacking the rim and converting those midrange Js—he shot 45 percent on them during the 2020-21 regular season—he looks like a superstar in the making, too dynamic and dangerous for a relative plodder like Lopez to handle. When he’s not, he looks tentative—like a complementary option that Lopez can sag off of to plug up the paint and lock down the front of the basket. It’s no coincidence that the Heat have scored a microscopic 95.1 points-per-100 with Lopez on the court; it’s also no coincidence that Miami’s first two play calls of Game 2 went through Bam on the block. They didn’t go anywhere, and neither did the Heat.

Jimmy’s and Bam’s struggles have a trickle-down effect, limiting the opportunities teammates usually get when feeding off their games. Kendrick Nunn has missed two-thirds of his shots. Trevor Ariza’s 3-for-11, and his most notable contribution in this series has been getting a flagrant foul for doing a push-up on Giannis. Tyler Herro’s 3-for-15, and his most notable contribution in this series … doesn’t even exist.

Problems abound. How can Miami start finishing possessions after giving up 36 offensive rebounds leading to 42 second-chance points in games 1 and 2? (Maybe a longer look for Bam-Dedmon frontcourts?) Will Spo consider replacing Nunn with Dragic in the starting lineup, hoping that the veteran postseason performer might help get Jimmy and Bam off the schneid? Can the Heat find another way to stall Giannis’s dribble penetration (31 points, 13 rebounds, six assists in just 31 minutes in Game 2) now that Milwaukee has changed its half-court geometry to make it harder for opponents to build the wall and flanked him with more shooting? Does Miami have a plan for disrupting Jrue Holiday, who averaged 15.5 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, and 2.5 steals per game at home, and has looked tremendous on both ends?

Heading back to South Beach should give the Heat some juice. But there’s plenty for Spoelstra and Co. to clean up and, with the Heat already halfway to the offseason, not much time to do it. The search for silver linings after a historic drubbing sent Jimmy Butler to the gallows in his postgame interview: “The bright spot is, I don’t think we could play any worse.” Heat fans had better hope that’s true. An avalanche of knives doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you want to see coming your way twice.