The season restart has been full of surprises, but the Miami Heat jumping out to a 3-0 lead against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals might be the biggest surprise of them all.
While many thought the Heat could give the Bucks trouble in the second round - to the point where a decent amount of people actually picked the Heat to win entering the series, including our Yash Matange - I'm not sure anybody expected them to be in a position where they could sweep the team that steamrolled their way to the best record in the league during the regular season.
So ... how have the Heat done it?
Let's take a closer look at some of the key factors.
Keeping Giannis in check
It all starts with this.
Through three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 22.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists against the Heat. While those are impressive numbers on the surface, Antetokounmpo has struggled with efficiency, with his True Shooting Percentage - a catch-all statistic that takes into account field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage - plummeting from 61.3 percent during the regular season to 50.5 percent in this series.
For perspective, that's the difference between Antetokounmpo scoring with the same efficiency as someone like Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul and Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert.
Most concerning of all is that the Bucks have been a disaster on both ends with Antetokounmpo in the lineup. According to NBA.com, they've been scoring at a rate of 100.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court while giving up 116.2 points per 100 possessions. During the regular season, those numbers stood at 112.8 and 97.4, respectively.
The Bucks are outscored by 34 points when Giannis is on the court in three games vs the Heat.- StatMuse (@statmuse) September 5, 2020
That -34 +/- is the worst by any player on the Bucks. pic.twitter.com/Wgn34PnSnz
The key with Antetokounmpo is keeping him out of the paint, where he led the league in scoring this season with a whopping 17.5 points per game.
There have been times when he has been able to weave his way to the basket against Miami's set defence...
...but the Heat have generally done a good job of making sure Antetokounmpo sees a number of bodies whenever he puts the ball on the floor, much like the Toronto Raptors did in last season's Eastern Conference Finals.
It all starts with Jae Crowder, who has defended Antetokounmpo more than anyone on the Heat through three games. While Crowder is giving up five inches to Antetokounmpo, he's quick enough to stay in front of him and strong enough to at least hold his ground against the most dominant paint scorer the league has seen since Shaquille O'Neal. He's also tough as nails, not afraid to put himself between Antetokounmpo and the basket even when he gets downhill.
Surrounding Crowder are a number of high IQ defenders, including Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala and Bam Adebayo. Each of them are capable of switching onto Antetokounmpo when needed and when they're not guarding him, they're in help position, sagging off of their assignments to make sure he doesn't get into the paint.
It shows on possessions like this, where the Heat swarm Antetokounmpo inside the 3-point line to cut off his oxygen:
The Heat are basically living with Antetokounmpo taking any jump shot he wants when he's outside the perimeter and daring anyone else to beat them when he's inside the perimeter. So far, it's working - Antetokounmpo is down to 13.3 points per game in the paint, is 1-for-4 from midrange, 2-for-13 from 3-point range and his teammates are shooting 39.1 percent off of his passes. (Remove Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez from the equation, and that number falls to 33.3 percent).
If Antetokounmpo can't get going, the Bucks have no chance of coming back. It's that simple.
Slowing it down
During the regular season, the Bucks averaged 18.0 fastbreak points per game, putting them behind only the Raptors (18.8) and Los Angeles Lakers (18.4) for most in the league.
Here's how the Bucks have fared in transition in this series:
- Game 1: 15 fastbreak points
- Game 2: 9 fastbreak points
- Game 3: 6 fastbreak points
Much of that comes from their ability to wall off the paint against Antetokounmpo, who has been the league's biggest transition threat over the last few seasons.
Just watch what the Heat do on this possession from Game 1:
There are a couple of things that should jump out.
The first? How Butler and Crowder converge on Antetokounmpo's drive to funnel him towards Adebayo.
The second? How Adebayo has absolutely no respect for Antetokounmpo's jump shot.
He doesn't even have a hand up!
Antetokounmpo knocked that particular shot down, but again, the Heat will live with him taking any jump shot he wants if it means he's not getting to the basket.
It's the smart decision statistically, as Antetokounmpo made only 28.9 percent of his 3-point pull-up attempts this season. He was a far more effective catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter (36.9 percent), but they made up a much smaller portion of his 3-point attempts.
It isn't just Antetokounmpo who is struggling to get out on the break. Eric Bledsoe was one of the league's leading scorers in the open court, but he has only three fastbreak points through two games. (Bledsoe missed Game 1 of the series with a hamstring injury). The only player on the Bucks who has been able to get anything going on the fastbreak is Middleton, but he's not the type of player who is going to fuel a team's transition game - he's more as a finisher than an initiator.
As a result, the Bucks and Heat are averaging 98.7 possessions per 48 minutes in this series, which is the exact pace the Heat played at during the regular season and much slower than what the Bucks are used to. (The Bucks played at the fastest pace in the league this season at 105.1 possessions per 48 minutes).
Quite simply, the Heat are dictating the terms of this series, not the Bucks.
Jimmy Butler has taken over
After Game 3, Heat centre Meyers Leonard said they have the best player in the series, referring to Jimmy Butler.
I wouldn't go as far as using this series as proof that Butler is a better player than Antetokounmpo, but there's no denying that Butler has outplayed Antetokounmpo in this series.
It's been in the fourth quarter that Butler has shined the most. In Game 1, Butler scored 15 of his 40 points in the final frame to lead the Heat to victory. He scored only 13 points in all of Game 2, but he sealed the deal with two clutch free throws after he was fouled by Antetokounmpo on a jump shot to put the Heat up 2-0. In Game 3, Butler led what turned out to be a historic run by scoring 17 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter.
As good as Butler has been this season, the Bucks probably weren't expecting this from him. The most surprising thing has been that he's regained his shooting touch. According to NBA.com, Butler shot 24.4 percent from 3-point range this season and 31.7 percent from midrange this season, the combination of which made him one of the least efficient scorers outside of the paint.
Butler is still doing the bulk of his damage in the paint in this series, but he's hit some timely jump shots, going 3-for-6 from midrange and 4-for-9 from 3-point range through three games.
Now, Butler hasn't shot well enough for the Bucks to fight over every screen he's involved in...
The Bucks have made many, many, many questionable decisions in this series, but I *really* don't get why they aren't ducking under every Jimmy Butler PnR.- Karens In Paris (@NekiasNBA) September 5, 2020
Butler shot 30.5 percent (!!!) on jumpers out of PnR during the regular season via Synergy.
🗣️ SOUND ON pic.twitter.com/nggOmsJ9Qm
...but him going from someone who couldn't buy a bucket outside of the paint in the regular season to keeping the Bucks honest has been a huge development for the Heat.
One adjustment the Bucks can make: Wesley Matthews should be guarding Butler every minute he's on the court. Matthews hasn't been able to shut him down, but he's been the only player on the Bucks who has some level of success against Butler. As our Kane Pitman pointed out, it's probably not a coincidence that Butler's best stretches in this series have come with Middleton defending him, not Matthews.
Is it a little late for that? Probably. But it's better late than never, I suppose.
Goran Dragic is back - It's crazy to think that Kendrick Nunn started at point guard for the Heat during the regular season. Dragic took Nunn's place in the starting lineup during the seeding games and hasn't looked back. In this series, he's up to 21.7 points and 4.0 assists per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field and 45.0 percent from 3. He's picking Milwaukee's drop coverage apart and gives Miami yet another player who can make plays off the dribble.
The Heat have shooters - Crowder in particular has been a revelation. Crowder has been an inconsistent 3-point shooter over the last three seasons, but he's found his touch in this series, going 12-for-30 from 3-point range. He's been able to keep Antetokounmpo, who has been Crowder's primary defender, honest.
Erik Spoelstra is out-coaching Mike Budeholzer - Budenholzer has a history of not making enough adjustments in the playoffs, this series being no exception. Spoelstra has the Heat running like a well-oiled machine, whereas we're still left asking the same old questions with Budenholzer. His penchant for not playing Antetokounmpo and Middleton more than 36 minutes is particularly puzzling.
Malcolm Brogdon sure would help - This is the first time this season where it's clear how much the Bucks miss Brogdon. Having one more player who can space the floor and make smart plays with the ball in their hands would make the world of difference in this series. If this series is any indication, there's a good chance we'll be talking about Milwaukee's decision to trade him for a long time.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.