The Miami Heat face a stiff challenge Friday night at home against the team with the NBA’s best record in the form of the Milwaukee Bucks.
According to team president Pat Riley, the goal for the Miami Heat is to make the playoffs every year. Since his interview with Jason Jackson on February 27th, the Heat are boasting a 6-2 record and find themselves in eighth place ahead of the Orlando Magic and the Charlotte Hornets. These next five games will have a significant effect on the Heat’s playoff race, and they won’t be easy.
Four of them are playoff teams in their respective conferences (Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks) and the other is on the Eastern Conference playoff fringe in the form of the 10th-place Charlotte Hornets. Now that the road has been paved let’s zero in on Friday’s matchup versus the Bucks at American Airlines Arena.
There’s no reason to believe that head coach Erik Spoelstra, won’t begin the game with the red-hot starting lineup of Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo. Since the aforementioned interview, this starting five has played only about 13 minutes a game, but in their time together, they are running teams out of the gym while also playing smothering defense.
When held up to similar squads (five games played or higher and 12 minutes a game or higher) the Heat starting five are number one in the league in field goal percentage at 57 percent, number two in 3-point percentage at 50.8 percent and number three in fewest turnovers at 3.3 per game.
Expect this efficient scoring to be challenged by the Bucks though as they hold the number one defensive rating in the league at 104.6. As all Heat fans know, no matter how much improvement the team is showing, that game where they fail to score 100 points as a unit is lurking just around the corner, especially against a solid defensive squad like the Bucks.
A win in this game will require playoff level focus from Miami Heat and a bit of luck. To go along with their defensive capabilities, the Bucks are number three in the NBA in offensive rating (only behind the Warriors and Rockets). No matter what, the Heat cannot get caught up in a shootout, especially from 3-point territory. The Bucks are only second to the Rockets when it comes to 3-point attempts and 3-point makes. Where they differ from the Rockets is defensive rebounding. The Bucks hold second place in this category by grabbing the defensive board 75.7% while the Heat hold 11th by ending defensive possessions with a rebound 73.3% of the time.
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A glimmer of hope: Since February 27th the script has flipped. Miami ranks number one in offensive rating at 116.3 with the Bucks sitting closely behind in second with 115.2. Bucks fans may be surprised to read this but remember that coveted defensive rebounding percentage? Well, the Bucks have slid down to 74.9. It’s interesting to note that while their rebounding performances have been consistent per the stats, it looks as though a good number of teams have just passed them by.
With the Heat ranking number two in offensive rebounding in their past eight games, Bucks fans should look out. While I don’t foresee any change to Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ability to score inside with his team-leading 56.8% field goal percentage over the last eight games, I do believe the others damage will be mitigated. Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton always take smart shots, but they may not be able to do enough to break down the smothering defense of the Miami Heat.
The wild cards:
Eric Bledsoe and newly unofficially official starting center Bam Adebayo have what it takes to put their foot on the gas and really take to their respective opponents. Bledsoe is a master of slicing and dicing as a ball-handler. His ability to push the pace as a secondary ball handler will undoubtedly catch the Heat defense off guard, but hopefully, it won’t happen too many times that result in a big game from him or foul trouble for the Heat.
The Bucks start Brook Lopez at center. That raises a few questions. With only two centers on the roster (Lopez and Pau Gasol) who is guarding Adebayo? If it’s either of their centers for an extended period of time, the Bucks will be in for a long night with perhaps a career high in points from Adebayo. We may see extended minutes for D.J. Wilson who Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer seems to like down the stretch on defense.
Over their last eight games, Adebayo leads the team in field goal percentage at 66 percent. Now, he’s only scoring about 12 points per game, but I’m sure coach Spoelstra will instruct his team to look for him more often. Who will guard Hassan Whiteside off the bench? It shouldn’t be any of those guys mentioned above.
If I were Spoelstra, I’d be glued to Budenholzer’s side of the scorer’s table. As soon as Antetokounmpo checks out, he should immediately sub in Whiteside. Not saying that Antetokounmpo can completely shut him down but he can send him to the bench with foul trouble.
With Antetokounmpo on the bench, Whiteside can continue to be the Heat’s battering ram. He’s currently second on the team in field goal percentage at 53.2 percent while averaging 10 points, 10 rebounds, and a block per game in 19 minutes of action. Take into account Kelly Olynyk is right behind Whiteside at 52.6 percent, and the Bucks may have a problem shutting down the Miami Heat frontcourt.
What would a Heat breakdown be without talking about the bench mob? With players like Whiteside, newly minted sixth man Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, and Derrick Jones Jr., the Heat have a robust nine-man rotation who can compete at a high level. The lineup that includes those four plus Richardson is scoring 17.3 points per game on its opponents since February 27th. They don’t shoot well from three as a unit (33 percent), but they certainly play defense and score.
If you look down the roster even down to spots ten and eleven (Rodney McGruder and James Johnson), it’s filled with guys who want to be there and guys who don’t want to miss the playoffs. Two games against the Bucks separated by a western road trip to San Antonio, and Oklahoma City, is an excellent test. Too many Heat wins in this stretch should put 6th and 7th place Nets and Pistons on notice. The Heat may be in contention for more than just the 8th seed. I’m predicting a Miami Heat victory tonight 113-108.