Five observations from the Miami Heat’s 130-117 win over the Milwaukee Bucks to take Game 1 and steal home court advantage in this first-round series.
Jimmy Butler set the tone early
Jimmy Butler prefers to start games by getting a feel for the opponent. How are they defending him? How are they defending his teammates? What shots are they willingly giving up, and what are they trying to take away? From there, Butler will shape his game based on what he believes his team needs.
That wasn’t necessarily the case in Game 1. Rather than take the first half to feel out the Bucks, he came out in attack mode. Fourteen points in the first quarter. Ten in the second. When the Bucks cut the Heat’s 14-point lead to five with three minutes left in the third, Butler scored or assisted on six of Miami’s next nine points to push the lead back to double-digits.
“He has an innate feel for what’s necessary over the course of the game,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
For a few reasons, there was no need for Butler to take things slow. First, Butler knows exactly how Milwaukee is going to defend. Under Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks rarely changes coverages. They will drop their center, chase opponents off the 3-point line and give up the mid-range area.
You don’t always want to take what the defense gives you (they are giving it up for a reason) but, in this case, Butler took those mid-range shots early and set up higher-quality looks later. Butler went 4 for 6 on mid-range jumpers in his 14-point first quarter, but then ended up scoring 16 of his 35 points in or around the restricted area.
“Taking what the defense gives me, being aggressive, looking to get into the paint and finish when I can and pass the ball whenever I cannot score the ball,” is how Butler described his offensive approach.
Second, against Milwaukee’s length and, especially after Tyler Herro exited the game with a broken right hand, Butler was the Heat’s best option to facilitate. At 6-foot-7, Butler has the height to drive, see over defenders and pass out to open shooters.
“We needed obviously some offensive punch, some triggers, something to settle us all down,” Spoelstra said. “Particularly when we all found out that Tyler was out.”
For the Heat to pull off the upset in this series, Butler will have to play at or close to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s level. He did that tonight because Gianni played just 11 minutes before leaving with a lower back injury. That injury could change the series.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s injury
Antetokounmpo drove to the basket during the second quarter but as he went into the air collided into a sliding Kevin Love attempting to draw the charge. Antetokounmpo landed hard on his backside and writhed with pain. He tried to stay in the game, but the pain was clearly bothering him. He ended up exiting the game for treatment and did not return. He finished his night with six points and three rebounds in 11 minutes.
“It changes the dynamic of their team,” Butler said, “but their still a very good team.”
Khris Middleton stepped up with 33 points on 12 of 20 shooting. Bobby Portis added 21 points off the bench. Jrue Holiday had 16 points and 16 assists. The Bucks still shot 49.5% overall, doing most of their scoring in the paint.
Bucks fans could write off this loss as the repercussion of Antetokounmpo’s injury. Heat fans could point to the fact that the Heat led by eight when Giannis exited and the Bucks were outscored by nine in his minutes.
Neither is necessarily an accurate depiction of what happened. I’d throw out the fact that Miami was up when Giannis got hurt. It was the second quarter with plenty of basketball to be played.
But it’s also true that the Heat came out with more urgency than the Bucks, were executing the better game plan and were making shots that broke Milwaukee’s defense.
No lineup change
Some wondered if Spoelstra would change up his starting lineup and rotation to match up with Milwaukee’s size. He could have gone back to a starting front court of Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love, or go with Caleb Martin for a more versatile defensive look.
Instead, he stuck to the same rotation that ended the season and beat the Bulls in the play-in tournament to advance to the playoffs: Gabe Vincent and Max Strus alongside Herro, Butler and Adebayo.
Through one game it looks like the right call. Spoelstra correctly concluded that the Heat were never going to beat the Bucks at their own game. Going big would have only played into their game. To win this series, the Heat are going to need massive shooting performances and tons of space for Butler and Adebayo to paper-cut the Bucks from mid-range.
The Heat shot 60% from 3-point range in this one — a bananas clip. Strus (2 for 4), Herro (2 for 4), Vincent (4 for 5), Martin (2 for 3) and Love (4 for 7) got open looks and made the most of them. The Heat aren’t likely to repeat the 60% performance, but they will need those shooters to keep making shots at at least an above-average rate.
Milwaukee’s drop coverage
We already outlined Milwaukee’s drop coverage. Against most teams, it’s an effective way to coax opponents into less efficient shots and take away stuff at the basket and 3-point line. Against the Heat, however, it plays into the strengths of their best players. Particularly Bam Adebayo, who led the league in upper paint shots this season. Bam loves to get to the free-throw line area and step into a soft jumper. With Lopez hanging back near the basket, Bam had plenty of room.
“If they are going to keep playing that coverage and let us get to our sweet spots, I feel like we live with those results,” Adebayo said.
Adebayo scored 17 points in the second half, making some needed shots after the Bucks cut the lead to single digits. “He was able to knock down some big ones down the stretch,” Spoelstra said.
Beyond Adebayo, the drop coverage also made it easy for Love to get open looks from 3-point range. When running pick-and-pops with Butler, two Bucks defenders would often go with Butler and leave Love open.
Tyler Herro’s injury
During the second quarter, Herro dove for a loose ball and came up in obvious pain. He tried to signal to the sideline to check out, but Spoelstra couldn’t hear what he was saying and didn’t know, in the moment, that Herro had broken his right hand. He stayed in for a couple of possessions before the halftime buzzer, then was ruled out for the rest of the game at halftime.
Though he’s not officially ruled out for the playoffs, it’s a broken hand. He’s not coming back, and this injury could linger into his offseason. It’s a tough break for Herro, who values his summer skill work as much as anyone on the Heat. But that’s an issue for a later date. Right now, the Heat need to figure out how to replace Herro’s shot-making and ball-handling.
“Tyler had been a big trigger for us all year long. For sure with Bam.” Butler said. “So when you don’t have him, it’s sorta like everyone else has to step in for sure on the offensive end in terms of making shots and creating shots for others.”
Duncan Robinson started the second half and made a 3-pointer, but played just 6 1/2 minutes. The other obvious option, Victor Oladipo, did not play at all. Instead, Spoelstra relied on Vincent to play more minutes down the stretch.
Vincent stepped up as a pick-and-roll partner with Adebayo, finding the center with pocket-passes that led to important baskets in the fourth quarter. On another possession, the Bucks took away Adebayo’s roll and Vincent kicked it to Martin for a corner 3. He then made a pair of 3s himself in the final 1:08 to put the game away.
Spoelstra has a couple of days before Wednesday’s Game 2 to decide on a new starting five. Robinson could make sense for his shot-making. He could also go with Oladipo for defense or start Lowry and Vincent together. The guess here is Robinson. The Heat need to find a way to duplicate tonight’s shooting performance, and he gives them the best chance to do that. We’ll find out Wednesday.