It was midway through the second quarter when the Miami Heat unraveled. To that point, the Heat had actually kept what would become a blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of their first-round series rather close.
But then Pat Connaughton flashed up for a 3-pointer, Khris Middleton stepped back into a 3-pointer and then pulled up in front of Caleb Martin to drain another. Nine Bucks points in 54 seconds. Over the next three minutes, they made a layup, a free throw and three more 3-pointers and suddenly what had been a manageable deficit for the Heat had ballooned into a 21-point hole. In all, it was a 20-6 run that spanned four minutes of the second quarter to give the Bucks a 62-41 lead. The Heat ended up losing Game 2, 138-122.
The final 3-pointer of that game-swinging run, another one from Connaughton (who shot 6 of 10 from distance) is the most illustrative of Miami’s issues in this game.
After Gabe Vincent missed a 3-pointer, Middleton got the rebound and turned up the court. The Heat defense scrambled to match up while Connaughton and Joe Ingles dashed to the corners. Bam Adebayo signaled to his teammates to pick up a body. Vincent went to Ingles in one corner, but Victor Oladipo and Max Strus got mixed up. Oladipo is initially in front of Connaughton but stepped up to handle Middleton. It appeared he didn’t see Strus in position to corral Middleton and no one communicated. Connaughton got a free run to the corner, Strus attempted to close out, but it was too late.
“We didn’t communicate as much as we should have,” Adebayo said. “Some of those, they were making shots, some of those we had a defensive lapse.”
Yes, the Bucks did shoot 51% from 3-point range and some of that was due to hot shot-making, but the Heat didn’t do their job defensively. They let the Bucks, without Giannis Antetokounmpo (sidelined with a lower back contusion), score 81 points in the first half. The third quarter was more even but, by then, it was too late. The Heat rested their starters in the fourth quarter.
It could be tempting to throw this game away, chalking up the one-sided loss to a random hot shooting night by the opponent. But doing so would be ignoring some key trends that emerged from the first two games in Milwaukee, particularly this last one.
Besides the 3-point shooting barrage, the Heat also got crushed in the paint. The Heat started both games of this series small, with 6-foot-5 Strus guarding Bucks 7-footer Brook Lopez. In Game 1, Lopez was passive and spent most of the time on the perimeter. Milwaukee watched the film and knew it had to exploit this mismatch so, on the first play of Game 2, Lopez posted up Strus and got an easy dunk.
A minute later, Strus got switched onto Middleton, who easily drove by him and lofted up a shot that hit glass. Lopez tipped it in over Vincent.
“They’re a different team when he’s aggressive,” Adebayo said of Lopez.
The Heat could have boxed out better on this play and others, but there’s only so much a team can do when so undersized. The Bucks scored 26 of their 35 points in the first quarter in the paint, successfully setting the tone before burying the Heat with nine 3-pointers in the second quarter. It was the NBA version of establishing the run before blowing the top off the defense with the play-action pass.
Giannis — the league’s fourth-leading rebounder — potentially returning for Game 3 on Saturday won’t help matters. His size, speed and strength will exacerbate the size difference and create more open looks for his teammates.
It’s up to the Heat, now, to adjust. Zoom out, and they went into Milwaukee, split the series 1-1 and face a hobbled Giannis going forward. Ask the Heat if they’d take that before the series started, and they’d say yes 10 times out of 10.
“I mean, yeah, I guess so, if you want to look at it like that,” Butler said when asked about getting the road split. “I would like to be up 2-0. But that’s in the past now so we’re taking it to the crib. And we’ve got to handle business on our home floor.”
But in order to win these home games, the Heat can’t rely on another 60% shooting performance like they had in Game 1. Erik Spoelstra often talks about key performance indicators. For this group, the KPIs are: Create turnovers, box out, take more 3-pointers.
Through two games, it’s hard to say they’ve done either at the rate required to win another game in this series. Even in Game 1, they only got up 25 3-pointers. Nearly 43% of Miami’s shots are coming in the mid-range or non-restricted paint area, which is exactly what the Bucks want to give them. They are also being out-rebounded and turning the Bucks over just 11.6% of the time (as opposed to 16.1% in the regular season).
The Heat had a franchise-best shooting performance in Game 1. The Bucks responded by making 25 3s in Game 2, tying the most made 3s in a game in NBA playoff history. But when the dust settles on those historic one-off performances, it’s the Bucks with a clear advantage in this series going forward.
Does Spoelstra adjust by trying to match Milwaukee’s size and move Kevin Love into the starting lineup? Does he remain committed to small-ball, just as he did during the play-in tournament?
“I’m not sure,” Spoelstra said when asked about making changes to the starting lineup.
A starting lineup change alone won’t mend these issues. Sometimes the best adjustment is just playing better. The Heat will need to play harder, communicate better defensively and be more intentional about getting into their offense. The Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll they used to carve up Milwaukee’s defense in Game 1? Gone in Game 2. Adebayo also needs to be more involved as a playmaker after recording just one assist on Wednesday. The return of the dribble handoff could help against Milwaukee’s drop defense.
And, yes, the Heat will have to hope they can shoot well from 3-point range, which has been the barometer of this team all season.
Other than Wednesday’s final score, none of this should be surprising. The Bucks are the better team and the Heat have struggled with shooting consistently. The size and talent gap is real. But there’s a path to extend their postseason here and the Heat know it. They’ve talked about it all season.
“We’ve said it time and time again, but we’re going to have to go out and do it,” Butler said. “It’s not going to be easy. I can guarantee you that. But you’ve got to be able to do the difficult things in this league.”