What the Milwaukee Bucks did in their sweep of the Miami Heat this postseason was the equivalent of what they did in tearing through the entire NBA the past two regular seasons.
Dominating the opposition over eight days rather than seven months might not generate the same sustained levels of warmth and fuzziness the Bucks had in 2018-19 and 2019-20. But the payoff now compared to the letdowns then has to feel way better.
What the Bucks’ quick and thorough elimination of the Heat provided, more than anything else, was tangible results from using this regular season as a 72-games-long workshop to prepare them for the playoffs.
“In spite of wins and losses, whatever the end result was on one particular night, we definitely felt we got better and learned a lot,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said after his team put last year’s Eastern Conference champions down again and, this time, out.
“We had a lot of new bodies. A new offense to get used to, so there were a lot of adjustments to be made. We knew all that was for this time, so we would peak for the right moment. We really feel like we’re doing that. And it still feels like we’re getting better.”
Spending so much of the past five months in the shop, tweaking this and tinkering with that, was the only viable option left for Milwaukee this time around. In getting bounced from the playoffs by Toronto in six games (2019) and Miami in five (2020), legitimate questions were asked about coach Mike Budenholzer’s ability to react and adjust the Bucks’ winning but specific style, along with the players’ capacity to adapt.
So they altered their offense in hopes of thwarting the notorious “wall” of defenders their two-time Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo faced when he raced upcourt. They fiddled with their defense to allow for switching and to not concede as many good looks from the 3-point line.
They brought in new faces, notably Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, P.J. Tucker and Bryn Forbes. The first is a two-way handful for opposing teams, the next two lend physical play and toughness and the fourth is a career 41% 3-point shooter with a 24/7 green light.
They adjusted to each other, while the core of Antetokounmpo, Lopez and Khris Middleton adapted to them. And it showed, royally, in a series Milwaukee won by a total of 82 points, backing up an overtime victory in the series opener with margins of 34, 29 and 17.
They continued the dominance of 3-0 teams in NBA playoff history, extending such teams’ series W-L record to 141-0. And though they undeniably paid back the Heat for what happened in the Orlando bubble last summer, the Bucks sounded as if they took less pleasure in that simply seeing progress in a plan they hope lasts another three rounds.
Budenholzer, as might be expected, wasn’t admitting yet to any validation. “No. We’ve got a long ways to go,” the coach said. “There’s got to be humility, a humbleness, a mindset to get better. Whoever we play next [Brooklyn or Boston], we have to have a similar focus, a similar edge … It means nothing if we don’t keep going forward.”
Antetokounmpo, however, allowed himself to enjoy the flexibility the Bucks showed in their four victories.
“I get excited when we figure out different ways to win games,” he said, after posting his first playoffs triple-double with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 15 assists. “Like Game 1, we scored so much in the paint, having [only] 3s. Game 2 we scored 22 3s. Game 3 we came in and guarded guys … Game 4, we started slow and then we figured out a way to keep moving the ball.
“When I can see the progression that this team has it gets me excited.”
One wrinkle in the series was Antetokounmpo serving as primary defender against Miami’s Jimmy Butler. Butler had a breakout performance in Orlando but his bubble burst this week. He averaged 14.5 points compared to 23.4 in five games against the Bucks last postseason.
“Butler is such a great individual talent, scorer, passer,” Budenholzer said. “His ability to facilitate and quarterback is underrated. So maybe Giannis’ length was able to disrupt him as a passer and as a scorer. Giannis has been guarding different guys during the season, building up and preparing for different assignments, different matchups. It takes a lot of discipline to guard a guy like Jimmy Butler. Giannis having that discipline with his competitiveness makes him special.”
Lopez, a deep-threat big the past two seasons, has reverted to a paint threat with the “dunker” position the Bucks utilize now, keeping one player low along the baseline to keep opposing defenses honest. That takes some bricks out of those anti-Antetokounmpo “walls.” The Greek Freak referred to him as “a tower named Brook” back there, and Lopez loved the description.
“I just tried to do my part offensively and defensively as much as I could,” said the veteran center, who led Milwaukee with 25 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the clincher. The Bucks outrebounded Miami in the series, 236-169. “Running the floor, getting behind the defense, behind the wall, so their defenders would be thinking about me, knowing I was back there.”
Antetokounmpo ‘fessed up to some changes in his game, too. He’s less prone to drop his head to bull rush into the lane, and the shooters he finds have been more accurate lately.
“Just being mature,” he said, “having my head up and looking for guys when they’re open, it was good for us [in Game 4], it was good for us the whole series.”
Now the Bucks will get to show the Nets or the Celtics how much their makeover has changed them. Into the shop as title pretenders based on doubts from the past two playoff runs, they raced out this week feeling and looking like legit contenders.
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