The final days of the 2020-21 NBA regular season were filled with playoff teams strategically managing their lineups in order to land ideal playoff matchups. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers rested starters for multiple games in an apparent attempt to move down in the standings or set up specific matchups, but the Milwaukee Bucks went in the opposite direction.
When they played against the Miami Heat on Saturday—the team that knocked them out of the 2020 postseason—they could have sat their best players to help Miami move up to the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. That would have set up a matchup with either the New York Knicks or Atlanta Hawks instead. But the Bucks played all of their stars and won, 122-108. That set the Heat and Bucks on a collision course for one another in the first round.
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It could have been argued that the Bucks were merely attempting to keep their own hopes for the No. 2 seed in the East alive, but Milwaukee owner Marc Lasry dispelled that notion on CNBC Wednesday. In that interview, he made it clear that the Bucks wanted to play against the Heat in the first round (h/t Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel).
"No, no, no, we did," Lasry said. "And you can see we did and the reason why is because when we played the Heat we played our guys. We didn't do what a lot of other teams have done, which is sit all their guys. We played our guys to make sure -- we wanted to send a message. I think that message has been received. I think it'll be a great matchup for us."
The danger in making such a proclamation, especially against a team as proud as the Heat, is that it will motivate the opponent unnecessarily. In truth, though, there are plenty of reasons to like this matchup for the Bucks. Jae Crowder, who was instrumental in Miami's upset over Milwaukee last season by shooting 43 percent on 3-pointers, now plays for the Phoenix Suns. The Bucks have spent the season practicing a more aggressive switching defensive scheme that is better suited to playing against a team with Miami's shooting. And, of course, if the Bucks are going to win the championship this season, they'll need to exorcise those Miami demons from last season at some point.
No matter what happens in that series, the Bucks should be commended for embracing a challenger like the Heat rather than hiding from them. Milwaukee controlled its own destiny. They could have laid down for the Heat and drawn a potentially weaker opponent in the first round. But winning championships means beating the best teams, and the experience the Bucks get against Miami will only help them later in the playoffs.