What a difference a year makes. After getting embarrassed by the Heat in the second round of the playoffs last season, the Bucks are now the ones making their opponent look silly. On Thursday night, they put together an impressive performance from start to finish, beating the Heat 113-84 to take a 3-0 lead in the series.
You could come up with a pretty long list of things that have changed for each team, and even the location of the games is different now that we're out of the bubble environment. Most of the main characters are the same, however, which is why even those who thought the Bucks would win this series expected it to at least be a challenge.
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So far, however, the Bucks are making things look easy, especially since Game 1. Defensively they've been terrific, holding the Heat to under 100 points in regulation in all three games. While points per game isn't the best defensive metric, that's a pretty remarkable feat in today's NBA, and a clear indication of how strong they've been on that side of the ball.
You have to score to take advantage of those stops, however, and that's where the Bucks have really stepped it up as compared to last season. In 2020, the Bucks' offensive rating in their series against the Heat was 106.6. Through the first three games of this series, it's 114.2.
One key, but perhaps overlooked reason? Milwaukee has done an excellent job hunting mismatches and taking advantage of the Heat's weaker defenders. Often that's by forcing switches in the pick-and-roll, but it also comes from pushing the ball up the court quickly before the Heat can match up and set their defense or just going straight up iso-ball against the likes of Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
"That's what the NBA is about, right?" PJ Tucker said. "Getting the matchups you want, creating those opportunities where you feel you have an advantage, that's what it's all about. It's tit for tat, it's who's in the game, it's putting ourselves in a position to have the best chance to score, get fouled. I mean, that's what the playoffs is, it's chess."
The Bucks have been dominating the board, and Game 3 was no exception. Here's a closer look at one play late in the second quarter that does a perfect job exemplifying how they've created advantages and picked the Heat apart.
Jrue Holiday starts by kicking the ball ahead to Khris Middleton. With his shotmaking and ability to create off the dribble, he's the Bucks' best option to attack mismatches, and he's had a lot of success in this series. Here, Tucker comes over to set a screen on the wing, but Middleton waves him away and waits for the middle ball screen from Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks know the Heat are going to switch this, and once that happens, Middleton has Bam Adebayo one-on-one at the top of the key instead of Jimmy Butler. While Adebayo is a terrific defender, asking him to stay in front of a wing like Middleton 25 feet from the basket is a lot, and after a few quick dribbling maneuvers, Middleton cooks him and coasts in for a layup.
For the most part, that's pretty basic. The Bucks forced a switch, got one of their best scorers a more favorable matchup, and scored a layup. But that wasn't the only reason Middleton got to the rim so easily. Now watch what happens on the weak side.
Brook Lopez is instinctively heading down low, but Holiday points and tells him to go stand in the corner. It might be a little counterintuitive to have the 7-foot center spot up while the 6-foot-3 point guard takes the dunker's spot, but Holiday was thinking a few steps ahead.
After Middleton gets past Adebayo, he faces absolutely no resistance at the rim. Why is that? Because Trevor Ariza is stuck out in the corner on Lopez, while Goran Dragic is on the block guarding Holiday. If Lopez and Holiday had switched places, Middleton would have had Ariza meeting him at the rim. Instead, Dragic is in position to help in the paint, and he doesn't even make an attempt.
This is just one play, but it's a clear illustration of how the Bucks have adapted their offensive approach to be more playoff friendly and are reaping the benefits. It's also a good reminder that manipulating the defense to make things easier isn't just about who has the ball in their hands.
"Collectively, as a group, we just read the game," Middleton said. "We realize what we need to do, what's gonna work, what's not gonna work."