The Miami Heat made the NBA Finals last season, and now the team returns to the playoffs.
In a rematch of 2020’s second-round matchup, the Heat will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round starting Saturday in Fiserv Forum arena. It will be a tall order for the Heat to upset two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks for a second consecutive year.
Here are five keys to beating Milwaukee and creating another memorable Heat playoff run.
Having versatile big men is fundamental in today’s league. One vital component of the game is rebounding. Second-chance points against the Bucks must become a priority.
Rebounding has certainly not been the Heat’s forte this season. They are ranked 29th in rebounding, while the Bucks are second. So rebounding should be the Heat’s biggest focus. Players like Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon should look to box out Bucks big men Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo. The Heat is ranked 30th this season in second-chance points while the Bucks are 12th. To improve on that, physical players such as Jimmy Butler and Trevor Ariza should crash the boards and draw fouls in the process. In last year’s series with the Bucks, the Heat averaged 44.4 rebounds while the Bucks were at 43 This highlights the fact that rebounding is a key to success.
The NBA is a league of depth. A strong starting five is not enough for success. Teams must have at least three solid players on their bench to win.
In the case of the Bucks, players such as Pat Connaughton, PJ Tucker and Bobby Portis make up a defensive second-string team.
The Heat. however, has more offensive-minded players in Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Andre Iguodala. Herro averaged 15 points per game this season while Connaughton averaged seven. This can make a difference, especially as head coach Erik Spoelstra experiments with rotations. Last season, the Heat eliminated the Bucks in five games thanks partly to Herro’s total of 66 points. Other players such as Kendrick Nunn and Iguodala added value to the team by defending and capitalizing on second-chance points.
Priding himself on defense, Spoelstra instructs his players to switch on every pick the opposition sets. The Heat can do this because of their defensive versatility, with players like Iguodala, Adebayo, and Ariza able to guard every position. Miami was ranked fifth in points allowed per game, showing their commitment to defense.
Last year, Miami’s strategy was to build a “wall” to stop Anteokounmpo from getting to the paint. This involved blocking off the paint and reaching in aggressively against the reigning MVP. Frustrating Milwaukee’s superstar and limiting his production will be key to making them change their offense. Perimeter defense will be crucial, as players cover three-point shooters awaiting passes from Antetokounmpo. If the Heat can successfully recreate this strategy, they leave themselves a good chance of advancing to the second round.
When the playoffs start, fouls become harder to draw, with referees more reluctant to call fouls. Despite this, getting to the line will be crucial to both teams’ success. Butler ranked third in free throws made per game while Anteokounmpo ranked sixth. Both teams will need their star players to get to the line to generate some offense in what figures to be a battle of two defensively sound teams.
Free throws were especially crucial to the Heat’s game this season. The offense often went missing, so Butler and Adebayo would slow down the tempo by getting to the line, allowing the team to regroup and fend off a run by the opposition. In a game of fine margins, free throws could be the deciding factor between advancing to the next round and going home.
The Heat can only go as far as Butler takes them. Last year’s success was heavily reliant on Butler’s immense impact on both ends of the floor. In last season’s playoffs, Butler elevated his game, increasing his points, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage from the regular season. His impact and sheer will to win was highlighted by the 40-point triple double he posted in the NBA Finals.
The Heat will be relying on their star again this year. He will need to stay aggressive, both in scoring and facilitating. This season, Butler posted a career high seven assists per game along with 21.5 points and two steals per game. His production and leadership are crucial to the Heat, with the team posting a 7-12 record when he didn’t play. If Butler elevates his game like he did last season, the Heat will have a great chance at sending the Bucks home again.