The series is not over.
The Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo (assuming he’s a go in Game 5) and home-court advantage. If they take care of business at home, all they have to do is win one road game to redirect things in their favor.
The Miami Heat‘s utterly shocking Game 4 comeback was essentially Antetokounmpo’s first game of the series after leaving Game 1 with a back injury. The Heat are some kind of posteason gremlin, their sneering, fearless brutality bubbling to the surface every April and May. They are never too worried about whom they are playing. They respect good teams, sure. But they’re never scared, never awed by the stakes or roaring crowds or the long-limbed freight train careening toward them. When all else fails, they will knock you down and see if you get up.
They also have playoff Jimmy Butler, fast becoming a springtime legend — the ultimate 16-game player who when tax day passes somehow adds a reliable 3-pointer to his bottomless arsenal of pivoty, bruising midrange guile. We’ll get back to him.
Beneath all that, they are also the barely-over-.500 team that appeared to be wheezing to its death before finding its offense late in its second-chance play-in game against the Chicago Bulls. They have already lost one starter (Tyler Herro) and one bench player (Victor Oladipo) in this series. They are starting one buyout castoff — Kevin Love — in a double-big lineup they had mostly scrapped. They closed Game 4 with an aging point guard relegated to backup duty — Kyle Lowry — and Duncan Robinson, who spent most of the season out of the rotation.
The Bucks went 24-3 over 27 games in the middle of the season. Even with Antetokounmpo having logged only 11 minutes over the first three games — even with Miami shooting 48% on 3s — to be here is stunning. It felt in Game 4 like Milwaukee’s postseason run was only just starting, yet it could end tonight. If the Bucks lose in this round, like this, ownership will have to ask some serious questions. (Antetokounmpo is eligible for a max extension in September.) Even starting 0-0 without Antetokounmpo, the remaining Bucks would and should have had a good chance to beat this Heat team four times in seven tries. They might have entered that theoretical series betting favorites.
Losing now would be the third ugly postseason meltdown of the Antetokounmpo-Mike Budenholzer era.
The Bucks lost four straight games in the 2019 conference finals after taking a 2-0 lead to the Toronto Raptors, though that felt like a matchup of equals. No shame. A year later in the bubble, the Heat dispatched the top-seeded Bucks 4-1.
The common denominator was Milwaukee’s half-court offense disintegrating. The Bucks did not have enough shooting around Antetokounmpo. Both star and coaching staff had not found structural balance in the half court. If the Bucks couldn’t run, they couldn’t score.
They reshaped the roster by trading a boatload of picks for Jrue Holiday, signing Bobby Portis and swiping P.J. Tucker at the 2021 trade deadline. They survived the injury-ravaged Brooklyn Nets superteam — and Kevin Durant‘s shoes — in a seven-game epic, then upended the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns to win the franchise’s first title in 50 years.
Along the way, their half-court offense sputtered — cratering into nothingness against the Nets, reviving now and again over the next two rounds. Their first-shot half-court offense was never good, but it was good enough when supplemented by the three ingredients that defined those Bucks: blot-out-the-sun defense; ferocious offensive rebounding; and an unstoppable transition machine.
They reoriented their offense around the tentpole of Antetokounmpo screening for Holiday and Middleton — the two-time MVP foregoing some of the game’s traditional superstar glamor elements, and embracing an identity as a rim-running center. The Middleton-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll became their go-to play — sometimes in the middle of the floor, sometimes on the wing, with the rest of their side cleared. Put three shooters around that, and the Bucks were hard to stop. They made sense.
What was perhaps most striking about Miami’s rollicking Game 4 comeback — other than Butler’s two-way brilliance — was how much of that identity slipped away from the Bucks when they needed it most. Perhaps it was collective rust, everyone getting reacquainted under extreme stress. Antetokounmpo’s mobility is clearly limited some.
Antetokounmpo set only nine ball screens in Game 4, per Second Spectrum tracking data — his seventh fewest in any game this season. Middleton missed five of the six games in which Antetokounmpo set fewer than those nine on-ball picks, per Second Spectrum; he logged only 15 minutes in the sixth — a blowout win over the Detroit Pistons.
In Milwaukee’s highest-leverage playoff games in 2021, Antetokounmpo typically set between 25 and 35 on-ball screens — more than half of which were for Middleton, according to Second Spectrum. They paired for just six such plays in Game 4. Screening hurts. Antetokounmpo is hurting already. Maybe the Bucks are shielding him from whatever contact they can control. Perhaps that’s all it is.
Middleton missed 49 games because of injuries. When he played, he was often under a minutes restriction. He trended upward — he had 33 points on 12-of-20 shooting in Game 1 — but he has been inconsistent, and rarely looked back in peak All-Star form.
That stood out even more on defense. Butler is hunting Middleton relentlessly, and Middleton has not been able to keep up on switches. Butler is too strong, sometimes too fast. He is overwhelming Middleton, and everyone other than Holiday. Milwaukee’s perimeter defense has been rickety overall beyond Holiday. Grayson Allen, Joe Ingles, Pat Connaughton and Middleton have all been vulnerable to speed and quick shooting.
Allen has probably been the best chasing Max Strus and Duncan Robinson, but the rest are getting hung up on some screens or in shooting the gap. (Miami’s best source of non-Butler offense — its oxygen when Butler rests — is prying pull-up looks against Milwaukee’s drop-back defense by using Lopez’s man as a screener for its shooters.) There have been some uncharacteristic communication breakdowns.
After months of breathless reporting (and self-reporting) of the Jae Crowder holdout-and-trade saga, Crowder has given the Bucks nothing. He didn’t even get on the court in the most important game of their season. Crowder was supposed to be Tucker 2.0 — the tweener forward who rounded out Milwaukee’s dangerous small-ball lineups featuring Antetokounmpo at center. Lopez was so good in Game 4 as to render those lineups irrelevant, but Crowder was acquired at considerable cost to bolster other lineup types too. He knows Butler’s tendencies better than anyone with the Bucks!
With Lopez on fire, Budenholzer could find only 13 minutes for Portis — a Sixth Man of the Year finalist. His defense has slipped some too; if the Heat find Portis defending Bam Adebayo, Cody Zeller or Kevin Love (when Love is at center), they go right at Portis in drop coverage on the pick-and-roll. There was no place to put Portis on defense against the small-ish Miami lineup that closed Game 4: Lowry, Robinson, Butler, Caleb Martin (indispensable on both ends) and Adebayo.
That could change if Budenholzer decides to at least occasionally use Antetokounmpo on Butler, opening the Martin assignment for Portis (or someone else). Budenholzer has been reluctant to go that route in past playoff series against Miami. It is not a silver bullet. It removes Antetokounmpo as a rim protector. It does not stop Butler from hunting down Middleton, Allen or whomever else he wants in pick-and-roll action — though Antetokounmpo’s length chasing him would make a difference.
I suspect we’ll see the Bucks dabble in that assignment, shade more help at Butler, throw occasional double-teams at him. He is simply too comfortable right now.
What a sight that is. Butler is such an unusual player. He has pieces of every positional archetype in him. He thrives in the game’s gray areas — between dribbles and pivot moves, in places a lot of players see as dead zones. He turns the area under the backboard into his personal hide-and-seek playground; one well-timed cut revives a moribund possession. He uses pump-fakes and reverse pivots to manipulate the posture of defenders, nudging them off balance or standing them up straight so that he can duck under their armpits for step-throughs. He turns that contact into heaps of free throws.
Butler wrings gold from the deepest, weirdest midrange recesses — not the elbows or even the high post, but those vacant spaces between the central edges of the paint and the sideline. He is unpredictable, strong — hard to pin down, at once an artist, a brute and a genius. An underrated part of his game — perhaps the most underappreciated part — is that he does so much while turning the ball over so rarely. Butler in Game 4 had 56 points, 28 field goal attempts and one turnover.
That masterpiece is the main reason Miami won. Milwaukee’s offense also came undone. The Bucks scored three points over a 5-minute, 53-second stretch after taking a 98-85 lead with 8:56 left. One of those points came when Lowry tossed an inbounds pass directly to Connaughton, who drew a foul.
They missed some decent looks: a floater and a pick-and-pop 2 from Lopez; a clean Middleton pull-up 2 on a pick-and-roll; an open Connaughton corner 3. But there were signs it was about to go off the rails. Allen missed a flailing hook with about 8:30 left and multiple open shooters begging for a kickout. It finally short-circuited here:
That is an uncertain staggered pick-and-roll for Holiday with little oomph and no Plan B once the Heat stand it up. Lowry is on Holiday there, and the old lion summoning that fire hydrant defense was a big part of Miami’s rally. (Lowry was also productive in Game 3.) A lot of Miami’s lineups this season featured two weak spots on defense — including the Gabe Vincent/Herro duo in the Heat’s now-defunct starting five. Robinson was the only defensive liability in Miami’s Game 4 closing five; he hid on Allen, and the Bucks mostly let him off the hook.
Where were the Antetokounmpo-Allen pick-and-rolls, with Allen setting flat screens up top for Antetokounmpo and forcing the Miami defense to choose between bad options? Allen can run a competent two-man game; why not shuttle him into a handoff with Antetokounmpo at the left elbow, with the rest of that side empty? The Bucks ran one or two Holiday-Allen pick-and-rolls in an attempt to get Robinson matched up on Holiday, but Miami rotated its way out of the trouble. Milwaukee didn’t press the issue.
Vincent has opened games guarding Middleton — an exploitable matchup even with Middleton not all the way back. The Bucks have gone at that some, but probably not enough. Expect them to be more predatory in Game 5.
Go back to that pick-and-roll above: Antetokounmpo sets the second screen and then fades away. A few aimless late Milwaukee possessions started with some token action to maybe get Antetokounmpo a post touch. Adebayo snuffed most of them, fronting at times and battling for position. He has been up and down on offense, but his defense never wanes.
It was notable how uninvolved Antetokounmpo was in several empty fourth-quarter Milwaukee possessions. Even those semi-open Middleton and Lopez misses came on actions pairing the two of them — with Antetokounmpo on the other side of the floor.
When Antetokounmpo strode to center stage, it was to an unusual degree as a ball handler — and in particular in his big-big two-man game with Lopez. Antetokounmpo ran 14 pick-and-rolls in Game 4, per Second Spectrum — tied for his 12th most in a game this season. Middleton missed 10 of the 11 games in which Antetokounmpo ran more.
Antetokounmpo and Lopez ran 11 pick-and-rolls in tandem, their fourth most in any game this season — two short of their one-game high, per Second Spectrum. And you guessed it: Middleton missed every other game in which Milwaukee cracked double-figures in Antetokounmpo-Lopez pick-and-rolls.
The Bucks leaned on that play in part because it was working so well. With Adebayo on Antetokounmpo and no other big on the floor for Miami, the Heat make do with smaller players on Lopez. The Bucks at times just throw the ball in Lopez’s general direction; Strus was the victim of several lobs in Games 1 and 2, reaching like a child on tippy-toes trying to grab a balloon from the ceiling. The Heat shifted Love into the starting five in Game 3 to minimize the Lopez behemoth factor.
The best way to defend the Antetokounmpo-Lopez action is to duck Lopez’s screen, and dare Antetokounmpo to shoot. Lopez made that tricky by disguising the timing, angle and location of his picks — widening his stance so Antetokounmpo’s defenders had to take circuitous routes. With Antetokounmpo, one false step and you’re done: He wins the race to the spot underneath the pick.
The Heat finally solved it in crunch time, and look who was among the main characters:
With no good matchup for Lopez — and with Lowry and Martin holding their own on Holiday and Middleton — Erik Spoelstra decided that if Butler was doing everything anyway, he might as well add guarding Lopez (and sometimes Antetokounmpo) to his plate. The Bucks didn’t look to post Lopez against Butler much, and Butler held up on this one critical switch — forcing Antetokounmpo into a spinning hook.
Going smaller and simplifying matchups also limited the cross-matches that fueled Milwaukee’s transition game. Early on, the Bucks had Antetokounmpo on Love. The Heat, of course, want no part of Love guarding Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo marauded in the ensuing chaos, rampaging to the rim as the Heat frantically criss-crossed in search of their ideal assignments.
Mortality on the team level can come fast. Lopez is 35. Holiday is almost 33 but showing no signs of decline. (I voted him second-team All-NBA; he has a player option for 2024-25.) Middleton is 31 with a $40.4 million player option for 2023-24. Every up-and-down game probably makes it more likely he opts in, though nothing on that front is clear.
The Bucks have very little young talent in the pipeline. MarJon Beauchamp showed promise, but we’ll see. To some degree, this is life as a contender: You get older and capped out, trade picks for talent and draft at the back of the first round when you draft at all. The Bucks turned limited resources into Lopez, Portis, Connaughton and Allen. That’s great work.
They are also paying the price for getting almost nothing out of the draft since the masterstroke of selecting Antetokounmpo No. 15 10 years ago. Their only two productive picks from that stretch now play for other teams: Malcolm Brogdon in Boston and Donte DiVincenzo for the Golden State Warriors.
It’s too early for obituaries. Even if they lose this series, the Bucks can run this core back one more year and feel good about it. This series is very much up for grabs. Perhaps the Bucks were out of sorts in Antetokounmpo’s first game back.
Either way, the urgency for Milwaukee has never been higher.