2021 NBA Playoffs East first round preview: (6) Heat vs. (3) Bucks

The 2021 NBA Playoffs have finally arrived with some huge matchups right off the bat in the first round.

In a condensed 72-game season that began later in the year teams needed to hit the ground running in order to secure a playoff spot, especially if they wanted to avoid having to do so in the NBA Play-in Tournament. This tournament was the first of its kind to be introduced in the league’s playoff format and fortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, each team was able to make its way into the postseason and be aware of the match-up prior to the play-in.

The Bucks and Heat meet in the playoffs for the second year in a row, this time in the very first round. Last season, the two teams led by Bucks reigning back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Heat forward Jimmy Butler met in the semifinals as No. 1 and No. 4 seeds respectively. In the regular season of that year, the Heat were able to develop a playbook on how to defend Antetokounmpo. Commonly, known as the “build a wall” style of defense, Miami crowded the paint where Antetokounmpo is most dominant. In large part thanks to Heat big Bam Adebayo, Miami was able to force Antetokounmpo to shoot from mid-range and from beyond the arc where he is less efficient. Antetokounmpo averaged 21.8 points in the series, far less than the 29.5 he averaged throughout the season. The Heat would upset the Bucks in five games and make a run to the NBA finals where they lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

After another early exit in the postseason, a lot of discussions surrounded Antetokounmpo and his future with the team. He was now eligible to sign a supermax contract with the team at the expense of becoming a free agent the following offseason. Many considered the lack of support Antetokounmpo has had around him as a reason for him potentially leaving. After trading for guard Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans, the team looked to make a push to convince Antetokounmpo that Milwaukee is built to win now. The following month, Antetokounmpo signed a five-year, $228 Million supermax deal.

Now, with the pieces in place, the Milwaukee Bucks look to finally make a deep playoff push, but they will have to get through the same Miami squad from last season. The Bucks ended this season with a 46-26 record, netting the No. 3 seed. While the team didn’t claim the best record in the league as last year, this could relieve some of the pressure of not being widely considered as favorites in the Eastern Conference. 

The story has also been quite different for the Heat this year. Finishing with a record of 40-32, the team had to claw its way into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed and avoided the play-in. After starting off the season 6-12, the team looked gassed after having played in the Finals only 71 days prior to the start of the following season. The Heat were also one of the teams hardest hit by COVID during the season with notable players like Butler (21.5 PPG), Adebayo (18.7 PPG), Kendrick Nunn (15.1 PPG), Goran Dragic (15.4 PPG), more missing time due to health and safety protocols.

The Heat will certainly put their focus on Antetokounmpo (28.1 PPG) and force his teammates to come up big, which can come as even more of a challenge this time around. Bucks guard Khris Middleton (20.4 PPG), who was the second option for the Bucks last postseason against the Heat is listed as day-to-day with an ankle injury that kept him out of Milwaukee’s regular-season finale against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. However, he did play the night before against none other than the Miami Heat where he scored 21 points in 31 minutes of play in a winning effort 122-108 to secure the season series 2-1. Middleton being out for the Bulls game could be more of a precaution, but it may be notable down the line as the series ramps up. Miami will be without Victor Oladipo who had season-ending knee surgery after only playing four games with the team after being traded from the Houston Rockets. The series is set to start on Saturday, May 22 at 11 a.m. PST on ESPN.

Prediction: Bucks in Six

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