The Miami HEAT host the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena. Get your tickets now! Tip-off is set for 8:00 PM, and television coverage is on FOX Sports Sun. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket.
1: What did you take away from Miami’s close victory over the Houston Rockets?
Couper Moorhead: They know what their formula is. While it may be a bit of a surprise that that formula includes stretches of zone defense, the HEAT know that, especially without Goran Dragić, they have to be a great defensive team night in and out to give themselves a chance to win. And with their renewed focus, for certain players, on offensive rebounding, they’ve expanded their margin for error when it comes to whether or not shots are falling just by ensuring they have more shots to put up. All of that was on display against Houston as they put up 20 offensive boards, played zone for a quarter of the game and did their best to make James Harden’s life difficult (especially after Chris Paul left the game with a hamstring strain). It was hardly the prettiest win you’ll ever see, but the HEAT don’t have the luxury of always looking good if they want to earn a spot in the playoffs. Sometimes its going to have to be ugly, and they’re just fine with that.
Joe Beguiristain: Once again, defense reigned supreme for the HEAT, as they held the Rockets to one of their lowest offensive ratings (106.5) and field goal percentages (35.4) of the year. In particular, Derrick Jones Jr. and Josh Richardson fared quite well both in man and zone situations against James Harden and Eric Gordon throughout the night.
Then again, Jones Jr. also did his thing on the offensive glass and grabbed a career-high six boards on that end. As a whole, the 21-year-old’s energy and activity has been infectious over Miami’s past seven games. In addition to leading the team with a 12.4 offensive rebounding percentage during that span, Jones Jr. is also pacing the squad with an 11.7 net rating. Simply put, he’s getting the job done on both ends of the floor, and it’s leading to victories more often than not.
2: How has Milwaukee changed this season?
Couper: A season ago the Bucks were a good playoff team with an MVP candidate that had some weaknesses you could scheme for. With Miami, that meant creating a wall of help defenders around the paint to limit Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability to create off the drive, along with slowing the game down to prevent transition scoring.
This year, the Bucks appear to have taken the leap and may now be a great team with an MVP candidate that has addressed many of their previous weaknesses. They added Brook Lopez as a starting center and Lopez is now launching threes like he’s Klay Thompson. They drafted Donte DiVincenzo and signed Pat Connaughton for some wing depth. They added Ersan İlyasova, who everyone remembers from last season’s playoff series with the 76ers, to add some size and shooting. But perhaps most importantly, they hired Mike Budenholzer who has straightened out the defense so that a team with Top 5 defensive talent is now a Top 5 defensive team, and he realigned their offensive focus so that their shot distribution is far closer to that of the Houston Rockets than you might think. So it may look like the roster has only changed along the edges, but this has been complete.
Joe: As Coup mentioned above, it seems as though Milwaukee has taken that next step to being a legitimate contender in the East. With its win in Boston on Friday, the team has now defeated the Celtics, 76ers, Raptors (twice), Warriors and Nuggets (twice). It’s early, but that’s one heck of a list.
And now with Mike Budenholzer at the helm, the Bucks have played much faster and have attempted way more threes than a year ago. After averaging just 24.7 attempted treys and 97.2 possessions per game last season, Milwaukee has increased those numbers to 39.6 threes (good enough for second in the league behind Houston) and 103.24 possessions.
Personnel-wise, the Bucks added Brook Lopez, George Hill, Ersan İlyasova, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo among others. Out of that group, Lopez and Hill should be the ones to look out for on Saturday given the fact that İlyasova is out with a broken nose and DiVincenzo is currently in the G League.
Hill, who was acquired in a three-team deal on Dec. 7 along with Jason Smith for Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson and two draft picks, has started to find his groove with his new team. After scoring 11 points against the Pelicans on Wednesday, he tallied a team-high plus-23 rating in Friday night’s victory over the Celtics. It’ll be interesting to see how the HEAT’s second unit approaches the 32-year-old vet.
3: How will the HEAT have to defend the Bucks?
Couper: As we hinted at above, it’s going to be tough to scheme the Bucks in the same way as a year ago. There’s just so much more shooting on the floor at all times, and Milwaukee is playing for threes so much more, that all the help Miami used to send at Antetokounmpo is going to be help coming off of a floor spacer. At the same time, Antetokounmpo is effectively scoring like prime Shaq around the rim so you have to have bodies in front of him at all times, which means it’s nearly impossible not to help. Milwaukee has its record, and the best net rating in the league, for a good reason.
You’re probably wondering whether, after the past couple of weeks, we’ll see zone Saturday night. The answer, as we noted before the Houston game, is that Erik Spoelstra sticks with what is working until it doesn’t work anymore, and it’s working right now. The HEAT are allowing the most catch-and-shoot threes in the league since that zone-heavy game against the Clippers, but they’re also allowing the fifth-fewest shots at the rim, so they’re doing well shutting down the paint and making sure to contest every three possible. Against good offensive teams like Houston and Milwaukee that’s going to leave the results up to chance a bit as far as whether the threes fall or not, but even if some shots are falling you have to measure that against, in the context of who is one the floor, what Miami would be allowing in a traditional scheme.
Joe: The Bucks are very similar to the Rockets in that they limit their attempts from mid-range and take a ton of shots from beyond the arc. As such, you should expect to see the mix of man and zone defense that Erik Spoelstra has rolled with over the past two weeks.
That said, Giannis Antetokounmpo presents a unique challenge that the HEAT haven’t really seen yet this season. Thanks to his length, the 6-foot-11 specimen has been a menace off the dribble with his ability to finish at the rim (he’s shooting 77.6 percent on 313 attempts in the restricted area) and create for others (he’s averaging a career-high 6.1 assists per game).
No matter how you slice it, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will be tough to stop.
- The HEAT have won three straight and are 14-16.
- The Bucks have won six of seven and enter the contest at 22-9.
- Derrick Jones Jr. is tallying a 12.4 offensive rebounding percentage over the past seven games.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Milwaukee in points (26.8), rebounds (12.8) and assists (6.1) per game.
- Justise Winslow (Right Ankle Pain) is questionable, while Goran Dragić (Right Knee Surgery), Dion Waiters (Left Ankle Surgery) and Duncan Robinson (Sioux Falls Assignment) remain out.
- HEAT Offense: 105.7 (25)
- HEAT Defense: 106.4 (9)
- Bucks Offense: 113.4 (1)
- Bucks Defense: 104.8 (5)