Stunning upsets are rare in the NBA playoffs. When they happen though, there are massive shockwaves with lasting implications.
Heading into the series, which concluded last night with a 103-94 victory by the fifth-seeded Miami Heat over the top-rated Milwaukee Bucks, it was difficult to imagine such a result.
It was even harder to picture the Heat winning the series in only five games.
With the league’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis Antetokoumpo, the Bucks should not have fallen apart so easily.
So, what happened?
One of the many advantages the Heat had was coaching. Coach Erik Spoelstra dismantled the Bucks offensive schemes while unraveling Milwaukee’s defense.
Miami ran plays off-ball screens and backdoor cuts that allowed open three-point shots all series long. Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo paired up to run perfect pick-and-rolls that sliced through the heart of Milwaukee’s defense. Jimmy Butler constantly found open shooters around him as he drove into the paint. Milwaukee defenders were left scrambling all series long.
Heat general manager Pat Riley constructed this team for the inevitable matchup between these two teams.
Bam Adebayo was hyped the entire season as the potential “Giannis-stopper.” Throughout the series, Miami rotated Bam, Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala to guard Giannis or to keep him away from the ball. Even Derrick Jones Jr. found himself playing a couple of high-energy minutes during games two and three, guarding the “Greek freak.”
Miami prioritized blocking Giannis’ path to the rim, often sending one or two extra-help defenders when the 6’11 forward penetrated the lane. These rotations would often result in steals or pressuring Giannis into making mistakes or rushing passes. If a player fouled the Bucks star and sent him to the free-throw line, well, there were no complaints there.
The rest of the Bucks, while being the best team in the league all season, failed to show up in the series. Khris Middleton, Antetokoumpo’s #2, played well throughout the series and stepped up greatly in Giannis’s absence. Issues like missed free throws and players in foul trouble plagued the Bucks and often ruined their momentum during games.
Meanwhile, the Heat’s young core continued to prove themselves despite the pressure of the playoffs. Adebayo averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and nearly 5 assists in the series. His ability to rebound, create plays and defend the opposing team’s best player made him a crucial factor to Miami’s success this postseason.
Tyler Herro’s ability to make tough shots and create space for himself and his teammates wreaked havoc on his defenders. Duncan Robinson continued to shoot the basketball at an elite level. Kendrick Nunn fought his way back into the rotation after being left out during the entire first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
Miami’s youngsters have complemented their veteran core perfectly. Dragic’s rejuvenated form in the playoffs has dazzled Heat fans. His craftiness on the court resembled that of a dancer moving gracefully.
Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala served their purpose on this team after being traded from Memphis halfway through the season. Crowder earned his position in the starting lineup, providing crucial hustle, effort and defense, while shooting a mind-blowing 43% from behind the three-point line in the semifinals. Andre Iguodala brings championship experience to Miami’s locker room.
And finally, there’s Jimmy Butler. Since the day he officially signed his Heat contract, he has warned the NBA about the trouble that was coming. He earned a reputation for being a “difficult teammate” and a “locker room cancer” elsewhere, but he’s finally at home in Miami’s basketball culture.
Butler’s iconic Game 1 extravaganza will go down in history when he dropped 40 points, including 15 points in the fourth quarter, and a series of back to back daggers right into the chests of Bucks fans everywhere. That night, Butler became the 3rd Heat player in history to score 40 points in a playoff game, after Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Butler’s chaotic, bloodthirsty final minutes of Game 1 reminded everyone that he came to Orlando focused on defying all odds and bringing a championship to Miami.
Meanwhile, the “godfather” Pat Riley was watching all the pieces fall together from above.
Now Miami awaits the result of the Boston-Toronto, which continues tonight on ESPN at 6:30 p.m.