The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t have a warm-up act, no time to build confidence against a lower-seeded piñata, walking right into the fire against the team that exposed them last summer.
And instead of cowering or falling to old habits, the Bucks made the Miami Heat go “poof” in quick fashion, perhaps the first step in changing the narrative — or at the very least, returning the favor in exposing Miami’s roster flaws, creating questions for the future.
The first team to sweep its opponent in this year’s playoffs gets to sit for a week and if it chooses to, bask in the resounding questions that were answered resoundingly before taking on either Brooklyn or Boston.
It wasn’t quite the coming-of-age tales we saw in the ’80s and ’90s, where rivalries grew and festered into bitterness and determination to get over the hump, but Miami was Milwaukee’s boogeyman, its worst philosophical nightmare.
Can you handle physical play against a team with shrewd vets? The Bucks kept their cool when things got testy at multiple points during the last three games, playing above the fray once they were pushed, tripped or provoked.
Can you shut down the catalysts for Miami’s improbable Finals run last year? Jimmy Butler certainly didn’t look right, but Giannis Antetokounmpo cast a long shadow over Miami’s leader, creating for a miserable week only matched by Bam Adebayo looking as out of sorts as he has since becoming a prime-time player by ... Brook Lopez.
And the biggest question of all: Can Giannis handle the defensive looks that has stymied him the last two postseasons?
Oh, there’s another baseline fadeaway from the midrange, a newly developed weapon he’s seeming to trust more, one that eliminates the stifling double teams, the one that takes pressure off him facing five sets of eyes when trying to bully his way from 30 feet out to the basket.
When that adds up, it presents the picture of a team that has just as good a shot as any in not just getting out of the Eastern Conference but coming away as champion. The vision was probably why so much hangs on this playoff run, because not only is the potential there but the maturity should be.
They’ll be underdogs in the court of public opinion, but they don’t feel like it.
Antetokounmpo had a triple-double in the Game 4 clincher (20 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds), but he wasn’t forcing the action, not even when the Heat reversed the series trend of playing from behind and taking a double-digit lead in the first half.
“It's growth in basketball, you know, I tried to affect the game in any way I can,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I'm blessed enough to — I can affect the game defensively, I can pass the ball, there's going to be days I'm going to be dominant. And I'm mature enough to understand that there's gonna be days I'm able to do it and in some days, I'm not gonna be able to [dominate].”
Led by Antetokounmpo, the Bucks played the most impressive defense in the first round, and that includes the Los Angeles Lakers. So even while facing a deficit, the game was there for the taking — all that was necessary was a few minutes of concentration.
Holding the Heat to just 38% shooting in the first three games gave them plenty of confidence that a quick blitz would put things away, a formula that can be duplicated in the next three rounds. That’s why Game 1 was so important, when many falsely believed Miami coming within a hair of stealing the opener in overtime while playing so terribly was a good sign. The omen was for the Bucks, who saw a game that shouldn’t have been close but won when it shouldn’t have.
Khris Middleton’s game-winner didn’t exactly seal the sweep back then, but gave the team a boost of confidence.
Middleton continued his onslaught once things got to South Florida, scoring 16 in Saturday's third quarter in such a way that’s easy to overlook in the regular season but impossible to ignore now. He seems to be in the right place without commanding too much attention, but a perfect complement to Antetokounmpo.
Not even getting tangled with Goran Dragic twice in the four games could throw Middleton off his rhythm, finishing the series a shade under 50% from the field and 41% from three-point range.
“Each year, you find experience. Learn from it,” Middleton said. “But you don’t bring the past about losing or revenge. This series didn’t have anything to do at all with last year. They were the better team last year, this year I feel we were the better team.”
The game was still technically close with 12 minutes left to play, but the series was over. The loose balls snagged by Lopez, P.J. Tucker and Bobby Portis were demoralizing, simple as it seems, because this team is tougher than the last two editions.
“I thought the poise was great, you know, Khris and Giannis and Jrue [Holiday] and Brook leading the way,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “And then, just the defense, I think, really, for the whole series, gave us a great opportunity.”
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Bucks: multiple times in Games 3 and 4, Miami seemed to do everything right. It played with energy and intention, executing and displaying gameplay discipline, and scored efficiently.
But somehow, the Bucks' lead kept growing without them doing anything spectacular, hitting corner threes and not paying much mind to how hard the Heat played.
That is devastating for even a proud and accomplished team like the Miami Heat. It’s potentially devastating for the Brooklyn Nets, the expected matchup in the next series if they take care of business against the undermanned Celtics.
“Both teams have a lot of firepower, they’re definitely exciting,” Middleton said. “But also, a great opportunity.”
An opportunity to pass another test following this first one, a straight-A exam that came easier than expected.
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