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Four things to watch out for in Heat-Bucks season opener

Tonight’s more intriguing storylines.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Miami Heat Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been 144 days since the Miami Heat were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Bucks, led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, went onto win the NBA title over the Phoenix Suns.

Changes were made. The Heat nabbed Kyle Lowry in a three-player sign-and-trade that sent Goran Dragic — arguably the best point guard in franchise history — and second-year center Precious Achiuwa to the Toronto Raptors. Additionally, the Heat plucked P.J. Tucker away from the championship-winning Bucks team, as well as adding Los Angeles Lakers wing Markieff Morris.

Now, Miami meets up with the team that ended their roller coaster 2020-21 campaign. Tip-off will be on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 8:00 ET.

Here are four things to look our for ahead of the highly-anticipated debut.

1. The Battle of the Backcourts:

Needless to say, Heat fans everywhere — and NBA fans, frankly — are anticipating Lowry’s regular season debut.

From a Heat perspective, the preseason returns were excellent; Lowry was Miami’s “QB1” so to speak. He orchestrated the offense seamlessly, finishing the preseason with the league’s third most assists (24) in 88 minutes; he nearly tallied more assists than field goal attempts (26). Though Lowry will likely be more aggressive with his shot in the regular season, the playmaking burden he lifted off Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo’s shoulders was apparent.

Miami’s newfound backcourt of Lowry and Butler will present more — and increased — headaches for opponents. That’s not including Tyler Herro, who led the league in scoring (20.8 ppg) on 51.3/44.8/89.5 (63.4 TS%) shooting in the preseason, off the bench; I know, it’s the preseason, but it’s encouraging nevertheless!

On the other side, the Bucks will be without two-way guard Jrue Holiday, despite being listed as probable on Wednesday after suffering a right heel contusion in Tuesday’s 127-104 win over the Brooklyn Nets. The injury was suffered in the first half and caused him to miss the rest of the game.

Holiday’s two-way impact was beyond visible in last year’s playoff bloodbath against Miami. He disrupted and thwarted any action and potential counter to the original action that the Heat presented on the perimeter, while also playing stifling defense at the point-of-attack. Offensively, Holiday contributed as Milwaukee’s lead guard, though he wasn’t particularly efficient shooting-wise. Nevertheless, Holiday averaged 15.3 points, 9.8 assists and 2.3 steals in 36.2 minutes per game in the four-game set.

The Bucks will also be without guard Donte DiVincenzo, who’s recovering from offseason ankle injury, along with newly-acquired Rodney Hood (foot).

Milwaukee heavily relied upon Grayson Allen (28 minutes), another new face, as well as Pat Connaughton (30 minutes), second-year guard Jordan Nwora (26 minutes) and season veteran George Hill (23 minutes) on Tuesday off the bench. It also saw brief stints from rookie Sandro Mamukelashvili (say that 10 times fast) and Justin Robinson, who might get more run without Holiday in the lineup.

2. Bam Adebayo’s aggressiveness:

When I previewed six different one-on-one matchups I was looking out for prior to the Bucks-Heat playoff series, one I mentioned was Bam Adebayo (on offense) v. Brook Lopez. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

“It’s no secret that the Heat’s 6-foot-9 stalwart has grown more comfortable with his mid-range game. Historically, Lopez has played off Adebayo because of his threat to slash coupled with Budenholzer’s emphasis on protecting the rim. If he sticks with to that philosophy — with history suggesting he will — all eyes point to Adebayo’s aggressiveness and the different off-ball actions that counter Budenholzer’s world famous deep-drop (paging you, Dr. Dribble Handoff). If Adebayo can eat the space provided by Lopez or take advantage of it with his smooth perimeter jumper, it’ll open up the rest of the Heat offense. The question remains, as it has each year: How long will it take for Budenholzer to adjust the matchup or scheme, if he does?”

Spoiler: Budenholzer didn’t have to adjust. And while Adebayo still attempted 17 percent of his shots as long 2s, (matching his regular season frequency), he shot just 20 percent on long 2s, per Cleaning the Glass. Adebayo seldomly shot in rhythm and routinely looked for secondary options. By design, Milwaukee promptly cut off such options when Adebayo had the ball in his hands, oftentimes squashing the possession before it even ended.

As I mentioned above, with a point guard, Adebayo won’t have that playmaking burden (and neither will Butler!). Lowry will set up the 24-year-old in his spots. Lowry’s presence will help Adebayo become more aggressive — on mismatches and when opposing bigs sit a few feet off him. Per Cleaning the Glass, Adebayo shot 41 percent on long 2s last regular season. The evidence is there; he’s capable of shooting mid-range jumpers, it’s just a question on whether he wants to.

Lopez (back) will miss Thursday’s game. That said, over the course of 2020-21 and in its season-opener, Milwaukee’s become more switch heavy than it once used to be — especially on handoffs. It will be interesting to see Adebayo’s aggressiveness against the Bucks’ defensive schemes this time around.

3. Will Herro’s preseason success translate?

Hand up: I know it’s impossible to determine after one game. This will take longer — a lot longer — than a one-game sample, but Herro’s preseason was very encouraging.

By some measures — particularly from an efficiency standpoint — Herro had a down sophomore season. Though he averaged more points (15.1 to 13.5), rebounds (5.0 to 4.1) and assists (3.4 to 2.2) with a higher PER (13.3 to 12.6), his efficiency from beyond the arc decreased from 38.9 to 36.0 percent. His free-throw percentage decreased from 87.0 to 80.3 percent, while his true-shooting percentage saw a minor drop off (55.0 to 54.3 percent).

I’ve discussed in the past that Herro was far more efficient post-trade deadline, when weeks of constant trade discourse and rumors surrounding him dissipated (for the time being). Though that featured a grand sample of just 21 games plus four additional playoff games, so take that as you will, but I digress.

He outright said that he “didn’t enjoy coming into work every day” last year, though he’s in a much better place mentally — and physically — entering his third season.

His preseason reflected that. As I discussed at the beginning, he led the NBA in preseason scoring with remarkable efficiency. If that, at all, translates to the regular season — Miami will be an excellent spot.

Before Victor Oladipo returns from quadriceps surgery, Herro will have to do the heavy lifting off the bench. He will be tasked with the majority of the ball-handling duties when he’s out there with the regular bench unit. With Lowry, Miami does, however, have the luxury of staggering the Lowry-Butler-Adebayo trio throughout the game. Thus, at least one will likely be on the floor at all times, taking some pressure off the 21-year-old guard.

Regardless, Herro’s going to be tasked with putting the ball in the bucket whenever he’s on the court. He’s able to leverage some of his 3-point prowess with a crafty mid-range game plus a soft 10-foot floater and an ice cream scoop layup package when he’s inside the arc. He might not blow by defenders with rapid speed, but Herro’s going to get maneuver and slither his way to different spots on the floor to rise up — whether he’s open or otherwise.

How effective will he be in Miami’s opener against a potentially depleted backcourt? We’ll see.

4. Miami’s newfangled pace:

Since the Big 3 departed, the Heat have ranked in the bottom-third in transition frequency in five of the last six seasons, per Cleaning the Glass.

Last season, it upped its transition frequency — off live rebounds and steals — to 14.9 percent of its possessions, which ranked No. 12 leaguewide. The Heat did, however, place No. 17 in transition frequency (27.1 percent) off rebounds and have been slotted in the bottom-half of the Association in such frequency since 2013-14.

With the addition of Lowry, the Heat are expected to up its pace ten-fold. Butler dubbed Lowry’s swift pace-of-play “Kyle Chaos”.

And rightfully so. Per Cleaning the Glass, the 6-foot point guard has placed in the 88th percentile or better in on-off transition frequency in four of the last six seasons, including in the 94th percentile (plus-2.4 percent) last season. Off live rebounds, his on-off percentage upticks to plus-7.1 percent, which is in the 97th percentile.

The newfangled pace was evident in the preseason, albeit a very limited sample. Lowry was at the forefront of multiple hit-ahead passes to leakers, as well as razor sharp kickout passes to Heat shooters in transition.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, was above average at keeping opponents out of transition. It ranked No. 8 in defensive transition frequency.

Conversely, it ranked No. 23 in transition frequency allowed off rebounds (29.6 percent), though it allowed the third-fewest points per play (1.5) in such situations.

If Miami’s sturdy defense can force stops at home, I expect them to play with pace. But the question remains: How often will those opportunities arise?