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Film room: Breaking down Miami’s stifling defense against Milwaukee

Miami took care of business in the season opener on both sides of the court.

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

In its highly anticipated 2021-22 season-opener, the Miami Heat walloped the Milwaukee Bucks, 137-95, totaling their most points (137) and highest margin-of-victory (plus-42) that they’ve recorded in a season-opener in franchise history.

On Thursday, the Bucks were without three of their main starters: Jrue Holiday (right heel contusion), Brook Lopez (back) and Donte DiVincenzo (ankle). They were also without arguably their most productive bench player in Bobby Portis (hamstring), as well as newly acquired wings Semi Ojeleye (calf) and Rodney Hood (foot).

Many things stood out from the blowout performance over the short-handed Bucks: The aggressiveness of Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro; the offensive flow with Kyle Lowry at the helm; the dominant rebounding on both ends of the floor.

However, one thing that stood out above others was Miami’s stifling defense against the reigning NBA champions.

The aforementioned injuries to its multiple rotational players didn’t help Milwaukee’s cause, though it still couldn’t generate any offensive rhythm behind All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, who started at the five, and Khris Middleton. The Heat’s new additions — Kyle Lowry, PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris — all heighten their defensive ceiling with brute physicality, crisp defensive rotations and oftentimes flashing tremendous cohesiveness.

As a result, the Bucks shot just 38.1 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from beyond the arc, committing 15 turnovers. Their 95 points marked the lowest since they tallied 95 points in a 14-point road loss against the Denver Nuggets on March 9, 2020.

Let’s hit the film room and dive into some of Miami’s best defensive plays below!

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Lowry to showcase one of the many traits that Miami was enthralled with when it acquired him: His peskiness.

Milwaukee’s first two possessions featured George Hill setting a back screen for Antetokounmpo, so he could establish positioning at the low block.

The first one, the clip above, begins with the back screen just below the free-throw line. Adebayo fights through Hill’s screen, but Lowry — who’s responsible for ball-denial, buying time for Adebayo’s recovery — waits for the catch and immediately dislodges the ball from Antetokounmpo’s grasp after he brings the ball down to his waist. Adebayo secured the loose ball, travelling (legally!) coast-to-coast and powering his way to Miami’s first basket of the new season.

Milwaukee’s second turnover came soon thereafter:

Jimmy Butler, the league’s leader in steals last season (2.1 spg), picks up Khris Middleton at the start of the possession in the clip above. Pat Connaughton attempts to set the screen to potentially initiate Miami’s oft-switching scheme.

Instead, Duncan Robinson looks like he’s going to hedge the empty-corner ballscreen, but it doesn’t matter. Butler pokes the ball away from behind; Tucker intercepts Middleton’s tip attempt to Grayson Allen, leading to Butler’s easy two-handed slam.

It embodied what Butler does best defensively: Find creative, unique ways to steal the basketball, regardless if he’s on- or off-the-ball.

Throughout the contest, Miami picked its spots at catapulting different double-teams at Milwaukee — particularly against its two healthy stars — with timely rotations.

The first clip above begins with Antetokounmpo already passing out of a double-team in the post.

The Greek Freak’s errant cross-court pass allows time for Tucker to rotate-and-recover; Lowry quickly rotates up from Justin Robinson to Connaughton; Butler follows suit with a similar rotation from Middleton to Robinson, and so forth.

Butler’s ridiculous instincts and anticipation rewards Miami with a near-steal, though Middleton recovers the tipped-pass and immediately re-gives it to Antetokounmpo against the 6-foot-9 Adebayo in the post. With :10 seconds left in the shot clock, Butler willingly doubles off Robinson to force the rock out of Antetokounmpo’s possession.

At that point, Lowry’s stuck with two — Robinson and Connaughton — while Tucker is in good help position with responsibility towards Allen in the corner. Antetokounmpo dishes it to Robinson followed by Lowry’s adequate closeout, resulting in a miss.

In the second clip, the possession is commenced by Thanasis Antetokoumpo’s on-ball screen, initiating the Butler-Tucker switch.

Herro dekes the strong-side double from the corner. Robinson, his man, clears out — though Herro remains on the strong-side, thus generating a 3-on-2 advantage for Milwaukee on the weak side. Middleton doesn’t see it, attempting to take Tucker off-the-dribble — arguably another mistake in itself, but I digress.

Herro’s double-team, coupled with Tucker’s smothering on-ball defense — his calling card against opposing wings — forces Middleton to pick up his dribble. Tucker’s outstretched left arm perpetuates the errant pass to Thanasis Antetokoumpo, creating yet another turnover.

As I previously noted, what was really encouraging about Miami’s defense showing was its energy and crisp rotations all around the hardwood.

Just gaze at it in the clip above.

Giannis Antetokoumnpo drives baseline. Soon thereafter, he’s presented with yet another double team after Tucker releases from Middleton with Antetokounmpo’s back turned.

Doubling off Middleton, a career 39.4 percent 3-point shooter, is always risky. That induces suboptimal results (for the defense) more often than not. Duncan Robinson helps off Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s cut, closing out on Middleton. The ball quickly swings around the perimeter with one quick defensive rotation after another.

Connaughton’s the last recipient in the corner. He attacks Herro’s hard close out with a baseline drive, but Tucker — who was doubling Giannis Antetokounmpo just moments prior, thwarts the drive by sliding and positioning his body outside the restricted area — drawing the charge.

There’s a reason why Pat Riley said Tucker was “three times what I thought he was” in his preseason presser. Just defensively, his loud communication, veteran intelligence and sturdy presence, among other qualities, helped — and will continue to help — Miami ten-fold.

“[Tucker]’s really inspiring. He’s really inspiring,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra postgame. “Heat nation was able to see this tonight, but he’s literally like this every single practice … He’s competing every single possession like it’s his last possession.

“[Tucker] takes so much pride on that side of the floor. That level of intensity comes with an extremely high intelligence level defensively so he can pick up on a lot of different schemes. He’s a great communicator. All that stuff, it activates your defense. It activates all of our guys who are really good defenders as well.”

With Miami’s new defensive personnel, there was brief coverage wrinkles on a few possessions.

With this Middleton-Allen ballscreen, instead of switching, Butler fought over the screen and stuck with Middleton. Some of that onus falls on Allen to set a better screen, but Butler was airtight regardless.

Duncan Robinson recovers on Allen’s catch. Adebayo looks to be helping at the nail on Allen’s drive, but recovers back to Antetokounmpo, who re-located to the strong-side dunkers spot. Tucker recovers and contests Connaughton’s shot well for the miss.

This clip above isn’t that big of a wrinkle; Dewayne Dedmon — Miami’s drop defender above — has been one of Miami’s only big that’s been routinely used as a drop defender on ball screen.

Nevertheless, Butler fights over Sandro Mamukelashvili’s pick. Herro stunts at the nail, leading to Jordan Nwora’s lackluster bounce pass to the corner — where Justin Robinson and Thanasis Antetokounmpo are a few feet apart from one another. Markieff Morris tips the pass and Miami gets the steal.


It’s not far fetched to say that Butler is one of the best off-ball defenders in the league. Though the clip above isn’t a typical rep of Butler’s, he’s still able to read-and-react. He recognizes Hill falling out of bounds, anticipates the pass, snatches it and feeds Adebayo for two heads-up points.

Two screening actions on two straight possessions instituted two switches — from Tucker to Adebayo.

An unbelievably sturdy 4-5 switch combo that we’ll see plenty of this year.

How can you not end with this? Or at least not mention it?

Although he technically get all-ball Max Strus shows the #HEATCulture™ hustle. He still gets credit for the block, however, which is all that matters anyways. Strus prevented the dunk and Herro capping the 40-point first quarter with a buzzer-beating 32-foot 3-pointer.

Miami isn’t going to vanquish teams — especially the defending champs — by 40-plus points each game, but the defensive signals were certainly bright and something to look forward to as the season continues.

What impressed you most about Miami’s victory? Comment below.

If you want to see more of Matt’s Heat takes and more incessant sports-centric tweets, follow him on Twitter @mph_824__.