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Heat vs Bucks series preview: Six potential matchups to watch out for

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Game 1 tomorrow will set the tone for the series, but which match-ups intrigue the most?

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Miami Heat Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just hours from tip-off for Game 1 of the playoff rematch between the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks — the NBA’s first official playoff game. It will be at 2:00 p.m. EST on ESPN or Bally Sports Sun.

Both teams enter playing their best basketball of late: the Heat winning 12 of its last 16 while Milwaukee winning 11 of its last 14. This highly-anticipated series pits Miami’s star duo of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo against Milwaukee’s trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

Below, I want to detail six potential one-on-one matchups that I am keying in on throughout this series — three on each side of the ball.

Let’s get into it!


Jrue Holiday on Duncan Robinson

I expect Holiday to receive a healthy dosage of matchups against each of Miami’s backcourt threats, not just one player, which is Robinson in this case. That said, if anyone can navigate and blow up Miami’s trademarked dribble handoffs, it’s Jrue Holiday. He can also slither through multiple pin downs and staggered screens, showing the capability to attach any of Miami’s off-ball threats like gorilla glue.

I noted a couple of days ago that Robinson’s off-ball movement and gravity is so crucial to the team’s offensive success, and freeing others up. Well Holiday’s off-ball defensive presence poses a new obstacle that wasn’t there in last year’s series. He swarms passing lanes, in addition to using his quickness and strength to thwart any offensive action thrown his way. I’m interested to see how Robinson and head coach Erik Spoelstra combats Holiday’s stout defensive nature.

New Orleans Pelicans v Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler (22) of the Miami Heat drives to the basket against Jrue Holiday (11), when he was with the New Orleans Pelicans, during the second half at American Airlines Arena on November 16, 2019.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Jrue Holiday on Jimmy Butler

This might be my most intriguing matchup above all, partly because we didn’t get to see it during the regular season because Butler didn’t play in any of their three regular season meetings. He averaged 23.4 points on 53.2 percent shooting in the five playoff games against Milwaukee last season. But he’s struggled in recent memory versus Holiday, who Butler’s previously regarded as “tough” and a “hell of a player.” In 143.4 partial possessions between since 2017-18, Butler’s shot a combined 35.9 percent on 39 attempts with five turnovers against Holiday, per’s matchup tracking analysis.

It’s going to be interesting to track how often Holiday is matched up this time around against Butler, who’s coming off the best year of his career. Holiday is Mike Budenholzer’s shiny new toy, and I’m sure he can’t wait to unleash it against one of the league’s most impactful offensive players. This is exactly why Jon Horst traded multiple first-round picks for Holiday, followed by extending him for $135 million mid-way through the season. Holiday’s been everything they’ve hoped for, and more!

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game One
Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee Bucks during Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Brook Lopez on Bam Adebayo

I don’t know how often Budenholzer will opt to use Lopez on Adebayo because of the matchup problem it presents, but I expect it to start. Adebayo’s seen increased efficiency on all areas inside-the-arc from this year. Per Cleaning the Glass, Adebayo is shooting 75 percent at the rim (compared to 71 percent in 2019-20), 46 percent on short 2s (42 percent in 2019-20) and 41 percent on long 2s (25 percent in 2019-20).

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?


NBA: Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives to the basket against Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13).
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Bam Adebayo on Giannis Antetokounmpo

It’s nearly impossible to stop Antetokounmpo. All teams can do is mitigate the damage he creates on a nightly basis; there’s no such thing as a “Giannis stopper”, though some Heat fans want to believe that Adebayo is one.

Physically, he possesses the physique, quickness and length to limit Antetokounmpo’s downhill attack. Adebayo also has the IQ and instincts to anticipate, then counter his sudden movements. Erik Spoelstra will have multiple bodies defend Antetokounmpo — potentially at once — to keep him honest, as well as unlock Adebayo’s off-ball ability to roam and help.

Miami doesn’t often leave guys on one-on-one islands; it’s one of the best at creating walls, stunting at the nail and scrambling out of it (if need be). But if one matchup allowed them to do so with the multiple shooting threats on the floor, perhaps it’s this one — though it’s unlikely given that Spoelstra likes to form a wall around Antetokounmpo at all times.

Trevor Ariza on Jrue Holiday

Heading into the season, Heat free agent acquisition Avery Bradley was expected to be their primary point-of-attack defender. It didn’t pan out as anticipated, leading to Bradley getting shipped out to the Houston Rockets along with Kelly Olynyk in a last-minute deadline deal for Victor Oladipo. Oladipo, a two-way guard, suited up in just four games before injuring his right knee on a dunk — leading to season-ending right quadriceps surgery.

Enter Ariza, acquired on March 17 from the Oklahoma City Thunder, who’s filled that role. Since his arrival, he’s been tasked with defending lead guards, such as Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Terry Rozier, Coby White and Chris Paul, among others. Per, the six aforementioned guards shot a combined 25 percent (on 40 attempts) with Ariza as their primary defender in a small sample. Point is, Ariza held his own against some of the premier scoring guards across the league at the point-of-attack. He could draw the initial assignment of defending Holiday — who averaged 17.7 points on 50.3 percent shooting (39.2 3-point percentage) in his first year with Milwaukee.

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five
Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat plays defense while Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Jimmy Butler on Khris Middleton

Nobody matched up against Middleton more than Jimmy Butler in last year’s playoffs, especially after Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 injury. Butler squared off with Middleton for 90.4 partial possessions, per In such matchups, Middleton found success against the four-time All-Defensive team honoree, shooting 50 percent (on 24 attempts) and 37.5 percent from 3-point range. A season removed from recording the most efficient year of his career, the 6-foot-7 swingman is coming off another near 50-40-90 season — shooting 47.6 percent from the floor, including 41.4 percent from 3-point range and 89.8 percent from the charity stripe.

Butler, the league-leader in steals (2.1 spg), will have to have his fingerprints all over this series defensively for Miami to exit as victors. That begins with slowing down Middleton and Antetokounmpo, who Butler will see plenty of as the series takes course. But I expect Butler’s initial matchup to be Middleton with a lot of mixing-and-matching thereafter.

Which matchups are you looking out for, and why? Comment below.