As semi-final match-ups end and teams lock themselves into conference finals the NBA is beginning to heat up. Even though playoffs are a bit unorthodox this year, the teams that have shown up to the bubble have shown out, bringing more competition between some of the league’s newest stars. This week both of the Eastern Conference finals slots have been locked in with the semi-finals series coming to a close.
In one of the two series, the first-seeded Milwaukee Bucks faced off against the Miami Heat. The Bucks had the most successful regular season in the league, finishing with a 0.767 win percentage, earning them the top spot in the East while additionally having the best league-wide record of 56-17. The Bucks’ march was led by reigning league MVP forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who consistently proves he is one the league’s top players with a supporting cast of former All-Star small forward Khris Middleton and star point guard Eric Bledsoe. By all accounts, Miami’s performance throughout the regular season may have been more impressive, as they finished with a 0.603 win percentage. They were led by All-Star small forward Jimmy Butler, who had quite the crew of breakout players around him between rookie shooting guard Tyler Herro, center Bam Adebayo, forward Duncan Robinson and point guard Goran Dragic.
Most fans and commentators expected this series to be a runaway win for Milwaukee, but Miami showed out in game one, stunning the Bucks in a 115-104 victory. During the win, Butler dropped 40 points, while Dragic contributed 27 of his own. Though Antetokounmpo out-scored Butler throughout the series, averaging 27 points per game to Butler’s 23, Miami’s roster behind their star player seemed to outclass Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast. Knowing they couldn’t doubt their opponent, the Bucks came into game two with more intensity, but continued to struggle to score whenever Antetokounmpo wasn’t on the floor. The game became a late nail-biter, but late-game lockdown defense by the Heat gave them the 116-114 win and a two-game advantage in the series.
Milwaukee seemed to be getting into the swing of things in game three, maintaining a lead through the first half and headed into half time with a 7-point advantage. Just when the Bucks seemed to be getting things back on track, disaster struck, as Antetokounmpo left the game with an ankle injury after contorting it while driving to the hoop against Adebayo. Though he was slow to get up initially, Antetokounmpo took a temporary breather and headed back out onto the court to play through the pain for the sake of his team not being knocked out of the playoffs. Antetokounmpo looked slow on the return, and his teammates did not step up in the partial absence of their leader, allowing the Heat to put up 40 points in the fourth quarter while only scoring a mere 13 themselves. Abedayo was a huge factor in this contest, hauling in 16 rebounds and scoring 20 points.
During game four, Antetokounmpo surprisingly returned to play––only to re-injure his ankle in the second quarter. After aggravating the injury, it became clear he would not return. In spite of this, Middleton stepped up and reminded everyone of his former All-Star status, playing a full 48 minutes, scoring 36 points and hitting the game-winning shot in overtime. Middleton’s shot extended the series to game five, as Milwaukee finally bested the Heat 118-115. Even without Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks dominated Miami in the paint, scoring 54 of their points inside the hashes compared to the Heat’s 38. Butler and his squad almost bested the first–seeded Bucks with their efficiency outside the arch, hitting 17 of 47 attempted 3-point shots compared to Milwaukee’s 11 of 35 from distance.
Going into game five, the series seemed to be coming to a close. Antetokounmpo announced he would not be returning to the court as his excessive action on an injured ankle worried the training staff about potential long-term damage. Without their noble leader on the court, the Bucks crumbled on both sides of the floor, allowing six Heat players to score double digits as they capped off the series with a 103-94 win.
After being the most dominant team all season and boasting the most dominant player on the court, being knocked out this early in the playoffs was stunning for the Bucks. Many fans and media pundits alike had this team representing the Eastern Conference in the finals, so not even making it to the conference finals was quite the surprise. The Miami Heat now are 8-1 in the playoffs this year, and are playing with a chemistry that appears unparalleled in the remaining contenders for the championship. Butler, the leader of the team, has made the playoffs year in and year out on his previous teams, but has always been eliminated within the first two rounds. With his legacy in question, Butler makes his first conference finals ever and looks to continue leading the Heat on this run. The Heat did not enter the playoffs as a clear contender, but their depth and demonstration of efficient, selfless basketball is turning the heads of other teams.