The Milwaukee Bucks knew the Miami Heat would be a formidable opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals, so Monday’s loss in the series opener wasn’t all that surprising.
What was shocking was the way Miami did it.
The Heat won 115-104, essentially by beating the Bucks at their own game.
Miami outscored Milwaukee 42-24 in the paint and won the rebounding battle 46-34. The Heat had only one more free throw attempt than the Bucks but missed only two of 27 shots while the Bucks went 14-for-26.
And the most unsettling statistic of all: Milwaukee committed 19 turnovers, which Miami converted into 28 points.
“We have to be a little bit sharper,” swingman Khris Middleton said following the Bucks’ practice session Tuesday at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “We know every game is going to be close and every game is going to be a dog fight so each night we play them, we have to go out and match their intensity.”
The series resumes Wednesday and stopping Jimmy Butler will be paramount.
Butler set a career playoff-high with 40 points on 13 of 20 shooting, scoring 15 points in the decisive final quarter, when he hit six of eight shots, including a 3-pointer with three minutes left that put the Heat up by six.
“Jimmy Butler hit some tough shots,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “At the end of the day, you give him credit. He had a very good game. That was on us to be better defensively, all of us.”
Most of the responsibility for guarding Butler fell to Middleton and Wesley Matthews, two of the team’s better defenders. Matthews was on the bench when Butler went on his fourth-quarter tear.
Matthews played only nine minutes in the second half and was not on the floor for the final five minutes of the game.
“You’ve got to make tough decisions,” Budenholzer said. “I just went with the guys we had out there. I certainly appreciate what Wesley can do and what he did for a lot of those minutes. He’s going to be important to us going forward.”
It didn’t help matters that Milwaukee played without point guard Eric Bledsoe, who has been dealing with a strained right hamstring. Although he only averaged 11.6 points in five first-round games against the Magic, his defensive effort against Orlando’s talented backcourt shooters help free up his teammates.
Had Bledsoe been available, he possibly could have kept point guard Goran Dragic from scoring 27 points on 9 of 15 shooting.
“He’s a hell of a defender,” Middleton said. “He’s one of the best quality off-ball defenders in the league. We need him out there so, hopefully, we’ll see him out there soon.”
Bledsoe took part in practice Tuesday but is still listed as “questionable” for Game 2.
“At this stage, with (playing games) every other day and the playoffs, the practices are really very, very light,” Budenholzer said. “(Bledsoe) was able to do the 10 or 15 minutes of actual basketball that we did, and he did some individual work in addition to that.”
In the opening round of the playoff, the Bucks lost Game 1 before rattling off four straight victories to eliminate the Magic. Middleton is confident the Bucks won’t let this series slip away early.
“This is going to be a tough series and I think both teams know that,” Middleton said. “I don’t think anybody has any doubt on our team about whether we can win this next game or win this series or not. It’s going to be a tough game. We have to take it game by game and go from there.”
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