NBA playoffs: Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks preview
Bucks vs. Heat would qualify as a "David vs. Goliath" matchup -- except David tends to connect on only 40 percent of his stone throws while Goliath is actually a three-headed monster. In other words, welcome to 2013's most lopsided first-round series. Miami opens its 2012 title defense after compiling a regular season for the record books. The damage: 66 wins, six more than anyone else, and a 27-game winning streak that was tops in the three-point era. Poor Milwaukee, meanwhile, is the only team to qualify for the postseason with a losing record (38-44). Those records are representative: Miami boasts the league's second-best margin of victory (+7.8), trailing only the Thunder, while Milwaukee's (-1.5) ranks No. 18 overall and dead last among the 16 playoff teams. This is a one-sided matchup no matter where you turn: Miami is No. 1 on offense and No. 7 on defense while Milwaukee is No. 21 and No. 12, respectively. Miami has three All-Stars (presumptive MVP LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) and Milwaukee has zero. Miami has an astonishing amount of momentum thanks to a 37-2 close; Milwaukee is stumbling into the postseason with a 4-12 final push. The Heat also own the season series 3-1.
Consider this: Despite resting their key guys down the stretch, the Heat have lost only four games total since Jan. 15! It gets better: Miami has only lost four games to sub-.500 teams all season. (Milwaukee was one of those four teams.) Miami is capable of defeating the East's best teams at their own game: they can out-efficiency the Knicks on offense and tighten the screws against the defense-first Pacers. Beating a Bucks team that doesn't do anything particularly well -- and one that starts two guards, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, who combine to chuck up 33+ attempts per game at a 40 percent clip -- should be light work. Look for James to have his way, as he averaged 27.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists while shooting 56 percent in four games against Milwaukee this season.
Conceiving of a Milwaukee upset, a la the No. 8 Sixers over the No. 1 Bulls in 2012, starts with thoughts of horrifying and debilitating injuries to marquee Miami players (plural). Outside of those impolite thoughts, there's not much reason for hope. If the impossible were to happen, it would likely involve Ellis transforming into the player he believes himself to be, a true rival to Dwyane Wade who can score in giant numbers without needing dozens of shots to do it. Jennings also has "go off at any given moment" potential, although it's hard to believe the Heat wouldn't be able to craft an answer if either Bucks guard started to really get it going. Milwaukee's lone win over the Heat came in a low-scoring affair in which the Heat struggled from outside, got basically nothing from their bench and allowed Jennings to score 25 points on 16 shots while also conceding double-digit nights to four other Bucks players. That's the formula. If all of those factors come together again, the Bucks could steal a win. It's just incredibly unlikely the Heat would allow those conditions to occur on four occasions without Erik Spoelstra making the necessary adjustments.
There will be no more intriguing individual, outside of Miami's must-watch Big 3, of course, than Bucks center Larry Sanders, who has distinguished himself as a Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player candidate. A shot-blocking savant, Sanders isn't afraid to get posterized, which means he should get plenty of television airtime when the Heat's stars attack the hoop. The third-year center is playing big minutes for the first time this season and has yet to make a postseason appearance in his career. His tiffs with officials have resulted in ejections and technicals galore, and he was fined after a March loss to the Heat for suggesting the referees favor Miami. His heart-wrenching backstory, as laid out by Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, offers important context for his outbursts, but the playoffs bring a new level of intensity and pressure and the Heat are about as insurmountable and frustrating as an opponent can get. How will Sanders respond? Will his talents rise to the occasion? In a best-case scenario, this series has the potential to be a major coming out party for Sanders, whose blocks are often as spectacular and engaging as James' dunks. On the other end, there's also the possibility that his introduction to the postseason is a less than smooth one.
Miami in 4. The last few months have been one, long lesson from Miami to the rest of the league: We know we're better than you and we want to remove any shadow of a doubt. Look for the Heat to set the tone for future Eastern Conference playoff series by thumping the Bucks.