The last time we saw the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, they were getting bullied and manhandled by a Miami Heat team that would eventually make the 2020 NBA Finals.
Maybe the Bucks’ championship veneer was merely a facade, maybe this unprecedented pandemic (and the NBA’s indefinite suspension) knocked them off their game, or maybe they weren’t ever truly ready for the bright lights and big stage. But during their short-lived 2020 playoff run, they lost a game to the Orlando Magic in the first round and fell behind 3-0 to the Heat before getting put out of their misery in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Heat would win that series 4-1—a gentleman’s sweep in the cruelest sense—and never looked back, while the Bucks were demoralized on the biggest stage and faced an uncertain future.
“Well, the 4½-month layoff for our team wasn’t any different than any of the other teams that came here to Orlando to compete and try and be the last team standing,” coach Mike Budenholzer said at the time. “We had a heck of a year, through March 11, a lot of good things, a lot of positives and when we had our moments here in Orlando. Ultimately, we weren’t able to get it done. Everybody’s dealing with the same circumstances.”
What a difference a year makes.
On Monday night, two days removed from locking horns with Miami and emerging victorious in an overtime thriller, Milwaukee turned up the heat (no pun intended) even more in the second game of their series. They came out the gate at a blistering pace, knocking down 10 treys and dropping 46 points in the first quarter alone—and it only got uglier from there.
“It’s just how the game goes,” Bucks guard Bryn Forbes said. “It ebbs and flows. Some games you’re open a lot more. Some games you aren’t. Tonight I think we moved the ball great and had a lot of open shots.”
That’s one way to put it.
By halftime, the score was 78-51, setting a new record for the highest first-half point total in playoff franchise history.
“They made a lot of shots, but we didn’t make anything difficult on them or take anything away,” said Miami’s Jimmy Butler, who finished the game with 10 points.
When the dust finally cleared, the final score was gruesome: 132-98. Yes, it was a dominant offensive showing, but the Bucks’ crippling defense sparked their merciless, offensive assault. Miami got mauled in transition and while trying to execute their half-court offense, and every stop helped the Bucks put easy points on the board. And if the Heat tried to counter with disruptive double-teams, the Bucks made them pay by finding the open man.
“Defense had something to do with it,” Forbes said. “We were getting big stops and pushing it in transition and just finding shots.”
With Monday’s loss dropping them to 0-2 in their series, the Heat find themselves in the exact opposite position they were in just a year ago when they were slapping around the Bucks and shaking them down for lunch money. It’s not an insurmountable hole, but one more loss could put the series out of reach.
“I don’t think we need to give ourselves a pep talk,” Miami’s Bam Adebayo said. “We’re grown men. At the end of the day, we are down 2-0. We know what we’ve got to do.”
They do. The question is, will they be able to execute against a Bucks team that’s bolstered by key offseason additions like Jrue Holiday, battle-tested after playoff failure after playoff failure, and more hungry than ever before?
“The bright side is, I don’t think we can play any worse,” Butler said.
For Miami’s sake, I hope he’s right.
The Heat will try to win their first game of the series when they host the Bucks in Game 3 on Thursday night.