Seven months after advancing to the 2020 NBA finals, the Miami Heat are one loss away from elimination in this year's playoffs after a resounding 113-84 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night in Miami.
For the second consecutive game, the Bucks led from the opening minutes until the final buzzer, building leads of more than 30 points. It's a complete reversal from when these teams met in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, when the Heat bludgeoned the top-seeded Bucks in a 4-1 series victory.
"[I'm most surprised by] just how fast it got out of hand," Heat wingman Jimmy Butler said. "We've got to pick who we want to be -- be physical, make things much tougher. Then you've got to live with the result."
The Heat's offensive production this series has been anemic. Their 93.2 points per 100 possessions through three games would be the lowest total for a playoff team since the battered 2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies, without Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, posted an 89.3 offensive rating while being swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
"The rhythm is off," Heat point guard Goran Dragic said. "It's way off. We lose our confidence. We still have one game left."
From the outset of the series, the Bucks' defense has bottled up the Heat, yielding lower-percentage, midrange shots while focusing their effort on the interior. The Bucks' length, particularly Giannis Antetokounmpo and center Brook Lopez, has limited Miami's penetration. Heat big man Bam Adebayo is averaging only 0.74 points per play when guarded by Lopez. Overall, the Heat were only 2-for-8 in the paint on Thursday when Lopez was the primary rim protector, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Butler, who shined when the Heat ousted the Bucks last season, has struggled to find opportunities. When he has, he has struggled to convert. His true shooting percentage for the series is a scant 40.4. Among the Heat's rotation players, only Trevor Ariza has posted a lower mark. Overall in the series, Butler is averaging 15.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and six assists per game.
Antetokounmpo claimed the assignment of covering Butler defensively for the series, a matchup the Bucks opted against in last season's series. In keeping with the Bucks' blueprint, Antetokounmpo has strategically offered Butler a modicum of space to shoot jumpers, while cutting off driving lanes.
"We set the tone early in the game," Antetokounmpo said. "We knew how important this game was. We came out. We were keeping guys in front. We were rebounding the ball. We set the tone defensively."
To bolster their prospects in the playoffs, where they've been disappointed in the ultimate outcome each of the past two years, the Bucks acquired point guard Jrue Holiday during the offseason. Holiday has delivered on expectations in his first series with the team, averaging 16.7 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
"Jrue's the most underrated player in the NBA by far," Milwaukee big man P.J. Tucker said. "People don't understand how good he is. I didn't understand how good he is until I played with him. He gets it, and he is the quietest dog to ever play with in your life."
The unassuming Holiday has stabilized and organized a Bucks offense whose flow could get gummy during previous playoff runs. Milwaukee has rung up a sizzling effective field goal percentage of 87.5% off passes from Holiday, and those passes have led to 27 uncontested field goal attempts for his teammates. Holiday has scored or assisted on 127 points over the three games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The outcome on Tuesday night wasn't entirely positive for Milwaukee. Bucks starting shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo exited in the second quarter with a left foot contusion and did not return. DiVincenzo will be re-evaluated by Bucks medical staff on Friday morning.
On Saturday in Miami, the Heat will try to stave off elimination and begin the journey no NBA team has ever made successfully -- bouncing back from a 3-0 deficit to win the series.
"We've got to figure out ways to be better tomorrow," Butler said. "You're not too worried about what history says, and all of that good stuff. But we've got our work cut out for us."