Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra’s smart game-planning has been a huge advantage in its series against the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA playoffs.
The Miami Heat are up 2-0 in against the first seeded Milwaukee Bucks. They need to win twice more to earn an Eastern Conference Finals berth, a height that no one saw them reaching when they retooled their roster last offseason.
Several of the Heat’s newcomers have been impactful in Miami’s two victories against the Eastern Conference’s best team but one of the longest-tenured people in the Heat organization deserves credit as well: head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Miami’s two-time championship-winning coach has proven to be a cut above the rest yet again. The culture he fosters in the Heat organization pays dividends, attracting stars like Jimmy Butler and developing guys with few, if any, expectations to be big-time contributors at the NBA level into key starters (see: Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson).
While the play on the court is always the most important aspect of the game, coaching makes a tremendous difference, and it’s showing in this series. Spoelstra has run circles around Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer. Spo’s decisions have put the Miami Heat in a prime position to take the series while Bud’s have cost his team momentum and possibly the outcome of games.
For one, Spoelstra has managed his rotations better than Budenholzer, who still has a reluctance to play his best players through the entirety of crunch time.
Spoelstra has made minimal substitutions near the end of the fourth quarter. By roughly half-way through the final period, Spo has his key players in for the remainder of the game. Budenholzer has struggled with this.
With 5:06 left in Game 2, Middleton picked up his 5th foul. He was subbed out for Wes Matthews and subbed back in with 3:32 left. In that time, Matthews committed a turnover and two fouls, one of which was a shooting foul on Jimmy Butler, who made both free throws, extending the Heat’s lead to eight.
The absence of Eric Bledsoe in Game 1 doesn’t excuse some of Budenholzer’s rotation decisions. Pat Connaughton receiving 25 minutes in Game 1 and Marvin Williams receiving 21 minutes in Game 2 are huge lapses in judgment by last season’s Coach of the Year.
Erik Spoelstra has provided an edge for the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs
Spoelstra has also been better at finding and utilizing good lineups for the Miami Heat. Seven of his eight three-man groups with the most playing time have a positive net rating, with the one other being a zero, per Stats.NBA.com.
Three of Budenholzer’s top five three-man groups have a negative net rating. Additionally, the five-man lineup of George Hill, Matthews, Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Marvin Williams, which Budenholzer has given the second most playing time to, has a ghastly net rating of -42.8.
Sometimes, it seems like Coach Bud is yearning to get back to his days coaching the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, a team with a deep bench that didn’t have a single player average 33 minutes per game during the regular season.
Another key decision is each team’s defensive matchups. Although Bam Adebayo is the best Giannis stopper in the league, he’s been tasked with guarding Brook Lopez. Spoelstra has opted for trade-deadline acquisition Jae Crowder to matchup on Giannis instead.
The strategy has worked. The bulky, aggressive Crowder has made life tough for Antetokounmpo. The effort to contain the Greek Freak is hardly a one-man operation, though. Following the blueprint laid out by the Toronto Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat have done a great job forming a wall to halt Giannis’ penetration into the paint.
Clamping down on Giannis has a tradeoff: it has allowed Middleton (25.5 points) and Brook Lopez (20.0 points on 72.2 percent field goal shooting and 63.3 percent from deep) to light it up. However, it hasn’t been enough for Milwaukee to win a game yet against the Heat in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Spoelstra is betting on anyone but the Greek Freak to beat them, and that bet has paid off twice.
The challenge for Mike Budenholzer
Admittedly, Budenholzer has made a similar decision, using Antetokounmpo as an off-ball presence rather than matching him up against the primary assignments of Butler or Adebayo, who have mostly been covered by Matthews and Lopez, respectively. The recently-named Defensive Player of the Year has spent most of his time on Crowder rather than one of the two Miami All-Stars.
Even as the fourth quarter of Game 1 wound down, as Butler got bucket after bucket, Budenholzer opted for Pat Connaughton and Khris Middleton to guard him. Butler finished with 15 points in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo has answered post-game questions about this scheme by insisting that he’s just following Coach Bud’s game plan.
Spoelstra has taken advantage of Milwaukee’s defense. On this crunch time possession, Dragic screens for Butler, putting a much inferior defender in George Hill on him. Antetokounmpo watches from the corner, and Butler goes to work without being interfered by the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year.
The Heat have dictated the pace in this series, too. Milwaukee played with a pace of 105.1, the highest mark in the league, during the regular season. Through the first two games, the teams have played with paces of 96.7 in the first game and 96.0 in the next.
The Heat having control of this series is due to their cohesiveness and resilience. Spoelstra, the man in charge of it all, has conducted his orchestra beautifully. The fifth-seeded Heat are approaching a bigger stage despite facing the league’s most dominant team this season.
No one would have imagined the Heat being up 2-0 against the top seed in the playoffs when the season – heck, maybe even the series – started. Spoelstra has prepared the Heat to put up a fight, and it has positioned the Miami Heat within reach of a bid to the Eastern Conference Finals in the NBA playoffs.