A week from now, they likely will get the opportunity to show where they stand in the teams’ matchup with their leading man.
With Saturday night’s 122-108 loss to the Bucks at Fiserv Forum, a game Butler missed with a sore back, the Heat set up a likely Nos. 3-6 first-round playoff matchup against the Bucks.
The Heat would be locked into the No. 6 Eastern Conference seed if the New York Knicks defeat the Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoon. The Bucks would be locked into No. 3 if the Brooklyn Nets claim the No. 2 seed Sunday with a home victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Heat defeated the Bucks 4-1 in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals. That series came with Giannis Antetokounmpo dealing with a severe ankle sprain and with the games played in the neutral setting of the pandemic quarantine bubble at Disney World. This time, the Bucks will have home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series.
Saturday, the Bucks led 44-28 at the end of the first period, moved up by 24 in the second period and that basically was it, despite the Heat rallying within 10 early in the third period.
The Heat got a season-high 31 points from Kendrick Nunn, his fourth career 30-point game, as well as 17 from Duncan Robinson and 17 from Goran Dragic, who passed Tim Hardaway for eighth on the Heat’s all-time scoring list.
There also were five points on 2-of-9 shooting, eight rebounds and eight assists from Bam Adebayo, whose career-best streak of 55 consecutive games scoring in double figures came to an end.
The Heat’s 22 3-pointers were a season high and tied the franchise record, only the sixth time in their 33 seasons that had 20 or more, as they reached 100 points for a franchise-record 17th consecutive game. The previous record of 16 in a row was set in 2017.
Not much was needed by the Bucks from Antetokounmpo, who closed with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Five Degrees of Heat from Saturday’s game:
1. The seeding scene: With the loss, the Heat were eliminated from contention for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round.
The only way for the Heat to avoid No. 6 would be a Celtics team that is prioritizing Tuesday’s play-in game winning in New York, in a game that has no impact on the standings for Boston. The Celtics are expected to solely utilize end-of-bench players.
For the Bucks not to be the opponent of a No. 6 Heat, the Nets would have to lose at home to the lottery-bound Cavaliers and then the Bucks would have to win a Sunday night road game against the Chicago Bulls. In that case, the Heat would face the Nets in the first round.
Should the Knicks lose to the Celtics and the Heat win Sunday in Detroit, the Heat would face the Atlanta Hawks in the first round as the road team.
2. Seeding games: With the opportunity to maneuver to safely avoid a potential first-round matchup against the Heat, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said pregame that you don’t tempt the playoff fates with such chicanery.
“Whoever we get, we get,” he said. “And we’ve got to be ready to play. The East is loaded with great teams, great players, great coaches. It just doesn’t make any sense to try and manipulate or do something, at least from our vantage point.”
3. Butler out: Butler missed his 19th game of the season, this one due to lower-back tightness. The decision was made less than an hour before tipoff, making him absent from all three Heat games against the Bucks this season.
In order to keep the rest of the rotation in place, Nemanja Bjelica went from the end of the bench to his first start with the Heat, giving the Heat their 25th lineup of the season.
It was Bjelica’s first action since April 26 and only his second action since April 16.
He closed with 11 points, four rebounds and four assists.
4. Lost at start: The Heat fell behind by 17 in the first quarter, allowing the Bucks to shoot 70.8% from the field over the opening 12 minutes.
It wasn’t a matter of early individual dominance by Milwaukee, with six Bucks scoring six or more in the first period, a quarter the Bucks played without a turnover.
All nine Heat players who saw action in the first quarter finished minus-6 or worse.
The Bucks outscored the Heat 22-6 in the paint in the opening period.
5. Nunn sense: Like Butler, Nunn was listed as questionable until shortly before halftime, in his case with a sore left calf.
Nunn, however, remained in the starting lineup and was the only productive Heat player early, closing the opening period with 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting and up to 16 points by halftime.
He finished 13 of 18 from the field and 4 of 5 on 3-pointers.