Even Amid Their Struggles, the Bucks Just Proved the Eastern Conference Still Goes Through Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks have traveled a bumpy road thus far in 2021-22 as they attempt to defend their NBA Championship. Injuries have piled up, new faces have come and gone, and struggles from key players have prevented them from dominating the regular season the way they have the past few years.

But that dominance has still flashed at times, especially in a March 2 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat.

The Bucks used the same recipe that led to the franchise’s first championship since 1971 to prove the path to the NBA Finals still runs through Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Bucks used a late surge to beat the Heat

It took a Jrue Holiday runner that banked in off the glass, but Milwaukee outscored Miami 27-22 in the fourth quarter to grab a 120-119 win on March 2.

The Heat were on fire (excuse the obvious pun) from every spot on the floor for the majority of the night, especially from three, and it took every effort the Bucks had to eke out the one-point win.

Milwaukee came alive late, closing the game on a 21-6 run.

“We’ve done it before,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said of the comeback via ESPN. “We did it against Boston. We were down 13 in the Christmas game (with five minutes left) and came back and won the game.”

Miami had won four in a row going in and eight of its last 10 and had moved into first place in the Eastern Conference.

But the Bucks showed when they’re at their best, the defending champs are still the team to beat.

The Bucks beat Miami with the same formula they used to win the 2021 NBA Championship

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks just proved the NBA's Eastern Conference still goes through them.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate during player introductions prior to a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. | Jason Miller/Getty Images

Milwaukee had to battle in almost every series on their way to the 2021 title. Its seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets was the best series of the postseason. The Bucks even trailed the Phoenix Suns 2-0 in the Finals.

But the team responded to each challenge, just as it did against the Heat. And they did so Wednesday with the same recipe.

According to StatMuse, Milwaukee had the best defensive rating in the 2021 postseason at 107.6. The Bucks weren’t No. 1 in defense during the regular season, but they tightened up when it mattered most.

Miami shot 47.7% from three as a team in Wednesday night’s loss. The Heat knocked down 21 three-pointers.

Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson each hit five from deep, and Tyler Herro was 6-of-10 from behind the arc on the way to scoring a game-high 30 points.

But just like last year’s postseason, Milwaukee clamped down on the Heat late when it mattered. Per CBSSports, Miami had more turnovers (four) than made field goals (three) in the final seven minutes. Zero of those 21 threes came during that stretch, and Herro had two points and three turnovers.

Holiday, Giannis, and Khris Middleton carried the load on the offensive end — again, just like they did during last year’s playoffs.

K-Mid averaged more than 23 points, seven rebounds, and five assists over all 23 games in the 2021 postseason. Holiday averaged 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 8.7 assists, and 1.7 steals.

Antetokounmpo missed two games but still averaged more than 30 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists.

Giannis had 28 points and 17 rebounds in the win over Miami, Middleton scored 26, and Holiday had 25 to go along with 11 assists.

It was the same formula the Bucks used to win the 2021 NBA Championship — dominant defense when it mattered and an offensive onslaught by their Big Three. It all culminated in a win over the team sitting atop a crowded East.

The new-look 76ers loom, but the East still goes through the Cream City

“We can’t really dwell on this win,” said Holiday via ESPN. “We accept it and we love it, but these games are not stopping.”

“We gotta defend,” Giannis said via CBSSports. “We can make as many good decisions in 48 minutes as we can, but if we don’t defend it’s gonna be a tough night, a long night. When we defend we are at our best.”

The Bucks proved, come crunch time, they’re still the same team that won last year’s NBA title. Like Holiday and Antetokounmpo said post-game, it starts with defense. But those two, along with Khash, need to lead the way offensively as well, just as they did in the win over Miami.

Every team in the league — including the James Harden-Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers, who are the talk of the town and have looked nearly unstoppable since they came together — still has to knock off Milwaukee if they hope to win a championship.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.

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