MIAMI — Milwaukee's roster transformation started after losing to Miami in last season's playoffs, one that made the Bucks give themselves a critical look.
So they got bigger. Tougher. More experienced.
And in the playoff rematch with the Heat, they were simply better.
Some of those new additions — Jrue Holiday, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis in particular — played huge roles for the Bucks in their first-round sweep of the Heat, one that ended Saturday and ensured that Milwaukee gets at least a full week off to prepare for an Eastern Conference semifinals matchup against either Brooklyn or Boston.
"There were a lot of adjustments to be made," Bucks center Brook Lopez said. "And all of that was for this time.
A trio of returning players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Lopez — were Milwaukee's leading scorers against Miami, averaging a combined 61 points per game. Holiday, Forbes and Portis combined to average 41 more, and Forbes was particularly good from 3-point range off the bench.
The Bucks were good. Antetokounmpo says they have to be better, and he has a plan for the next week.
"Focus on ourselves," Antetokounmpo said. "That's what we do. We focus on ourselves as much as possible. We've got a wait to see if we're going to play Brooklyn or Boston, but at the end of the day we've got a week or I don't know how long and we're going to take that time to focus on ourselves and try to get better."
The East semifinals series against either second-seeded Brooklyn or seventh-seeded Boston will start on June 5 if the Nets advance in five games; in any other scenario, the Bucks will next play on June 7.
It's the third consecutive season in which the Bucks have made the East semifinals; they lost in five games to Miami last season and beat Boston in five games in 2019 before wasting what was a 2-0 lead and falling to eventual NBA champion Toronto in the East finals.
The 2019 and 2020 Bucks carried the burden of being seeded No. 1, and both times Antetokounmpo had the target that comes when a team faces the NBA's MVP. Neither is in play this season; the Bucks are seeded third and Antetokounmpo wasn't a top-three MVP vote-getter, meaning he'll soon cede the crown to Denver's Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia's Joel Embiid or Golden State's Stephen Curry.
"We're going to be ready," Antetokounmpo said.
Unless the Celtics pull off a comeback against the Nets — Brooklyn leads that series 2-1, with Game 4 in Boston on Sunday — the Bucks won't be home again until Game 3 of the East semis.
When they get back to Milwaukee, it'll seem close to normal for the first time in 15 months.
The Bucks are raising attendance for the remainder of the playoffs; it was 9,100 for the two home games against Miami and will increase to 16,500 after approval by the league and Milwaukee's health department. The season started with no fans allowed, then went to about 250 for some games in Milwaukee, eventually to about 3,200 - and now most seats can be filled again.
"Certainly, this group's been looking forward to the playoffs," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "All the teams that are competing this time of year, they understand what it takes to win. And you've got to take it to another level, both mentally and physically. I think the group's been preparing for it. I think their focus is good. All that just is part of what makes us hopefully be prepared and have an edge and have a focus that you need this time of year."
'It's go time': 5 things to know about Milwaukee Bucks' first-round matchup with Miami Heat
No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks (46-26) vs. No. 6 Miami Heat (40-32)
Game 1: 1 p.m. Saturday, May 22, at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee; TV: ESPN
Game 2: 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 24, at Fiserv Forum; TV: TNT
Game 3: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 27, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami; TV: TNT
Game 4: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 29, at AmericanAirlines Arena; TV: TNT
Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, June 1, at Fiserv Forum
Game 6 (if necessary): Thursday, June 3, at AmericanAirlines Arena
Game 7 (if necessary): Saturday, June 5, at Fiserv Forum
Note: With the easing of coronavirus restrictions, the Bucks have increased capacity at Fiserv Forum to 50 percent, or about 9,000 fans, for the playoffs. Fans are still required to wear a face covering unless actively eating or drinking, and tickets are being sold in socially distanced pods.
MILWAUKEE'S EXTREME MAKEOVER
MILWAUKEE'S EXTREME MAKEOVER
While this series in many ways will serve as a re-match of last season's second-round showdown, there are several new faces this time around — especially in Milwaukee.
Only five Bucks players who appeared against the Heat last year are back this time around: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo.
There's one particular addition to this year's roster who has the Bucks feeling good about their chances of advancing past the Heat: Jrue Holiday.
The 30-year-old point guard, acquired by the Bucks in an offseason trade, is seen as a major upgrade over Eric Bledsoe, who struggled in the playoffs the past two seasons.
A defensive stalwart who prides himself on guarding the opposing team's best player, Holiday finished his first season in Milwaukee averaging 17.7 points, 6.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from three-point range in 59 games.
The Bucks also found some outside shooting help for their bench, with new additions Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes both finishing the regular season among the league's top five most accurate three-point shooters. Portis, a 6-foot-10 bruiser, finished third in the NBA at 47.1 percent from long range while averaging 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds over 66 games. Forbes, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, finished fourth at 45.2 percent from three-point range while averaging 10.0 points in 70 appearances.
MIAMI HEAT WAVE
MIAMI HEAT WAVE
The Heat didn't let a pair of lengthy mid-season losing streaks throw them off their path to the playoffs, finishing the final month of the season on fire. Winners of 12 of their final 16 games, the Heat are entering the playoffs with plenty of confidence.
Leading scorer Jimmy Butler, who saw his scoring average creep up to 21.5 points a game this season, exuded that confidence when speaking to reporters ahead of the playoffs.
“I think I’m stupidly locked in, I can tell you that,” Butler said Thursday, “the amount of film that I watch, the amount of time that I spend on the court working on my game, trying to figure out where everybody’s going to be on the floor.”
Despite Butler missing all three regular-season matchups between Milwaukee and Miami, both sides know his play will have a major impact on the series just as it did last season, when he averaged 23.4 points as Miami took the series 4-1.
BUD UNDER PRESSURE
BUD UNDER PRESSURE
The Bucks are standing behind coach Mike Budenholzer as he leads the team to the playoffs for the third straight season. But don't expect that loyalty to last too long if Milwaukee falls to Miami again.
Budenholzer, who guided Milwaukee to the best record in the NBA his first two years on the job before finishing seventh in the league this season, has yet to take a team past the conference finals as a head coach.
In his first season in Milwaukee, Budenholzer and the Bucks took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals before the Toronto Raptors stormed back to take the next four games en route to the NBA title.
While last season's second-round loss to the Heat could be written off as a product of the league's restrictive coronavirus bubble, a loss this year would expose a concerning pattern.
In his first head coaching job, Budenholzer led the Atlanta Hawks to the playoffs in the first four years on the job before missing out in his final season in Atlanta. But despite the consistency he has yet to break into the NBA Finals.
After being a part of four championship teams in his 17 seasons working as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs under legendary coach Gregg Popovich, Budenholzer surely knows what it takes to get the job done.
Whether or not he is able to get it done this year will go a long way to determining his future in Milwaukee.
GIANNIS, GIANNIS, GIANNIS!
GIANNIS, GIANNIS, GIANNIS!
Despite failing to make the shortlist for the league's Most Valuable Player award this season after taking home the hardware the previous two seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo is unquestionably the most important player in this series.
While still putting up numbers that would be impressive for most players — 21.8 points, 11 rebounds and 5.3 assists — Antetokounmpo was clearly frustrated by Miami's defensive approach in last year's matchup.
Able to create a wall between Antetokounmpo and the basket, the Heat regularly forced the MVP into tough situations on the offensive end.
While Milwaukee has overhauled its roster to give Antetokounmpo plenty of options to pass the ball to on the perimeter, the Bucks will need him to be his usually dominant self if they hope to get past the Heat and make a deep run.
Even if he doesn't put much stake in Milwaukee going 2-1 against Miami this season, Antetokoumpo feels the Bucks set the groundwork for postseason success during the regular season.
"I think overall it was a good season," Antetokounmpo said Thursday. "We built great habits, we enjoyed it, and now it's go time."
Antetokounmpo knows the success of the team's preparations and adjustments this season will ultimately be judged by how well they perform on the court.
"I'm in a good place mentally, physically, and now the result is what's gonna determine that," Antetokounmpo said. "But I can't worry about that. You know, if I make the shots, yeah I was ready; if I miss the shots, no I wasn't ready. I don't worry about that."