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NBA

Ugly Playoff Basketball Games Are Uniquely Thrilling

Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts after scoring in overtime against Duncan Robinson #55 of the Miami Heat during Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat at Fiserv Forum on May 22, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

No one watching the first game of the proper 2021 NBA Playoffs between the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks could have called it a “good” or even “competent” game. The visiting Heat shot a woeful 36 percent from the field on Saturday, to go with 17 turnovers, while the Bucks went even colder from three: 5-for-31, for what should have been a catastrophic 16.1 percent. Both teams’ stars had moments of terrible play, and the general vibe was that of countless first round Eastern Conference matchups from years past: sloppy and ugly.

That doesn’t mean the game didn’t kick all sorts of ass in its own way, though. It was close throughout, with Miami holding a consistent lead before having to fight back repeatedly as Milwaukee threatened to pull away. In the end, the Bucks did just enough to win by 109-107, and crucially they did not immediately give up home-court advantage.

Part of the reason Miami didn’t blow Milwaukee away early, on a day where the Bucks couldn’t buy a three-pointer, is that the Heat’s two big stars had verifiable stinkers. Bam Adebayo is an excellent defender and a versatile offensive center, but he played too passively against Milwaukee, squandering a potential matchup victory for Miami. Too often, Adebayo would get the ball in the deep post and turn around looking for a pass, rather than going for his own shot. When he did put up shots, they just would not fall, partly due to him going for tougher shots than simply bullying his way to the rim. Adebayo going 4-for-15 from the floor, for only nine points, is not going to be enough for Miami to pull off the upset in this matchup for the second post-season in a row.

That’s to say nothing of how truly terrible Jimmy Butler was on Saturday. The stats are grisly enough on their own: 4-for-22 from the field, to go with six turnovers. More than that, Butler had one of his worst endgames in recent memory, with one notable exception. In the late parts of the fourth quarter and all of overtime, he seemed to revert to his worst hero-ball tendencies, chucking up contested three-pointers early in the shot clock for no apparent reason. But he did have Miami’s biggest play, tying the game with a driving lay-up past Giannis Antetokounmpo as the buzzer sounded.

Speaking of Antetokounmpo, he was mostly fine, which is a strange thing to say about someone who put up a 26-18-5 game. Yet it never felt like the two-time MVP was truly in control of the game, and his defense on Butler in that aforementioned final play made everything more difficult for Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo also finally, and perhaps unfairly, got called for a rarely seen 10-second violation on a free throw; opponents had been complaining that the Greek Freak takes too long on free throws, and the referees finally decided to call it in the last four minutes of a tight playoff game.

Antetokounmpo would have gotten killed for that violation, as rare it may be, if not for Khris Middleton, who led the Bucks with a 27-point outburst, though anything he did before the final play probably will be forgotten. With the score tied in overtime, Middleton found himself in an inch of space from mid-range and hit an incredible shot over Duncan Robinson to give Milwaukee a 1-0 series lead:

Poor Robinson, though. The 27-year-old sharpshooter kept Miami in the game with seven three-pointers, including Miami’s first nine points on a day when the team came out cold. He did the best anyone could reasonably due on Middleton’s shot, but it’s fitting that Miami’s worst defender is the one to get a front row seat to the opposing game-winner.

Through the play-in games and the first full day of the playoffs, NBA fans have been treated to some wonderful performances from the league’s best players. Jayson Tatum blew up for 50 against the Wizards in the play-in round, Luka Doncic showed why he’s going to own the league in short order as the Mavericks took a 1-0 lead over the Clippers, and LeBron James hit yet another big shot in a career of them.

Those types of games are fun as hell, and certainly the preferred type of chaos in the playoffs for most fans. But for my money, games like the Heat-Bucks morass are almost just as good. Both of these teams are strong on defense and have enough star power to keep the excitement going for as many games as this series ends up needing—and if they’re all as ugly and thrilling as Saturday’s contest, I won’t complain. When two teams play equally as bad as each other yet still manage to pull off the big shots or clutch defensive plays when needed, it just works.