Anatomy of a collapse: How the Bucks fell apart against Jimmy Butler and the Heat

The Athletic

MIAMI — With a 10-point lead and a little more than six minutes left in Game 4, Giannis Antetokounmpo worked a pick-and-roll with Brook Lopez in the middle of the floor. As Antetokounmpo came off the screen, both Bam Adebayo and Caleb Martin came out to guard him, leaving an alley for Lopez to drive to the hoop.

Antetokounmpo lobbed a pass toward the rim, and Lopez plucked the ball out of the air, finishing on the rack on top of multiple help defenders. Lopez had Antetokounmpo’s third assist in the same situation in about three minutes.

And with that assist, Antetokounmpo’s 11th of the night, the Bucks had a 12-point lead. A quiet Kaseya Center crowd was forced to wonder how the two biggest players on the floor were gracefully slicing through the heart of the Heat defense in an artistic two-man game.

But as Antetokounmpo turned to run back on defense, he pulled up limp and signaled to the Bucks bench for a timeout. After realizing he couldn’t call a timeout, Antetokounmpo signaled for a substitute before jogging back to the defense.

When Khris Middleton picked up a foul 12 seconds later, Antetokounmpo waved off a substitution sent to the scorer’s table by Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.

And while it appeared the Bucks had averted a crisis, their problems were just beginning.

Over the next three minutes, the Bucks were held scoreless as the Heat went on a 13–0 run to take a one-point lead. But it didn’t stop there. The Heat outscored the Bucks 30–13 over the final six minutes of the game and took a 3–1 series lead with a 119–114 Game 4 win. Game 5 is Wednesday in Milwaukee.

After missing Games 2 and 3 with lower back problems, Antetokounmpo was spectacular, tallying 26 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists in 38 minutes, but he couldn’t offset the impressive performance of Jimmy Butler. Butler scored 56 points on just 28 shots, leading the Heat to an improbable comeback win.

“He obviously played great,” Lopez, who had a team-high 36 points and 11 rebounds, said of Butler’s performance. “He has been brilliant in all categories for a long time. He has been aggressive. He’s just knocking down shots, shooting the 3 extremely well. There is nothing that He has not done. It’s a tough draw, but we have to keep getting better, keep making life difficult for him, one game at a time.”

The Bucs have had no answer for Butler throughout the series, but he went to a different level on Monday.

While the Bucks took Butler out and dared him to be a jump shooter in the first three games of the series, the Bucks gave one of the league’s best defenders, Jrue Holiday, the freedom to play Butler more aggressively in Game 4. Holiday was selected. Butler went full court and over the top of the screen, while also blending in under some screens. The Bucks’ point guard was handier and more physical than in previous games against Butler. Butler was unaffected.

The Bucs switched more against Butler, too, and it didn’t matter. In the first quarter, Butler went 9 of 10 from the field and scored 22 points to keep pace with the Bucks. Butler hit nine of those shots on six different defenders: three on Antetokounmpo, two on Holiday and then one each on Middleton, Bobby Portis, Joe Ingles and Lopez.

Even with Butler’s massive first quarter effort, the Bucks settled into a groove during the second and third quarters and took control of the game. Despite Butler’s 35 points through three quarters, the Bucks were still in good shape going into the fourth with an 89-78 lead.

But after that the Bucks missed repeated opportunities to close out the game and tie the series with two wins each.

In Game 4, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sat Butler for just seven of 48 minutes, but four of those seven minutes came early in the fourth quarter. After Butler left the floor, the Bucks failed to extend their lead, and only led 98-87 when Butler returned with 8:11 left.

From there, the Bucks’ mistakes became more glaring and dramatically more damaging.

Immediately following an Antetokounmpo injury scare on the Bucks’ offensive possessions, they moved away from the Antetokounmpo-Lopez middle pick-and-roll and instead opted for a side pick-and-roll with Middleton and Lopez with Middleton flowing to his right. Middleton, who frequently hit clutch shots during the Bucks’ 2021 championship run, attempted a stepback but missed a relatively open look in front of the rim. Lopez tried to save the offensive rebound for a teammate but instead started a fast break for the Heat. Butler made them pay with a pull-up jumper to cut the Bucks’ lead to eight.

After a Butler jumper, the Bucs again went to Middleton in a pick-and-roll, and he took a skip pass to Pat Connaughton for an open corner 3, but he missed the shot, and Butler was out in transition. A matchup with Middleton. Then, he got Middleton off the bounce and hit a floating lay-in plus a foul to cut the Bucks’ lead to five.

On the next possession, the Bucks went to Holliday, who tried to bully veteran point guard Kyle Lowry. Instead, Lowry stripped Holiday twice and started a fast break, which resulted in Caleb Martin hitting two free throws to cut the Bucks’ lead to three.

After Antetokounmpo missed a lay-in, the Bucks were able to force a Butler jumper, but they gave up an offensive rebound, and Martin hit a contested jumper over Antetokounmpo to cut the Bucks’ lead to just one with 3:29 left. With a timeout to use before the three-minute mark, Antetokounmpo brought the ball to the floor and prepared to call a timeout.

With Budenholzer pointing to the sideline official closest to him and the sideline official on the opposite side of the floor already two steps down the court, it looked like the Bucks would run out of time. Instead, Lowry jumped to strip the ball away from Antetokounmpo and forced a turnover that allowed Butler to race to the other end for a two-handed slam to give the Heat their first lead of the game with 3:17 left.

The Kaseya Center, which had been quiet, exploded when the Bucks had a 12-point lead moments later.

While it may feel like the end of the world for some teams, this Bucks team has been through a lot of tough games over the years. They’re battle-tested, and they responded after driving the ball up the floor and calling a timeout following Butler’s dunk.

On their first possession after the timeout, Antetokounmpo finished at the rim by Adebayo and hit his own free throw for a three-point play to take the lead, but Martin hit another 3 to put the Heat up one. After struggling offensively all night, Holiday did what he’s done so often during his 2021 title run and hit a clutch shot — this time a brutal stepback 3 — just when he thought nothing was going to happen.

Lowry fumbled the ball out of bounds on the next Heat possession, setting the stage for a clutch shot from Middleton. The Bucks ran the pick-and-roll for him, and the Heat did a poor job defending him. Lowry got caught on a Lopez screen and was late to contest Butler, who gave Middleton an open look on a pull-up 3 from the top of the key to put the Bucks up five with 1:53 left, but it was a little long and bounced over the basket.

Butler came down the other end and was fouled on a pull-up jumper to tie the score, but the Bucks answered again. This time, they reverted to a middle pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo and Lopez. Antetokounmpo found Lopez rolling down the lane and the Bucks regained the two-point lead. But Butler once again had an answer.

The defense wasn’t good enough against Butler as Holiday tried to get back into Butler’s contest by running down a screen, but it was too late.

“Jrue got that freedom and hit a shot down low,” Budenholzer said. “It’s a credit to Butler. He did a good job. Jrue exposes his butt Our boys expose their butts. A hack of a night by him, by him.”

Antetokounmpo tried to get to the rim on the other end, but Antetokounmpo didn’t get his finger roll high enough on the glass over Adebayo. The Heat settled themselves after the rebound, but Holiday decided to force Butler full-court. Holliday got caught on a screen by Lowry and didn’t catch back until Butler, who ran the floor, waited for Holliday to get close and then came back for a left-handed jumper to give the Heat a 112-109 lead. 58.2 seconds left.

After a review confirmed that Butler’s jumper was only a 2-point field goal, Antetokounmpo pushed the ball up the floor, saw Martin lose track of Holiday to stop Antetokounmpo in the middle of the floor and kick it to Holiday on the right wing. Instead of shooting an open 3, Holiday tried to drive and quickly lost control of his dribble, which stuck to the Heat and gave it to Butler to draw a foul on Middleton in transition. Butler hit two free throws to give the Heat a five-point lead with 47.6 seconds left.

The Bucks still had time to mount a comeback, but Holiday’s turnover felt like the final straw. And while the turnover was shocking on such a big stage, it felt similar to Holiday’s turnover with the game on the line against the Warriors in San Francisco where Holiday pushed the ball too hard in transition and dribbled it out of bounds.

While the Bucks came up with plenty of answers in the final six minutes, their sloppy play and lack of clinical finishing was too much to overcome. Now they head back to Milwaukee on the brink of elimination, their season one losing streak far from over – the championship run ended in the first round before it really began. They need to win three straight games, a daunting task against a Heat team they haven’t easily found. But the Bucks’ comeback story can only begin if they win Game 5.

“We’ve just got to go home and win a game,” Budenholzer said. “We talked about it in the locker room. We have to go to Milwaukee and win the game. Life is not complicated. That’s what we have to do.”

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(Photo by Giannis Antetokounmpo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

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