The Milwaukee Bucks locked up the best record in the NBA with a win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, meaning they can now focus on the playoffs. The only problem is not knowing which team will greet them at Fiserv Forum late next week.
Here’s a look at the four strongest possible foes.
When will the Bucks begin play in the playoffs?
The earliest game could be Saturday, April 15 (but it will almost certainly be April 16), and the first two games of the opening series will be held in Milwaukee at Fiserv Forum.
How does the play-in tournament work?
The format was adopted for the first time last season.
The seventh and eighth seeds in the NBA playoffs for each conference are determined by winners in the play-in series. The Bucks will draw the eighth seed since they have locked up the No. 1 seed in the East.
On Tuesday, April 11, teams that finished No. 7 and No. 8 in the regular season standings will square off in each conference, and the winner will get designated as the seventh-seed for the playoffs. That team will get paired with the second-seed in each conference for a first-round, seven-game series (that’ll be Boston in the East). The loser of the game must win a do-or-die game three days later to make the playoffs.
On Wednesday, April 12, the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds in each conference will meet. The loser will be eliminated from the postseason, and the winner will advance to the do-or-die game two days later.
On Friday, April 14, the losers of the first games and the winners of the second games will meet. The loser will be eliminated, and the winner will get the eighth seed in the postseason. In the East, that team will face the Bucks.
Though the “regular” portion of the playoffs begin the next day, both teams that earned the eighth seed in 2022 were afforded (logically) a day of rest and opened their series two days after clinching a berth. Common sense tells you the Bucks will begin play Sunday, April 16.
Which team is the Bucks’ most likely opponent in the first round of the playoffs?
Since the Bucks could face any one of the four teams in the play-in series, they won’t know their opponent until two days before their series begins (though they’ll know it’s one of two teams by that point).
On paper, the likeliest foe is the Atlanta Hawks, a team that entered Thursday with the No. 8 spot in the standings, one game ahead of the Raptors (but owning the tiebreaker between the two teams with two games left). If everything held according to standings, the Hawks would lose the first game to the seventh-place Heat and defeat either the Raptors or Bulls for the eighth spot. But, of course, in the context of single-game outcomes, anything is possible.
Here’s what to know about the possible first-round foes, from most likely to least likely:
Record (through Wednesday): 41-39
Rank in East: No. 8
Leading scorer: Trae Young (26.2 ppg)
Coach: Quin Snyder
Against Bucks this year: 2-2 (Bucks 123, Hawks 115 on Oct. 29; Hawks 117, Bucks 98 on Nov. 7; Hawks 121, Bucks 106 on Nov. 14; Bucks 114, Hawks 105 on Jan. 11). Khris Middleton did not play in any of the four games. Trae Young did not play for the Hawks in one win and one loss.
Playoff history: Bucks beat the Hawks in 2021 conference finals, 4-2; Hawks beat the Bucks in 2010 first round, 4-3; Bucks beat the Hawks in 1989 first round, 3-2; Hawks beat the Bucks in 1988 first round, 3-2; Bucks beat the Hawks in 1984 first round, 3-2.
As you can see, these teams have had some wildly competitive games over the years, most recently in the Eastern Conference Finals when the Bucks won the 2021 title. The 2010 “Fear the Deer” team took favored Atlanta to the wire in 2010, and every battle in the 1980s when the maximum allotment of games.
The Hawks have proven pesky this year for the Bucks, and Young (who averages 10.0 assists per game along with 26.2 points) is one of the league’s stars. He and Dejounte Murray (20.5 ppg) have been healthy most of the season, and De’Andre Hunter (15.4 points) is a tough third option that Milwaukee never had to deal with in 2021 because he was injured.
There’s also the great what-if with Bogdan Bogdanović, a player Milwaukee thought it had traded for prior to 2021 before the deal fell apart and Milwaukee was hit with a tampering penalty. John Collins (13.0 points, 6.5 rebounds) and Clint Capela (12.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks) also figure heavily into the equation.
The Hawks are seventh in the league in offensive rating and are among the best teams in the league at taking care of the basketball (12.9 turnovers per game, third in NBA). But they’re 21st in the league in three-point percentage (35.4%) and don’t shoot it much, anyway. They also have the 22nd best defensive rating.
Nicolet High School alumnus Jalen Johnson gets 14.8 minutes per game for the Hawks and scores 5.5 points per contest.
The Heat has won three of four meetings between the two squads this year if the standings hold and the two teams meet in the first play-in game.
Record (through Wednesday): 42-37
Rank in East: No. 7
Leading scorer: Jimmy Butler (22.9 ppg)
Coach: Erik Spoelstra
Against Bucks this year: 2-2 (Bucks 127, Heat 99 on Feb. 24; Bucks 123, Heat 115 on Feb. 4; Heat 111, Bucks 95 on Jan. 14; Heat 108, Bucks 102 on Jan. 12). The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in both losses, but the Heat’s Tyler Herro did not play in those games, either.
Playoff history: Bucks beat the Heat in 2021 first round, 4-0; Heat beat the Bucks in 2020 conference semifinals, 4-1; Heat beat the Bucks in 2013 first round, 4-0.
The Bucks and Heat have some illustrious playoff history, with a first-round series win en route to the 2021 title (starting with a Khris Middleton buzzer-beater in overtime), one year after the Bucks suffered a humbling defeat to the Heat as the No. 1 seed in the “bubble” playoffs in Orlando. In 2013, top-seeded Miami made quick work of the Bucks, but Brandon Jennings confidently expressed that his team would win in six games, a sentiment that became cemented in Bucks lore.
The Heat held the top seed in last year’s playoffs before falling to Boston in the conference finals and returned 13 players from that roster, but still, they’ve taken a step back. The fourth-best team in the NBA by defensive rating last year fell to ninth this year (and have particularly struggled since the all-star break). Teams are shooting 37% from three-point range, which ranks Miami 23rd in the league.
On the other end, the team has faced some regression in its three-point shooting. After shooting 37.9% last year to lead the league, the Heat has fallen way off the map to 27th at 34.1%. The team’s offensive rating ranked it 10th last year; it’s 25th now.
The usual suspects are still there: Marquette alumnus Jimmy Butler leads the team with 22.9 points per game, and Herro, a Whitnall High School graduate, moved to the starting lineup this year after winning last year’s NBA sixth man of the year, and he’s scoring 20.3 points per game. Bam Adebayo adds 20.7, brings in 9.3 rebounds and has historically been a very tough defender to deal with.
But after that, the team isn’t seeing near the production from others such as Max Strus, Kyle Lowry, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson, the latter of whom has become an afterthought down to 33.5% shooting from deep after hitting 45, 41 and 37% the last three years.
Record (through Wednesday): 40-40
Rank in East: No. 9
Leading scorer: Pascal Siakam (24.3 ppg)
Coach: Nick Nurse
Against Bucks this year: 0-3 (Bucks 104, Raptors 101 on Jan. 4; Bucks 130, Raptors 122 on Jan. 17; Bucks 118, Raptors 111 on March 19; game to be played April 9) The Bucks were without Khris Middleton in two of the three meetings.
Playoff history: Raptors beat the Bucks in 2019 conference finals, 4-2; Raptors beat the Bucks in 2017 first round, 4-2
Bucks fans won’t easily forget Fred VanVleet’s excellent performance off the bench in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019, as he and Siakam both keyed a heartbreaking outcome for Milwaukee when the Raptors went on to win the NBA championship. VanVleet remains a problem at 19.5 points per game, and Siakam leads the team in scoring and sits second in rebounding (7.9) and assists (5.9 behind VanVleet’s 7.2).
This is the best team in the league at taking care of the basketball, and also a team capable of limiting shots (with a 12th-ranked offensive rating and 11th-ranked defensive rating). But the Raptors don’t shoot the ball well, with a 33.6% mark from three that ranks 28th in the league and an overall percentage of 45.8% that ranks 26th. Meanwhile, opponents shoot it well (49%), even if opportunities are fewer thanks to the team’s strengths of steals and offensive rebounding.
Record (through Wednesday): 38-42
Rank in East: No. 10
Leading scorer: Zach LaVine (24.9 ppg)
Coach: Billy Donovan
Against Bucks this year: 2-2 (Bulls 118, Bucks 113 on Nov. 23; Bulls 119, Bucks 113 on Dec. 28; Bucks 112, Bulls 100 on Feb. 16; Bucks 105, Bulls 92 on April 5). The Bucks only had Khris Middleton for 8 minutes in the four games combined (all in the final meeting). Giannis didn’t play in the final win and played nine minutes in February win.
Playoff history: Bucks beat the Bulls in 2022 first round, 4-1; Bulls beat the Bucks in 2015 first round, 4-2; Bulls beat the Bucks in 1990 first round, 3-1; Bucks beat the Bulls in 1985 first round, 3-1; Bucks beat the Bulls in 1974 first round, 4-0.
The Bucks overcame a slow start in last year’s playoffs before prevailing in four lopsided wins against a Bulls team that has many of the same top players, a core that’s been healthy most of the year. LaVine (24.9 ppg), DeMar DeRozan (24.7), Nikola Vučević (17.7) and Patrick Williams (10.1) all hit double figures, with Coby White (9.5) coming off the bench. Vučević is a force, with 11.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while shooting 59.4% from the floor, and he’s started all 80 games this season for Chicago.
It’s a good shooting team overall, with a 49.1% field-goal mark third-best in the league. But the Bulls are actually better on defense (fifth-best defensive rating comared to 23rd on offense). The Bulls don’t take many shots from deep (30th in the league at 10.5 makes and 28.8 attempts per game) and are fortunate with their losing record that the play-in format embraces as many as 10 teams per league. They’ve safely clinched a spot in the series, more than three games better than the Magic.
One potential longshot: Brooklyn Nets
It’s possible Brooklyn could still fall to the No. 7 spot in the East, but the Nets’ magic number to secure a top-six spot is one, with two games left against the Magic and 76ers. Miami would also need to win its last three against Philadelphia, Washington and Orlando to bypass Brooklyn. And then Brooklyn would need to lose its play-in game before winning the second to get here.
The Nets, of course, have undergone a transformation in recent years and this year sent stars Kyrie Irving (Dallas) and Kevin Durant (Phoenix) to the Western Conference while rebuilding under coach Jacque Vaughn, who was promoted to replace Steve Nash early in the season.
Mikal Bridges leads the team with 27.4 points per game since he came from Phoenix in the Durant trade, and Spencer Dinwiddie adds 16.9 per game since coming back to the Nets from Dallas. Cameron Johnson (16.5 ppg) is another nice ex-Sun for the Nets to build around. Ben Simmons is also still around, but he hasn’t played since February and has been ruled out for the year with a nerve impingement.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Who are Bucks’ possible 2023 first-round NBA playoff matchups?