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Miami advances with hard-fought win; Milwaukee enters summer of uncertainty

Giannis Antetokounmpo could not play, his sprained ankle not allowing him to move during warmups, but the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks would not go quietly into that good night.

Down 3-1 and fighting for their playoff lives, the Bucks got 23 points from Khris Middleton and an efficient 17 from the Greek Freak’s replacement, Donte DiVincenzo, but in the end it was just not enough.

The Miami Heat won 103-94 behind a balanced attack — Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic each had 17 points — and the Heat advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2014 (when some guy named LeBron James played for them). Miami will face either Boston or Toronto, the Celtics lead that series 3-2 with Game 6 on Wednesday night.

Milwaukee enters arguably the biggest and most uncertain off-season in franchise history.

The Bucks fought hard not to go down that road. While Milwaukee is not better without Antetokounmpo, they are different — he is not a threat as an outside shooter and his drives gave the Heat a defensive focus, to build a wall and cut him off, then chase down shooters. Without Antetokounmpo on the court, the Bucks’ ball handlers were threats to pull up and fire from three, which created more space and let Milwaukee play faster. It took time for Miami to adjust.

Milwaukee led by as many as 10 in the first quarter, but as the Heat settled down and in the second half their defense was much better. Middleton shot 3-of-15 in the second half as the Heat focused on him.

On the other end, Tyler Herro stepped up with a “how did he slip to 13th?” kind of game and finished with 14 points and was 3-of-7 from deep. Jae Crowder continued his hot shooting and had 16 points, Bam Adebayo pitched in 13.

Miami will advance to a series where they will match up well, the Heat were 2-1 against the Raptors this season and 1-2 against the Celtics (although comparing games in the pre-COVID-19 season to the bubble games is largely a waste). Jimmy Butler has been the MVP of the bubble so far, the Heat are deep and versatile, they have shooting, and Miami can defend. A trip to the Finals is possible, but first up is a few days of rest for Miami.

The Bucks are about to step into the heart of the NBA rumor mill.

Antetokounmpo is eligible for a supermax extension to his contract this offseason, and the Bucks have said they would offer it. There are few in the league as hungry for winning and validation as Antetokounmpo. After this earlier-than-expected playoff exit — where his flaws and the holes in the Bucks’ roster were exposed — there is a sense he is not going to leap at that extension. If he doesn’t sign it, Antetokounmpo becomes a free agent in the summer of 2021.

That would put pressure on the Bucks to reshape the roster — Chris Paul rumors are out there, and Mike Budenholzer could be on the hot seat — to win and keep Antetokounmpo happy. Trade rumors will fly, even though the only way the Bucks trade him is if Antetokounmpo tells them directly (this offseason or before the deadline) he absolutely will not re-sign with them.

That is not what Antetokounmpo was saying after the Game 5 loss Tuesday.

“Hopefully, we can learn from this and get better as a team and come back,” Antetokounmpo said. “And hopefully we can build a culture in Milwaukee that, for many years, we can come out and compete every single year for a championship.”

The Bucks have had the best record in the NBA two years running, but do not have a team and style that has succeeded in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo made it clear that bar is not good enough anymore, but also didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt (Milwaukee is the only home he has ever known in the United States, his family, his partner, and his son is there).

It’s going to be an interesting and intense offseason for the Bucks.

It’s going to be an interesting and intense Eastern Conference Finals for the Heat.