Through five games, the Bucks have proven, if nothing else, to be a fairly resilient bunch. Milwaukee sits at 2-3, an impressive record considering the rash of injuries and dreadfully slow starts that have marred the first two weeks of the 2013-14 season.
Starting point guard Brandon Knight has played a grand total of 17 minutes, Luke Ridnour is yet to take the court, Ersan Ilyasova continues to nurse an ankle injury, and to top it all off, Milwaukee learned Monday that Larry Sanders will miss the next six weeks with a champagne-induced thumb injury (not to mention Sunday’s news that Carlos Delfino will likely miss the entire season). With 77 games remaining, health is already a major concern, and a quick glance at the schedule reveals the injuries couldn’t have hit at a much worse time.
Entering Tuesday, Milwaukee is the only NBA team to have played just five games. Some teams have already played as many as eight, so naturally Milwaukee has some catching up to do. That comes in the form of a torturous four games in the next five nights, three of which are road tests against Miami (Tuesday), Orlando (Wednesday) and 8-0 Indiana (Thursday). Then, to close out the week, the Bucks welcome some guy named Kevin Durant to the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Saturday. So yeah, not an ideal time to be without key players.
Nonetheless, Milwaukee’s role players have proven thus far that they’re capable of clawing back into games with team play, streaky shooting and (fairly) efficient half-court offense. Both Nate Wolters and Zaza Pachulia have played surprisingly integral roles for this team and it’s difficult to argue that Milwaukee has two wins if either don’t play as well as they have. Is it fair to expect this kind of production over a larger sample size? Of course not. But in the short-term, Milwaukee will need continued efficient play from Wolters and, especially, Pachulia to stay afloat during this challenging portion of the schedule
Alright, that’s enough about the injuries. Lets take a look at Tuesday’s opponent, the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. Here’s what to look for as Milwaukee faces LeBron and Co. for the first time since the teams met in the first round of the playoffs
– Can Milwaukee Keep It Close?: Since the Heat became the Heat three seasons ago, Milwaukee is one of the few franchises that always seems to play Miami closely despite a clear gap in talent. Don’t ask me why that is, but a 3-4 record against the champs over the past two regular seasons isn’t too shabby. Miami did, of course, put double-digit beatdowns on Milwaukee in each of their four playoff meetings this past April, but the Heat have been much more willing to let the Bucks hang around during the regular season. With an almost-entirely new cast this time around (John Henson and Ekpe Udoh look to be the only returnees suiting up Tuesday), it will interesting to see whether Milwaukee can keep this one competitive into the fourth quarter.
– Early Season Struggles: As great as Miami has been over the past three years, their 4-3 start to the season has raised some concerns. LeBron James is reportedly dealing with back soreness, Dwyane Wade is yet to prove he’ll be fully healthy for more than a few games at a time and the front office’s refusal to address the rebounding situation in the offseason has proven to be a major issue. Cap flexibility played a role, yes, but what’s left of Greg Oden isn’t going to be enough to remedy the league’s worst rebounding team (by a lot). With convincing wins over the Clippers and Bulls, there is certainly no reason to panic in South Beach, but losses to Philadelphia and Boston are uncharacteristic for this team.
– More Rebounding Woes: For as bad as Miami has been on the glass this season, Milwaukee has almost been worse. In fact, the Bucks rank 27th in the league in rebounds per game (38.6) and dead last in rebounding differential (-7.8). Milwaukee also surrenders the third-most offensive rebounds per game (13.2), a number that isn’t likely to shrink much lower in Sanders’ absence. However, Miami is the NBA’s worst offensive rebounding team, grabbing just 6.6 per game (Utah leads with 15.1, if you were wondering), so keeping the undersized Heat off the glass likely won’t be Milwaukee’s primary concern Tuesday (I say that very cautiously).
– Can Henson Step Up?: While most of the attention surrounding the Larry Sanders saga has focused on Sanders himself, his expected six week absence opens the door for John Henson to step in and solidify himself as the impact defender and rebounder he showed flashes of being last season. The second-year North Carolina product averaged just 13.1 minutes as a rookie – despite a few eye-popping stat lines – but the Bucks will now lean on him to anchor the frontcourt until Larry returns. Zaza Pachulia will chip in offensively, but it will be up to Henson to protect the rim. Depending on Larry Drew’s lineup selections, Henson could very well find himself guarding Chris Bosh, a matchup that will test his ability to defend on the perimeter against an agile big man with an excellent pump fake.
– Speaking of Pachulia… Zaza sat out Monday’s practice with a sore right foot but says he will suit up against Miami. Drew indicated his minutes will be monitored, and it’s possible Miroslav Raduljica could find his way onto the court for the first time if Pachulia is limited and Henson or Udoh get into foul trouble.
– Point Guard Rotation: With Brandon Knight fully healthy (for now), it’s likely he’ll reclaim his starting point guard job in the near future. However, he’ll come off the bench for the second straight game Tuesday as Nate Wolters has been named the starter. The forgotten player here is Luke Ridnour, who is yet to play this season as he continues to deal with back spasms. There’s a chance he’ll make his Bucks re-debut Tuesday, but nothing has been announced yet and he’s considered a game-time decision. When both he and Knight are fully healthy, finding minutes on a nightly basis for Wolters may prove to be a difficult task for Drew.
Action tips off from American Airlines Arena at 6:30pm CDT with local coverage on Fox Sports Wisconsin.