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Short-handed Heat eliminated from in-season tourney after falling to Bucks. Takeaways from loss

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 131-124 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks (13-5) in its final group play game of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament on Tuesday night at Kaseya Center. The Heat (10-8), which has lost three straight games, continues the homestand on Thursday against the Indiana Pacers:

It was a well-played competitive game, but the short-handed Heat couldn’t overcome the absence of three starters and is now eliminated from the inaugural In-Season Tournament.

The Heat was without Jimmy Butler (right ankle sprain), Tyler Herro (right ankle sprain), Haywood Highsmith (lower back contusion), Dru Smith (season-ending ACL injury) and R.J. Hampton (right knee sprain) against the Bucks.

That long injury list includes three members of the Heat’s preferred starting lineup: Butler, Herro and Highsmith.

Meanwhile, the Bucks had their leading trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton available.

The game still came down to the final minutes, as the Heat led by three points with 3:25 left in the fourth quarter. But the Bucks rallied for the win with high-level late-game execution.

After the Heat took that three-point lead, the Bucks used a 12-4 tun to pull ahead by five points with 1:03 to play.

An unfortunate sequence helped put Miami in that hole.

With the Heat trailing by two points with just over a minute left, Heat guard Josh Richardson was called for a foul while pressuring Lillard in the backcourt. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra then picked up a technical foul for arguing the call.

With the Heat already over the foul limit, that put Lillard on the foul line for three free throws. Lillard made all three to extend the Bucks’ lead to five points with 1:03 left.

“I think the entire building and whoever was watching on TV probably just wanted to see what would happen without that 90-foot foul call on Lillard and then the subsequent technical on the head coach basically to seal the game,” Spoelstra said. “Look, Lillard is good enough. He very likely could have created something going down the other end. I think we just wanted to see what’s what, see what would happen. But that kind of just took the air out of it.”

Heat guard Kyle Lowry hit a short jumper to cut the deficit to three with 56.7 seconds remaining, but the Bucks responded with a game-clinching Brook Lopez dunk to push the lead back up to five with 38.1 seconds to play.

While it ended in a loss, there were still plenty of encouraging performances for the Heat in a game that included 18 lead changes and 19 ties.

Six Heat players finished with double-digit points: Bam Adebayo with 31 points, Lowry with 21 points, Richardson with 20 points, Jaime Jaquez Jr. with 14 points, Caleb Martin with 14 points and Duncan Robinson with 13 points.

The Heat lost despite a standout offensive night, shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 14 of 30 (46.7 percent) from three-point range while dishing out 32 assists to only six turnovers. It marked Miami’s first loss of the season when posting an offensive rating of 115 points scored per 100 possessions or better, falling to 6-1 when meeting this threshold.

That’s because the Bucks also were really good on the offensive end, totaling 131 points on 53.4 percent shooting from the field and 13- of-35 (37.1 percent) shooting from three-point range while committing only nine turnovers. The Heat allowed 129.7 points per 100 possessions in the loss, which is Miami’s worst single-game defensive rating of the season.

“It’s a shame because I felt like we played a very good basketball game, a very good offensive game in particular,” Spoelstra said after the loss.

The Heat closed the four-game group stage of the NBA’s first In-Season Tournament with a 2-2 record. That left the Heat in third place in its five-team group behind the first-place Bucks (4-0) and second-place New York Knicks (3-1).

The four Eastern Conference teams that advanced to the quarterfinals of the tournament are the Indiana Pacers, Bucks, Boston Celtics and Knicks from the Eastern Conference.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) gesture from the bench during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Kaseya Center in Miami on Tuesday, November 28, 2023.
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) gesture from the bench during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Kaseya Center in Miami on Tuesday, November 28, 2023.

Adebayo missed the Heat’s first matchup of the season against the Bucks, but he made quite the impact in the teams’ second meeting.

Adebayo returned after missing two of the previous three games with a left hip contusion to finish Tuesday’s loss with 31 points on 13-of-27 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 shooting from the foul line, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in 42 minutes.

The 27 field-goal attempts are a new career-high for Adebayo, surpassing his previous career-high of 25 shots that he set in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last season.

“Be aggressive,” Adebayo said of his approach on Tuesday with Butler, Herro and others out.

Adebayo’s shot chart included 23 shots in the paint with Antetokounmpo guarding him for most of the game. Adebayo also spent most of the night defending Antetokounmpo.

On the other end of the matchup, Antetokounmpo recorded a game-high 33 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field and 10-of-13 shooting from the foul line, 10 rebounds and five assists.

“Bam was relentless all game long and that just shows you his capacity to do it on both ends,” Spoelstra said. “There’s no rest for him on the other end.”

Lillard, who requested the Portland Trail Blazers to trade him to the Heat this past offseason in part because of his close friendship with Adebayo, contributed 32 points, four rebounds and nine assists. It marked Lillard’s first game in Miami since a trade request to be dealt to the Heat ended with him being traded to the Bucks.

The hope is that Butler and Highsmith will be back soon, while Herro’s return seems to be a few games away.

Butler and Highsmith were both questionable for Tuesday’s game before ultimately being ruled out.

Butler has missed two straight games after spraining his right ankle during Friday’s road loss to the Knicks. He has missed a total of four games this season (one because of rest, one because of personal reasons and two because of a sprained right ankle). The belief remains that this is a short-term issue for Butler and he could return for the Heat’s next game Thursday against the Pacers.

Highsmith missed his first game with a lower back contusion after taking a hard fall while trying to block a layup attempt in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets. He has missed a total five games this season (four because of a sprained left knee and one because of a lower back contusion).

“It feels better than when I actually did it. It feels better than when I got out of bed on Sunday,” Highsmith said Monday. “But it’s still kind of tender, some pain, as well. Haven’t really tried to do anything. I did a couple light things. But still painful.”

Meanwhile, Herro missed his 10th straight game on Tuesday after spraining his ankle during the Heat’s Nov. 8 road win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Herro is progressing in his recovery, but the expectation is he’ll miss at least another week before returning to game action after his ankle was re-evaluated over the weekend.

Ideally for the Heat, its preferred starting lineup of Lowry, Herro, Butler, Highsmith and Adebayo would be able to play together again sooner rather than later. With that lineup on the court, the Heat has outscored opponents by a dominant 13.4 points per 100 possessions in 37 minutes together this season.

With so many key players out because of injuries, the Heat’s rotation looked different on Tuesday.

Down three starters, the Heat used its 12th different starting lineup of the season in the 18th game of the season. The Heat began Tuesday’s loss with a lineup of Lowry, Richardson, Robinson, Kevin Love and Adebayo.

Richardson and Love have been consistent members of the bench rotation, but were promoted to the starting lineup with Butler and Highsmith unavailable. Robinson, who began the season as a reserve, has started in eight straight appearances for the injured Herro.

With a few usual reserves elevated to the starting lineup to fill in for injured players, the Heat’s bench rotation on Tuesday also had a different look.

The Heat used Jaquez, Martin and Jamal Cain to complete its short three-man bench rotation. Jaquez and Martin are key components of the bench attack, but Cain is out of the rotation when the roster is at or close to full health.

Cain, who is one of the Heat’s three two-way contract players, made a positive impact in his minutes. The second-year forward finished with five points in 11 minutes and closed with a positive plus-minus of plus 3.

After spending time in the G League with the Heat’s developmental affiliate earlier this month, Cain has now played in two straight games for the Heat because of the team’s injury issues.

Thomas Bryant, Nikola Jovic, Orlando Robinson and Cole Swider were available for the Heat, but did not play in Tuesday’s game.

Now, the Heat waits to see which two teams it will face next week.

The Heat and the 21 other teams not advancing to the quarterfinals will play two regular-season games on Dec. 6 and 8 against opponents still to be determined to fill the missing two games in its standard 82-game schedule.

According to the NBA, here’s how the opponents from those two games will be determined: “A formulaic approach will determine the matchups for these games using the Group Play standings in each conference (5th-15th). Two of the 22 games will be scheduled cross-conference since there will be an odd number of teams in each conference that do not advance to the Quarterfinals. These cross-conference games will be scheduled between bottom-finishing teams in the Group Play stage subject to travel constraints, and no team will play more than one of its two games cross-conference. The other 20 games will be scheduled within conference featuring teams that are otherwise scheduled to play each other three times over the course of the season wherever possible.”

The six Eastern Conference teams that the Heat is currently only scheduled to play three times this season instead of four are the Celtics (two at home and one on the road), Cleveland Cavaliers (one at home and two on the road), Pacers (two at home and one on the road), Bucks (one at home and two on the road), Knicks (one at home and two on the road) and Toronto Raptors (two at home and one on the road).

But the Celtics, Pacers, Bucks and Knicks all advanced to the quarterfinals of the In-Season Tournament, so they are not potential opponents for the Heat in the two mystery games. That leaves the Cavaliers and Raptors as possible candidates, among other teams.

The two missing games on the Heat’s schedule will be announced in the next 24 hours.

“We still have a marathon to run,” Lowry said after the Heat was eliminated from the In-Season Tournament. “That was a sprint that we had just now with that opportunity. We obviously didn’t finish at the top of the sprint, but we still have a marathon to win.”