Milwaukee Bucks coach Jim Boylan admits his team has a daunting task in taking on the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
The eighth-seeded Bucks open the Eastern Conference playoffs on the road Sunday against the NBA's defending champions.
"We've got a lot of young players and for many of them, this will be their first time in a playoff series, said Boylan, who replaced Scott Skiles as coach in early January. "Facing the world champions is a daunting task. You're playing against a veteran, experienced, high-level championship team. Right off the bat, you know you've got your work cut out for you."
And even that may be an understatement.
After beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in the finals last season, the Heat set a franchise record with 66 victories, including 37-4 in Miami, where they have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Behind LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat ran off a 27-game winning streak, second only in league history to the 33-game streak compiled by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72.
Beating the Heat would present a formidable obstacle even for a team entering the playoffs on a roll, but the Bucks have been anything but that down the stretch.
In mid-March, the Bucks were at 34-32 and appeared poised to make a run at improving their playoff seeding and avoid the first-round matchup with the Heat.
Then they went 4-12 down the stretch, including five straight losses before a season-ending 95-89 victory Wednesday over Oklahoma City, which rested Kevin Durant. Included in that span were road losses to non-playoff teams Philadelphia, Minnesota, Orlando and Charlotte. In six of those losses, the Bucks shot under 40 percent.
"We're still kind of up and down," Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova said. "The thing we have to do is be consistent. It's all about us on the floor, those five guys, and whatever help comes from the bench."
In four regular-season games against the Heat, the Bucks won one and lost another in overtime.
In the first meeting in November, the Bucks lost in overtime 113-106 at Miami, missing two chances to win near the end of regulation. Milwaukee won the second game at home in late December, outscoring the Heat 35-14 in the fourth quarter. Five players scored in double figures for the Bucks, who were four games above .500 at that point.
During the Heat's winning streak, No. 21 was a 107-94 victory at Milwaukee behind 28 points apiece from James and Bosh, who made 12 of 16 shots. In the last meeting on April 9, the Heat won 94-83 despite playing without Wade and Bosh.
"They're a much more efficient team," Boylan said of the Heat's late-season play. "They had a couple of new guys they had to incorporate into their group. That takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with each other. From a coaching standpoint, rotation, combinations of players, dividing up the minutes and so on. From a player perspective, just getting comfortable with different guys and what their strengths and weaknesses are. They're definitely a much, much improved team — if you can say that about them — than they were earlier in the season."
The Bucks, in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and only the second time in eight years, are led by the backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, who combine for almost 37 points and 13 assists per game.
Jennings, who last month suggested the Bucks matched up well with the Heat, missed two games last week with a sore left Achilles and his teammates were just sore about his comments. Center Larry Sanders, the first Bucks player with 200 blocks in a season since Len Elmore in 1975-76 and the team's leading rebounder, missed the final four games with a back injury.
"We've got a couple guys with some nicks and some issues, but probably in the grand scheme of the playoffs, we're probably just like every other team," Boylan said. "Fairly healthy, yet dealing with some under-the-surface issues that come with a long season."
Despite being an overwhelming underdog, the Bucks are not ready to concede anything.
"When you look at our season, it was always kind of close. We won one game against them," Ilyasova said. "They've got a lot of players who can score over 20 each night. They've got a lot of stars. We have to play not individually, but more team defense and step up and make the effort."
Boylan said he hopes the playoff atmosphere helps counteract the Bucks' lack of experience.
"You hope that the excitement of the playoffs themselves energizes your team," Boylan said. "We've got two games to start the series down there and we're going to go down there and play our game and see where the chips fall."