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Bucks’ bubble stay nears end

There’s no way of knowing what your reaction was when you read that I thought the Heat could knock off the top-seeded Bucks a few weeks back. Did you roll your eyes and exclaim, “But Giannis?”

Those of you who dismissed Miami as a trendy pick got knocked over the head repeatedly by Jimmy Butler, who backed up his bravado with a 40-point outburst in Game 1. His 30-point Game 3 performance that highlighted a 40-13 fourth-quarter edge for the East’s fifth seed in erasing a double-digit deficit against Milwaukee effectively ended the series. Miami, which held a commanding 3-1 series lead, looked to close out the Bucks Tuesday night.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will rightfully be named the NBA MVP for a second consecutive season, dealt with an ankle injury, but he was completely healthy when the Heat imposed their will.

Miami will be the lowest-seeded team in the conference finals but is nobody’s Cinderella. Too grimy. Even if the slipper fit, the Heat would kick it off and try using the pointy heel as a weapon.

It’s that personality that makes the team dangerous. Way back at the start of training camp, Butler set the tone despite having to miss the first few games on paternity leave due to the birth of his first child, a daughter named Rylee.

The Heat are well known for the culture Pat Riley put in place decades ago before finding a coaching protégé in Erik Spoelstra, but the breakup of a roster that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh resulted in a couple of down seasons. The addition of Butler, which came via sign-and-trade in July of last year, was designed to get Miami the leader the organization felt it was lacking.

Butler instantly challenged teammates to be great, ramping up the intensity level in practices. He plays with a junkyard dog mentality that few in the NBA can match, never apologizing for hurting your feelings.

He’s got plenty of help. Third-year forward Bam Adebayo, a first-time All-Star whose presence helped Miami deal with Antetokounmpo, is among the NBA’s most versatile big men. Measuring just shy of 6-foot-10, Adebayo can guard anyone on the floor and shuts down opposing frontcourt players. Be it against Boston’s Jayson Tatum or Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, Miami has its own All-Star who is more than capable of creating problems for those guys on both sides of the ball.

The Heat have a former All-Star running the point in Goran Dragic, who is backed up by the Rookie of the Year runner-up, Kendrick Nunn. Shooters Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, another exceptional first-year player, have proven this moment isn’t too big for them. Versatile defender Jae Crowder, who played with Butler at Marquette a decade ago, has also emerged as valuable piece. Former NBA champion Andre Iguodala and Slam Dunk contest winner Derrick Jones, Jr. also see minutes as standout defenders.

What the Heat have done to the Bucks is no fluke. Once 40-1 at the Westgate SuperBook to win it all when play in the Orlando bubble began, the Heat are now 5-1 to win their third NBA title in a nine-year span. Jay Kornegay and his staff had Miami at 14-1 to win the Eastern Conference on July 27 but opened the week as a 5-4 choice, making them the favorite over Boston and Toronto prior to their Game 5 showdown that the Celtics claimed easily.

The Heat were +350 at Westgate to upset the Bucks in their East semifinal series, 9-1 to come out of the conference and 25-1 to win it all just last week. While a lot of the value is long gone, there’s no question you should be giving Miami a long look to win the Eastern Conference since it went 2-1 against Toronto and 1-2 against Boston. The Heat beat the Celtics in the bubble, posting a 112-106 victory as a five-point underdog on Aug. 4.

Toss out Miami’s seeding. The Heat are as good as anyone in the East and may return to the NBA Finals for the first time since James left town.

Wednesday

Raptors vs. Celtics: For this week’s picks, expect a higher-scoring game than we’ve seen in the Eastern Conference semifinal series between Atlantic Division rivals Boston and Toronto in Game 6. The Raptors will try to avoid elimination by playing faster to avoid getting bogged down the way they have been in a series where each of the first five games have all finished below the posted total. Ride the Over as the defending champs look to stay alive in the first elimination game. OVER

Friday

Clippers vs. Nuggets: Fast forward to Game 5 of a Clippers-Nuggets series that has been more competitive than expected. Nikola Jokic has been incredible in giving Denver a chance but can’t possibly be more efficient from beyond the arc than he’s been to date. The teams reached 220 points in Game 3 but should see defense play a larger role on Friday night. UNDER

Saturday

Lakers vs. Rockets: The Rockets and Lakers will play their Game 5 on Saturday and we should also see familiarity yield a lower-scoring affair than expected. L.A. has done a better job blitzing James Harden to take the ball out of his hands than it did in losing the series opener. Meanwhile, Houston has continued to utilize the grit of Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker to make everything difficult for James and Anthony Davis. UNDER

Last week: 2-1

Season: 39-29-1