MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee's long wait for the start of the playoffs gave Khris Middleton and other notable Bucks an opportunity to recover from late-season injuries.
The top-seeded Bucks hope it also didn't create a rust factor that could cause them to fall behind the Miami Heat early in their Eastern Conference first-round series starting Sunday.
Middleton hasn’t played since exiting an April 5 victory over the Chicago Bulls after he aggravated a right knee injury, but the three-time All-Star said Saturday he's feeling fine.
"My body is feeling is great, my mind is feeling great, so I'm ready to go," Middleton said.
Middleton has plenty of motivation after the way his 2021-22 postseason ended. He sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in Game 2 of a first-round playoff series with the Bulls and missed the rest of the postseason as the Bucks' bid for a second straight title ended with an Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Boston Celtics. "Everybody's hungry," Middleton said. "I think when you lose, and you've tasted what the top feels like, you've felt what that feeling feels like, it's a disappointment every year you don't get it."
One team in this series will definitely be more rested than the other.
Bucks star and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn't played since getting a triple-double in an April 4 victory at Washington. The Bucks' other starters made their last regular-season appearances April 5, when they clinched the NBA’s top playoff seed.The Heat, by contrast, will be opening this series less than 48 hours after winning a play-in game over the Bulls. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra is fine with that. The way he sees it, the Heat had to dig deep just to get to the postseason. Now, he'd like to keep the momentum going against the Bucks.
"We have great respect for them, but we feel like we're Navy SEALs," Spoelstra said. "Just drop us off in parachutes and let's go compete."
The Bucks tried to stay sharp as they waited to learn their first-round opponent. Veteran center Brook Lopez said the Bucks had higher-intensity practices that typically aren't feasible during the regular season because of the NBA's busy schedule.
But there's still no telling how the long layoff might affect the Bucks when they finally return to the court.
"Sometimes we like it. Sometimes we don't," said Antetokounmpo, one of three finalists for this year's MVP award. "It's kind of tricky because you might go and play the first game and you're rusty. … You might play the first game and you have so much energy and play great basketball. We'll see."
This marks the third time in four seasons that the Bucks and Heat have faced off in the playoffs. The Heat beat the top-seeded Bucks 4-1 in the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinals at the Walt Disney World playoff bubble. The Bucks swept the Heat in the first round the following season to launch their championship run.
The Heat and Bucks split four regular-season matchups this year, with the home team winning each game. Antetokounmpo didn't play in either of the two losses at Miami and played only four minutes in one of the Bucks’ wins over the Heat before leaving with a right knee issue.
Milwaukee's Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard all played on the 2019-20 Heat team that beat the Bucks in the playoffs.
The Bucks added Crowder at the trade deadline, hoping his playoff experience could pay off as they seek their second title in three years. Crowder has appeared in 107 career postseason games and made Finals appearances with Miami in 2020 and Phoenix in 2021.
Heat guard Kyle Lowry was limited in the play-in finale against Chicago with a knee issue, but insisted afterward that he will be ready for Game 1 against the Bucks.
"Just a little tweak, Lowry said. "It's OK. I'm good. I'm all good. Ready to go on Sunday."
Lowry didn't appear in any of the Heat's four regular-season matchups with the Bucks.
Heat guard Tyler Herro is a Wisconsin native who graduated from Whitnall High School in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield before playing collegiately at Kentucky.
Herro isn't the only Heat player with ties to Milwaukee. Jimmy Butler played for Marquette from 2008-11. Butler is one of three former Marquette players in this series along with Crowder and Bucks guard Wesley Matthews. ___
AP Pro Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds contributed from Miami.