SAINT FRANCIS, Wis. — He was joking around. Or so he claims.
Nevertheless, it made news when Brandon Jennings predicted the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the only team in the NBA playoffs with a losing record, would beat the defending champion and top-seeded Miami Heat in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series. Yes, that would be the same Miami Heat team that reeled off 27 consecutive victories recently and has the best player on the planet in LeBron James.
“I’m real confident,” Jennings, the Bucks point guard, said at the Wisconsin Sports Awards ceremony in Milwaukee Thursday. “I’m sure everybody is writing us off, but I see us winning the series in six.”
Before you go calling Jennings delusional, understand that he was simply backing his team, one that Las Vegas oddsmakers give a 500-1 chance of winning the NBA title. That’s double the odds for any other team in the field and pales in comparison to the Heat, who were given a better than 50 percent chance of repeating.
“We were just joking around, but of course it’s always going to be taken to the next level,” Jennings said Friday. “But at the end of the day, we’re getting bashed on ESPN, we’re getting bashed on TNT anyway. Now that I say we’ll win in six, it’s a problem.”
Actually, Jennings’ harmless prediction is the least of the Bucks’ problems. The Heat have the best trio of players in the league with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a deeper bench that they had last season and a 42-4 record since the start of February.
The Bucks, who suffer from extreme inconsistency both shooting and defending, have a history of playing the Heat well. But that was the old Heat. The new Heat play with a consistency that could someday put the team among the great ones in NBA history.
Clearly, a Bucks victory in six would be the greatest upset in NBA playoff history. It’s more likely that Milwaukee, which has lost seven of its last nine, will be lucky to win a game in the series that begins Sunday at Miami.
“Whoever wins the series I think is going to win the whole thing,” said forward Mike Dunleavy, who was smiling at the time but then turned serious. “Obviously, it’s a monumental challenge for us. This is a team that’s lost four games in the last 40 or 50 and we’ve got to do it in seven. I think our best approach would be to just try and get one game. If you get one game, you try and get another game. It would be a lot easier to beat these guys once as opposed to four times. If we can break it down like that, we’ll give ourselves a better chance.”
If you buy 100 lottery tickets, you give yourself a better chance to win the Powerball jackpot, too. But in both cases, a better chance still doesn’t mean a good chance.
While there have been more instances of No. 8 seeds knocking off No. 1 seeds in recent years, this series doesn’t follow the upset pattern.
The first two times it happened — Denver over Seattle in 1994 and New York over Miami in 1999 — the series were only best-of-five. In 2007, Golden State beat a 67-win Dallas team, but the Warriors were hot, closing the season on a 9-1 run, and had Dallas’ number, going 3-0 against the Mavericks during the regular season.
The upsets continued the last two seasons, with Memphis beating San Antonio in 2011 and Philadelphia beating Chicago in 2012. Two years ago, the Spurs had 61 wins and the Grizzlies 46, so the series wasn’t a total mismatch. By comparison, Miami had 66 wins and the Bucks 38 this year. And against the 76ers last year, the Bulls were doomed after they lost Derrick Rose to injury in the opener.
The Bucks were 2-1 against the Heat in 2011-12 and played them tough early this season, losing in overtime and winning by 19. However, the teams met twice in the final month of the season and Miami won by double digits both times.
“We know we’re dealing with a whole different animal,” Dunleavy said.
If there is a good sign for the Bucks, it is that Miami isn’t powerful in the middle. Milwaukee is a finesse team that matches up fairly well with the Heat.
“They’ve got three of the top 15 players in the league, but it’s not like a low-post, physical, interior team,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “This year, when we’ve played against those big, physical teams, we’ve struggled. Against other teams we’ve been able to play better and be more comfortable out on the floor.”
Another thing the Bucks have going for them is a chip on their shoulder after so many national pundits predicted they would make a quick exit from the playoffs.
“Everybody keeps saying what I said fueled the Miami Heat’s fire, but I think it fueled our fire, too, to see that everybody’s just already counting us out,” Jennings said. “I know guys are excited, guys are anxious, especially guys who have never been (in the playoffs). That’s just a good sign, the fact that they’re positive and motivated right now.”
Unless the Bucks turn that motivation into consistently better shooting and defense, however, the series almost certainly will turn into a laugher.