LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals.
Giannis Antetokounmpo could only watch.
The fifth-seeded Heat finished off an upset of the NBA’s best regular-season team Tuesday, topping the Milwaukee Bucks 103-94 in Game 5 of their East semifinal series — while Antetokounmpo, the league’s reigning MVP, couldn’t play because of a sprained right ankle.
“We have deep, deep respect for that franchise and it’s unfortunate that Giannis couldn’t play tonight,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Butler and Goran Dragic each scored 17 points for the Heat, who won the series 4-1 and will face either Boston or Toronto when the NBA’s final four gets underway next week. It’s Miami’s first time in the East finals since 2014, and the first time Butler has gotten this deep in the playoffs.
“It means a lot,” Butler said. “But that’s not my goal. That’s not my guys’ goal. That’s not the organization’s goal. We want to win ‘it.’ We want a championship and I think that’s what we’re focused on. These next eight are going to be much harder than the previous eight. We know that. But we’re ready for them.”
Jae Crowder scored 16, Tyler Herro scored 14, Bam Adebayo had 13 and Kelly Olynyk had 12 for the Heat.
Khris Middleton had 23 points for Milwaukee, which got 15 points and 14 rebounds from Brook Lopez. Donte DiVincenzo scored 17, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams each had 11 and Eric Bledsoe had nine assists for the Bucks.
The decision to not let Antetokounmpo play came down about 45 minutes before game time.
“I wanted to play,” Antetokounmpo said. “You know I wanted to play. I know I wanted to play. My coach knows I wanted to play, but at the end of the day, the organization put my health over Game 5. That’s big.’’
Antetokounmpo did what he could — cheering from the bench throughout, rebounding for teammates during pregame warmups and again at halftime, offering words during time-outs.
And the Bucks were inspired from the jump.
But the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed in these playoffs — a league-best 56-17 in the regular season — just didn’t have enough. A very memorable ride ended, after a season where Milwaukee likely had a back-to-back MVP, the best record in the game and led a player boycott earlier in these playoffs to reiterate the primary mission of this restarted season, that being using the NBA platform to highlight a need to end racial injustice.
“You always want to realize those expectations, but the relationships, the character, what this group did … it would be great if you could have both, but I think if you’re going to choose one, I’d like to be with guys with high character who stand for something,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Milwaukee opened the game on a 28-15 run, putting Miami on its heels from the opening minutes. DiVincenzo got the call to start for Antetokounmpo and scored eight of Milwaukee’s first 16 points, Matthews had nine by the end of the quarter and the Bucks were off to a promising start.
Miami answered that start with a 30-9 run of its own, capped by three free throws from Olynyk with 4:36 left in the half for a 45-37 Heat lead.
Milwaukee wouldn’t let the Heat get away, though — not then, and not in the third when Miami pushed the lead out to 12 after a 3-pointer by Crowder with 3:07 left. The Bucks needed just 50 seconds to rip off seven straight points, and it stayed close from there.
In the end, Miami just had a bit more. They became the lowest-seeded team to make the East finals since eighth-seeded New York in 1999.
“We want people to continue to count us out,” Butler said.