On paper, Friday’s tilt between the Heat and Bucks offered an intriguing if not entirely predictable preview of the two teams’ possible first-round playoff matchup.
The East’s best versus its erratic eighth seed. The unstoppable force versus the decidedly movable object. The inevitability of LeBron James’ quest for a second title against the maddening inconsistency of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
It might not have been Bird vs. Magic, but as far as Friday night NBA storylines go, you could do much worse.
After all, the Bucks’ unpredictability has brought its share of positives as well, including a 19-point win over the Heat in Milwaukee and an overtime loss in Miami. Add in a pair of wins over the Heat last year, and Milwaukee has made for a surprising thorn in the side of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and it’s not completely without logic.
When healthy, the Bucks have multiple defenders they can run against both James and Bosh, and Erik Spoelstra’s preference for smallish lineups typically masks Milwaukee’s lack of bulk down low. While it’d be silly to say the Heat are a good matchup for the Bucks, there’s a reason the Bucks have given Miami problems over the past two seasons.
But opponents need much more than thorns to throw at James and the Heat these days, and Friday proved no exception. The defending champions looked steady and occasionally spectacular in a 107-94 win that extended their win streak to an eye-popping 21 games, while the Bucks struggled to score consistently and once again found no solace in another uneven defensive effort.
Like the previous 20 Heat opponents before them, the Bucks were mostly helpless against the Heat’s rampaging transition game and could never seem to close out quickly enough in the half court, continuing a discouraging trend that has seen Milwaukee regularly hemorrhaging points since the All-Star break.
An impressive Bosh kept Larry Sanders on skates throughout the first half, as the Heat’s third amigo suckered the league’s leading shot-blocker into a trio of pump fakes early before unleashing a barrage of jumpers en route to 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting. Sanders never seemed to recover, looking overly anxious on both ends before late-game frustration earned him an ejection for the second time in as many games.
Coach Jim Boylan went so far as to switch Sanders onto the less threatening Udonis Haslem in order to keep Milwaukee’s rim protector closer to the hoop, but it didn’t matter much to Bosh, who ripped the Bucks defense to shreds no matter who was guarding him. The same held true for James (28 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists), who taunted the Bucks with his usual array of unstoppable finishes, kaleidoscopic passing and a series of near-impossible fadeaways in the post. It all seemed rather cruel for the Bucks, who did fairly well hiding the porous Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings but still surrendered 107 points and 52% shooting.