MIAMI – The 12-0 run.
That was all it took to separate the men from the boys in the Miami Heat’s 98-86 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Tuesday’s Game 2 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series at AmericanAirlines Arena.
And two bench players – forward Chris Andersen, a.k.a. the Birdman, and guard Norris Cole – led the way. Not LeBron James, not Dwyane Wade and not Chris Bosh.
“It’s not surprising,” James said. “That’s what they bring, that’s what our bench brings, they bring that energy and effort.”
Andersen and Cole provided the separation the Heat needed to win. Just as it has done for most of the season, the Heat’s bench showed it is just another way this team can win.
Not only did Andersen and Cole shine, but reserve forward Shane Battier had 10 points and guard Ray Allen had seven. More bench power. The bench had 36 points in Game 2 after scoring 43 in Game 1. And the Heat still haven’t unleashed sharpshooting swingman Mike Miller.
That 12-0 run to start the fourth quarter, which featured Andersen and Cole scoring five points apiece, allowed Miami to take an 80-65 lead and salt away what had been a close game for most of the previous three quarters. Miami now leads, 2-0.
“Bird and Norris came in with a great deal of energy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
We all knew this series was over before it started. But if the Heat wins Game 3 on Thursday in Milwaukee, the sweep goes from a likelihood to an almost certainty.
Further, if the Heat is able to win comfortably on a night when James scores just 19 points on 6-for-18 shooting (credit Milwaukee’s Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) – which is what happened in Game 2 – you know the Bucks are probably doomed to go down in quick fashion.
It didn’t look so grim through three quarters Tuesday. Even with its backcourt of Monta Ellis (seven points on 2 for-7 shooting) and Brandon Jennings (eight on 3-for-15) playing at a crawl, milwaukee had things going its way.
Ellis and Jennings combined for 48 points in Milwaukee’s 110-87 Game 1 loss, but the Heat found an answer in Game 2. Ellis and Jennings were a combined 0-for-10 on 3-pointers Tuesday.
“Obviously after the first game they tried to make adjustments for us,” said Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova, who had 21 points and six rebounds.
Still, Milwaukee entered the fourth quarter trailing just 68-65, within one possession.
No one thought the Bucks were going to win. But Milwaukee was making Miami work.
“Then they go out and go on a 12-0 run and change the complexion of the game,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said.
It started with a follow bucket and free throw by Andersen after fighting to rebound his own miss. Then there was a layup from James. That was followed by a tipped pass and steal by Cole, who was fouled and converted a pair of free throws for a 75-65 lead.
As the Heat’s defensive frenzy built, Allen got a steal and passed ahead to Cole. He missed a layup, Allen missed a short bank shot, but Andersen hit a driving layup. Heat 77, Bucks 65.
Then Andersen rebounded Jennings’ miss, and at the other end of the court James passed to Cole, who drilled a 3-pointer. Heat 80, Bucks 65.
“We’re the kind of team we can turn a six-point lead into a 12-point lead,” said Wade, who had a team-high 21 points and seven rebounds.
And speaking of Wade, he was fantastic, too. The right knee problems that dogged him late in the season didn’t seem to be an issue in Game 2.
“He was flying around,” James said. “I know he’s not 100 percent. It’s just his will. He’s playing through it.”
While admitting he is ailing, Wade was a bit more enthusiastic after the game.
“My right knee is not 100 percent,” Wade said, “but it’s enough for me to get out here and compete at a high level, so I’m going to try to get it better because once that gets right then I’m really going to be feeling good.”
That’s a scary thought.
But back to the Heat’s bench.
The Bucks were doing everything they could to make the Heat sweat. James didn’t dominate them, Wade didn’t demoralize them, Bosh (10 points, six rebounds) didn’t finesse them to death.
Milwaukee was in the game entering the fourth quarter.
“We definitely had an opportunity after three quarters,” Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy said. “But you’ve got to play four to beat these guys.”
And at the start of the fourth quarter in Game 2, the Heat’s bench, led by Andersen and Cole, took over in a big way, keying a game-deciding run.
“I wouldn’t say it caught us by surprise,” Boylan said, “but it definitely was a factor in the game.”
Chris Perkins is a veteran Miami-based sports journalist who covers the Heat for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.