For three quarters, the Milwaukee Bucks used some combination of clawing, scratching, defensive rotations, and flailing to hang around with the Miami Heat in game two of their opening-round Eastern Conference Playoff series. And for the second consecutive game, that early "success" proved futile as the Heat exploded in the first few minutes of the final period and never looked back.
LeBron James (19 pts, 6-14 FGs, 8 rebs, 6 asts) failed to reach 25 points for the first time in 16 playoff games, but his effect on the game was still evident throughout. The Bucks threw far more defenders James' way on Tuesday, and it certainly seemed to help: LeBron shot "just" 43% and committed 4 turnovers, but Miami had plenty of other ways to score. The biggest disparity came at the stripe, where the Heat hit 22 of their 26 free throws while the Bucks went 10 of 17. The Bucks also shot just 22% from behind the arc, with Brandon Jennings (8 pts, 3-15 FGs, 5 asts) and Monta Ellis (7 pts, 2-7 FGs, 5 asts, 4 TOs) combining to miss all 10 of their attempts from behind the arc.
There were bright spots yet again for Milwaukee. Ersan Ilyasova had an excellent first half and finished with a team-high 21 points on 9-14 shooting. The Bucks used Ilyasova to check Chris Bosh (10 pts, 6 rebs) early in the game, freeing up Larry Sanders (14 pts, 6 rebs, 5 TOs) to focus on protecting the rim. But Sanders picked up two early fouls, include a cheap tripping foul after a Milwaukee turnover led to a sloppy Miami fast break. He helped while he was in, to be sure, but it's clear the Heat respect Sanders' defense and have game-planned a strategy to work around him. They still attacked the paint continuously, but Milwaukee did a better job of swarming to the ball in the first half when poor outside shooting from Miami again helped the Bucks stay close. Luc Mbah a Moute in particular showcased some textbook isolation defense on LeBron James, and he still couldn't hold back the onslaught.
To be clear, the score was still more surprising than illustrative. The Bucks gave up a handful of wide open corner 3s and dunks, even if they did a better job mucking things up in between. But while some tough buckets by Jennings and Ellis kept things close two night ago, the struggles of each were a big story in why things weren't even tighter in game 2. There could be no complaining about their energy--indeed, the Bucks as a whole looked to be playing exceptionally hard for most of the game--but Jennings' no-show from three and Ellis' general lack of contribution was too much for Milwaukee's limited roster to overcome.
Eventually it all caught up to them, and it happened fast. After a breakaway Jennings layup to finish the 3rd quarter cut the Heat lead to 3, Miami opened the 4th quarter with a blinding 12-0 run in the span of just over 2 minutes. The Bucks never knew what hit them, and only after Norris Cole hit a three in transition to cap the run did Jim Boylan deign to call timeout. One could criticize Boylan for waiting so long, but this was such a stunning burst by the Heat that it took time just to realize what had happened. The run took the Bucks completely out of rhythm--only a late flurry by Mike Dunleavy kept them from further disaster. By the time the haze had lifted, the Heat had a 2-0 series lead and the Bucks looked utterly shell-shocked.
It's hard to say if the way game two played out was by design or accident. The Heat had no obvious qualms with letting Jennings and Ellis chuck up shots for 48 minutes while locking down their teammates on Sunday, so the relative success of Milwaukee's supporting cast on Tuesday is a bit puzzling. The Bucks' ball movement was far improved in the first half, leading to some open looks around the basket, even if a few came off of chaotic (broken?) plays. But they were also sloppy, committing turnovers on almost 19% of their possessions. They also got crushed on the boards again, grabbing only 4 offensive rebounds all game and giving up 12. And when Miami turned up the temperature in the final 12 minutes, the Bucks largely fell apart.
In a sense, we've seen a "complete" game from the Bucks in this series already, it's simply been scattered haphazardly across 96 minutes. The Bucks' best chance to compete with Miami was to play an imperfectly perfect game: use speed, aggression, and trickery to confound the Heat's systematic offense and sophisticated defense. They have yet to put everything together, but they've competed perhaps better than many might have thought. That seems a silly thing to say with a net 35-point deficit after two games, but the bar wasn't very high in the first place. And hey, if the current trend holds, game three in Milwaukee should be tight right up to the final buzzer. We can build on this!