With stars like these, who needs role players? Judging by Tuesday's night's game in Miami, the Heat seem to be doing just fine without them. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the Bucks--not with the limited star power on Scott Skiles' bench at full strength, and much less so when 60% of the starting five is missing in action with assorted injuries.
But while the Bucks are painfully short on firepower they're never lacking in defensive effort, which makes them just the kind of team to hang around with a more talented crew like the Heat...at least for a while. Alas, Miami has these three guys named Dwyane Wade (34 pts on 19 shots), LeBron James (25 pts on 15 shots, six rebs, nine assists), and Chris Bosh (19 pts, 12 rebs), and when they're playing up to their usual standards it doesn't really matter how anonymous Miami's supporting cast is. The Heat's defense works hard and its offense scores points in its sleep, all of which left the Bucks little margin for error if they hoped to snap Miami's six game winning streak.
Yet in spite of what the final score might suggest, the first three quarters served as a reminder that the Bucks aren't a bad basketball team--let's not forget, this team has in fact beaten the Lakers, Mavericks, and Hawks on the road, so "signature" road wins have been surprisingly common, especially in light of the Bucks' struggles at home and against lesser competition.
So while a win may not have been likely, it didn't look out of the question for much of the night. A big second quarter led by John Salmons (18 pts, six assists) helped Milwaukee claim a surprising 51-47 lead at the half, but there was little help offensively and there was just too much Wade in the fourth. The former Marquette star scored 17 of his 34 in the closing period, nearly outscoring the Bucks by himself as Miami used an 11-0 run to blow open what had been a fairly close game for 40 minutes.
The Bucks looked up for the challenge early on, matching Miami shot-for-shot in the first nine minutes before a scoreless end to the period saw them fall behind 26-20 after one. Ersan Ilyasova splashed an early three and dropped in two more mid-range jumpers, while Andrew Bogut scored six thanks to a short hook (with a charitable bounce), a nice P&R finish from a John Salmons pass, and a dunk after Keyon Dooling went untouched into the paint off high P&R.
There were a handful of superstar moves from LeBron and Wade--you know, the get-you-skates type of drives where all you can do is hope your defender doesn't foul, and then of course he fouls--but the Bucks shot just well enough to keep Miami from going nuts in transition and defended honestly enough to keep Miami's lesser lights from doing much damage. The Heat's dynamic duo combined for 24 in the first half, but it was Bosh who seemed to give the Bucks the most problems early in the second period. Neither Ilyasova (too slow) nor Jon Brockman (too small) could deal with Bosh's ability to face up and get into the lane, as the Bosh scored 10 in the first 4:25 of the second quarter. His 19-footer giving the Heat a 39-28 lead that seemed to put the Bucks on the ropes, but the Bucks stayed aggressive on both ends and slowly began to turn the game around.
As usual, it was all about energy. Luc Mbah a Moute drove with intent on consecutive possessions, failing to finish (as usual) but getting to the stripe--which improbably became a theme of the period. After the Bucks failed to get a single free throw attempt in the first quarter, Mbah a Moute had eight of the Bucks' 20 attempts in the second. Good old fashioned aggression was part of it, but the refs also weren't letting the Heat get away with much on the perimeter--imagine that.
And on the other end the Bucks began to turn the screws as well. Mbah a Moute and Salmons did as well as could be expected keeping Wade and James in front of them, limiting the amount of help defense that was required, forcing the Heat wide, and thus also preventing too many open looks for the Heat's outside shooters. Admittedly, it didn't hurt that Carlos Arroyo missed a number of open looks as the Heat missed their first six threes of the night, but the Bucks probably deserved it after he scored 18 on 6/6 shooting last month in Milwaukee. A 10-0 run featured a driving layup and four freebies from Salmons, though Maggette couldn't help but foul LeBron with two seconds left to narrow the halftime lead to 51-47.
You knew the Heat would wake up at some point, but to the Bucks' credit they hung with it through most of the third. Salmons' early three gave the Bucks their biggest lead of the night (54-48), but the Heat eventually took the lead for good on a bizarre play with 80 seconds remaining in the third. Trailing 68-67, Arroyo drifted to the corner near the Bucks' bench, taking a pass along the baseline and missing another short jumper. One problem: Skiles had walked onto the court to argue with the baseline ref, and seemed unaware of what was happening on the court as Arroyo bumped into him as he went to make the catch. Yeah, that ain't legal, Scott. Arroyo sunk the technical and James Jones drilled a corner three seconds later, turning what could have been a Bucks' stop into a four-point possession and a three point lead for the Heat.
The game was far from out of reach, but the Bucks wouldn't lead again. Wade suckered Chris Douglas-Roberts into a pump-fake foul on a three pointer to open the fourth, and Bogut was pickpocketed in the post by Mario Chalmers on the next possession, leading to an Erick Dampier layup that quickly had the Bucks trailing 78-70. And Wade? Well he was just getting started: two free throws after driving past Ersan Ilyasova, a long turn-around over Mbah a Moute, and then a three pointer that put Miami seemingly out of reach at 85-74.
The Bucks didn't give up, but it didn't really matter at that point. A nice up-and-under from Bogut, a transition bucket from Maggette, and a tip by Bogut trimmed the lead to 88-81 with just under five minutes left, but Wade put it away moments later by conning Salmons into another foul on a three pointer. It was a cruel result for Salmons, who in spite of another poor shooting line defended gamely and was the engine of the Bucks' offense for most of the night. At that point it seemed clear the Bucks wouldn't have the firepower to come back, but Chalmers put it beyond all doubt by burying a pair of corner threes to extend the Heat lead to 99-81 with 2:35 left.
Keyon Dooling. There were no miracles from Earl Boykins tonight, which made it all the more important that Dooling turned in another steady night with 14 points (4/8 fg, 1/2 threes, 5/5 ft), 5 ast, 1 to, 2 stl. He was at his best in P&R, getting into the lane with surprising regularity against the Heat's excellent defense.
John Salmons. Salmons looked bouncier than usual, beating Wade and company off the dribble and on P&R much of the night to get a slew of good looks around the hoop. It's a bit surprising to see Salmons' poor shooting line (6/18 fg) given the number of times he got to the hoop and finished in traffic, but maybe my standards are just so low that any signs of life get me excited.
Andrew Bogut. I think I spent most of the game thread complaining about Bogut's rebounding and inability to create his own shot, so it's a bit ironic that his line ended up looking fairly respectable: 16 pts (7/13 fg, 2/5 ft), eight rebs, two blocks. Not bad, but with all the Bucks' injuries they need a bit more if they're going to take out a team like the Heat. He was beaten to a number of rebounds as the Bucks got killed on the glass, and didn't look confident offensively until midway through the fourth--and even then he capped off a potential three point play by airballing a free throw that never seemed to get above rim level.
20. Miami ended up winning the battle at the free throw line (31/37 vs. 26/34), but the Bucks' second quarter performance (17/20) delayed the blowout by about two quarters.
-13. The Bucks don't do many things well, but rebounding has generally been one of them. So it's not surprising that they've outrebounded their opponents in 10 of their 13 wins, and only once have they won while being outrebounded by more than 5. Tonight the deficit was 47-34...with predictable results.
19. 51 points in the first half? By the Bucks? Against the league's second-best defense? Yes, actually. But the Heat came around in the second half, limiting the Bucks to just 19 in each of the final two periods.
Slashin' Salmons. Salmons seems incapable of hitting a mid-range jumper of late, but his latest crooked shooting line shouldn't distract from some otherwise positive signs. My biggest concern with Salmons' game has been his inability to get to the rim, but playing against some very good perimeter defenders he managed to get to the cup with surprising ease most of the night. He could have been better finishing (4/10 inside 10 feet), but mixed in were some tough hoops against one of the league's best defenses. All told I'm booking Salmons' night as a solid one.
No quit. It's not surprising, but I don't want to take it for granted either. So long as the Bucks are defending they'll be a playoff team and have a chance to turn things around when the schedule softens, but we're not quite there yet. And don't get me started on the offense...
Fourth quarter collapse. It's not that the Bucks stopped trying, but things got out of hand quickly once Wade put things together. The Bucks were north of 40% shooting for most of the night but once again struggled to keep up down the stretch as their fg% dropped to a more typical 39.7%.
Short bench. It's tough to expect much from the bench with so many injuries, but they need to do better than this. We've been spoiled by Boykins of late, which makes it seem all the more difficult to win when he manages just 2/8 shooting and six points (all but two of them coming when the game was completely out of hand). The Bucks' other bench "scorers" were similarly anonymous, as CD-R and Maggette managed just 13 points on 3/10 shooting in 34 minutes. A bit curious was Skiles' decision to go with Maggette on LeBron down the stretch and shift Mbah a Moute to PF in a smaller lineup, but in the end it didn't matter much as Wade was the one who did all the damage.
Broken glass. Bogut ended up with a team-high eight rebounds, but he looked slow to the ball and seemed to get beaten on every 50/50 ball, generally representative of the Bucks' aforementioned struggles. The tone seemed to be set on an early tip-in by Ilgauskas, who looked to be effectively sandwiched between Bogut and Mbah a Moute. But despite being outmanned, the statuesque big man batted the ball up between the two defenders and then tipped it over Bogut for his third field goal of the first quarter (and his last of the game).