Defending champ Heat on a roll, and Bucks stand in the headlights
POSTED: Apr 19, 2013 8:45 AM ET
Miami's Big Three of Bosh, James and Wade: Ready to rumble.
Throughout the course of the Miami Heat's franchise-record 27-game win streak, the second best mark in NBA history, LeBron James gave his stock answer when asked what chasing the Los Angeles Lakers' hallowed 33-gamer meant to him.
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"It's not a goal of mine," he said. "I've never set a goal like that."
To some it probably seemed as if he was being a bit glib when he would insist that the Heat had more important business to handle.
As it turns out, James was just being honest. What did the Heat do for an encore to that 27-game win streak that ended in Chicago on March 27? They finished off the regular season like a defending champion trying to become a repeat champion, winning 10 of their final 11 games and eight straight heading into their first-round playoff matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will go all metaphysical on you and talk about the "process" and the "journey," when it really boils down to this: The Heat are just a good ol' fashioned hoops juggernaut. They are complete. They have an excellent coaching staff, a balanced roster and a cast that is as explosive and efficient on offense as it is suffocating and meticulous on defense. The Heat spent the regular season dishing out equal opportunity beatings to playoff and lottery foes alike. They didn't discriminate or deviate from that master plan James spoke of so often.
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Not only did the Heat lock up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race with weeks to spare, they nailed down home court advantage throughout the playoffs with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rotating spots on the end of the bench in designer duds down the final stretch of the season.
That's why it's hard to see the Bucks serving as anything other than a temporary bump on the Heat's road to the Eastern Conference finals. That's not disrespect for the Bucks, either. It's just the facts.
It helps to have the reigning league and Finals MVP playing at a level no other man on the planet can match, the other two members of the Heat's Big 3 putting up career-best shooting numbers and a supporting cast stronger and more complete than the one that helped the Heat to the Larry O'Brien trophy last year.
"He's on a different planet right now," veteran Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy said of James after the Heat star worked the Bucks for 28 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in a 94-83 Heat win April 9. "He's got complete control of the game when he wants it. He's tough to stop, but you've got to give it to the guy. He trusts his teammates. Guys miss shots, three or four in a row, and he keeps coming to them. Eventually those guys knock it down."
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The Heat showed during that 27-game win streak that they could win games all sorts of ways. They did it with and without the Big 3 playing lights out (or playing at all), with Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier playing hero, with contributions from up and down the roster, at home or on the road and on back-to-back nights and whatever else the grind of the regular-season marathon threw at them.
They don't have to deal with scheduling drama in the postseason. What they have to deal with is this: If they don't win another title in June, that 27-game win streak falls into the abyss.
"We never had any goal to win 18 or 19 games in a row. Our goal isn't to win 33 games," James said when that Heat streak was still just a teenager. "We have bigger goals than that. And they are ahead of us. Our goal is to win the last game of the season. We know what that feels like. And we want to feel it again. That's the only goal we have."
1. Do the Bucks really have a shot against the league's best team? Well, yes ... theoretically. But even on paper, it looks like a No. 1 vs. No. 8 washout. In real life, it could be worse. Save the David and Goliath metaphors folks and start thinking about miracles ...
2. How do the Heat stay sharp in a series that they should dominate? Maybe you forgot this team won 27 straight games and 41 of its final 45 games, a three-month winning binge. They've been locked in since training camp. They don't need any extra motivation.
3. Brandon Jennings was great on this stage as a rookie. Can he do it again? Sure, but it won't matter. That Hawks team that Jennings shredded for seven games as a rookie isn't in the same galaxy as the Heat. Jennings could go off and the Bucks will still be completely overmatched.
4. What's the best individual matchup in this series? Chris Bosh will have his work cut out for him with a rugged rim protector like Larry Sanders roaming around the paint. But you couldn't ask for a better one-on-one battle than Bucks shooting guard Monta Ellis and Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade. They are two of the best scorers in basketball and should be eager to challenge one another.
5. What kind of reception does Ray Allen get from the Bradley Center faithful? Allen has been in the league so long and had so many stops since he last wore a Bucks uniform that few remember those days. Allen played his first six seasons in the league with the Bucks, helping guide their "Big 3" of Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, where they fell to Allen Iverson's Phialdelphia 76ers. That ought to be good for at least a smattering of cheers from the crowd.
The Bucks get to pick their poison. James and Wade do the main damage but the Heat can beat you in so many different ways. In fact, Wade and James defer to their teammates in ways that few superstars have in the past. When the Heat are in transition, opponents have to decide if they will surrender the rim and allow James and Wade to spend most of their night auditioning for the Top 10 plays highlight reel, or try to cover the 3-point line and keep their shooters from knocking down kickout 3s.
If all else fails, James and Wade will go to the low block and exploit their mismatches inside. Again, go ahead and pick your poison.
The Bucks have plenty of offensive firepower when they get rolling. Jennings and Ellis can cause all sorts of matchup problems considering both of them can initiate offense, attack the paint, score in transition and shoot it from deep. The Bucks run into problems when they try to establish a post presence. They don't have a low-post anchor they can go to for buckets at crunch time, which forces them to rely almost exclusively on their backcourt stars to carry the load late in close games.
The Bucks will try to keep the tempo of the game moving, which would make plenty of sense given the make-up of their team. They can stretch the floor with taller wings like Mike Dunleavy and Ersan Ilyasova, who are capable of knocking down shots from the perimeter. The only problem is that the Heat defense can match any style.
The Heat have two of the best closers in the game in Wade and James, who has finally settled comfortably into his role as the ultimate finisher, a guy who can beat you by getting his own shot, getting someone else a shot or even with a defensive stop if the situation calls for such a thing. Finishing was the last hole, if you will, in his game. James has done everything needed to silence his critics in that regard the past 10 months. The Heat also have Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen to rely on for big shots and clutch defensive plays (for Battier) with a game on the line.
Jennings and Ellis are fearless at the end of games, maybe a little too fearless at times. But they're going to be the ones the Bucks go through if they have opportunities to win a game in the final moments. They are both so good off the dribble that the Bucks will have plenty of options if they need a bucket late.
Chris "Birdman" Andersen has proved to be far more capable as an energy big than anyone else the Heat have tried in that spot the past three seasons. Where Joel Anthony struggled to finish at the rim offensively, the Birdman thrives at it. The Heat's one glaring weakness going into this season was in the middle. They seem to have found a solution in the Birdman.
The Bucks pursued J.J. Redick at the trade deadline for a reason. His shooting numbers plummeted after he joined the Bucks from Orlando. But that's the thing with shooters, they always tend to get hot sooner or later. The Bucks could use a good dose of Redick at his best in this series.
The Heat don't have anything to worry about with a Bucks team that lost nine of its last 11 games. This series has sweep written all over it. Heat in 4.
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