Bucks 90 - HEAT 85 Recap

MIAMI – The Miami HEAT’s 90-85 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks did not begin at the 8 pm tipoff Wednesday night. The downward defensive trend started, as early as 10 days ago, at home against the Houston Rockets and continued through a four-game road trip against non-playoff teams.

This loss was the spillover from that stretch. And as difficult as Miami had it against the Rockets, one of the league’s most efficient offenses, the HEAT ran into a roadblock against a team that does one thing very, very well.

Defend.

What is supposed to be the HEAT’s calling card is the hallmark of any Scott Skiles coached team. Though not as aggressive as Boston or Chicago defenses Miami may encounter in the playoffs, the Bucks swarm with the best of them, making the HEAT’s pick-and-roll game a hellish experience. For their part, the HEAT played into Milwaukee’s hands by settling for a jumper of long, however open, two-point jumpers, but unlike recent teams that have played well above their heads in competing with Miami, the Bucks were just themselves.

“They disrupted us from our paint attacks that we’ve been getting our last few games, few weeks,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We really had to work for open looks, and our execution wasn’t really where it could be.”

Granted, the open looks were there in the fourth quarter, which the HEAT couldn’t hit, but Miami has won games shooting 40 percent and scoring below 100 points per 100 possessions as it did tonight. Even with seven first-quarter turnovers (16 total) giving the opportunistic Bucks life as they took a double-digit lead, such a performance without Dwyane Wade (thigh) is hardly surprising against such a stalwart defense.

Because again, Miami has won its share of games shooting around 40 percent simply because it holds its opponents lower, and tonight its defensive foundation was shaky once again. Spoelstra said after the game that it wasn’t a step back, which is only true because the HEAT have been well behind the standard they have set for over a week.

As he did on the road, Spoelstra again went to a zone defense, this time in the second quarter, and again it was the only time the HEAT were able to make up significant ground, mounting a 13-2 run to get within one possession.

But zones tend not to last, and with Miami taking care of the ball slightly better, the rest of the game was a seesaw affair, eventually decided by two threes from Carlos Delfino in the final 2:30 – two of Milwaukee’s 16 assisted buckets all night.

That you won’t remember, because while the HEAT are primarily concerned with how they are playing, most want the raw result, because in this late chapter of the regular season, everything means something for the playoffs.

With the Boston Celtics dormant this evening, the HEAT are now a half-game back, before tiebreakers, and essentially must win Sunday afternoon in order to have a chance at the Eastern Conference’s second seed. Which, of course, may or may not actually be all that significant.

“What does the two seed guarantee you? It doesn’t guarantee you anything,” LeBron James said. “Last two years I’ve been the first overall seed and it didn’t pay off for us. It’s not about seedings.

“You have to win on somebody’s floor to win a championship at the end of the day.”

The HEAT have been through this before. They’ve had worse stretches this season, played worse within individual games, and still stayed the course to correct and improve. Magnified as every loss has been, it is only more so with four games left to play. That changes perception, but the team’s recognition of what it’s done and what it must do.

“As we finish out these four games, they all have meaning,” Spoelstra said. “Much like these games feel in the playoffs, you lose one, everyone is ready to panic and shovel dirt on whatever we’re trying to do. We just have to stay the course and take care of business.”

Eventually, that has to mean taking care of the defense.