For 24 minutes on Sunday night, the Milwaukee Bucks played good basketball. But in order to beat — or even compete with — the Miami Heat, the Bucks are going to have to play like they did in the first half for all four quarters.
And even then, especially as efficient as the Heat were Sunday, it might not be enough to steal a game. But though in the end the Bucks were routed 110-87 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, they at least have one half of basketball to build on.
After the Heat rode the emotion of the building to jump out to a 21-8 lead, the Bucks settled in, got back in the game and only trailed by four when Monta Ellis hit a three-pointer to open the third quarter.
But the Bucks struggled to get stops and didn’t grab a single offensive rebound in the second half, as Miami quickly built an overwhelming lead.
“I think our first half play was great even though they came out early and they threw the first punch,” Bucks guard Brandon Jennings said. “Once we calmed down and got into our rhythm, we were able to only be down a couple of points at the half. Second half they came out and we had no answer from them.”
Milwaukee’s small margin for error in order to compete with the Heat is well-documented. Miami is the heavy favorites to defend its title. The second half of Sunday’s game looked a lot like how the Bucks played for the final 20 games of the season.
Any period of time with lackluster defense and stagnant offense will more than likely lead to Miami pouncing for a demoralizing run.
“I thought they came out a little more focused (in the second half),” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “They came out with a little more purpose. We didn’t move the ball like we did in the first half. Against a good team like Miami, when you don’t do the things you need to do — that’s good solid ball movement, player movement — when you don’t do that, their defensive shell is pretty tight, they took advantage of that.”
Milwaukee’s guards had big nights, but Miami seemed alright to let Ellis and Jennings have theirs. The Heat closed out on Milwaukee’s shooters well and turned the Bucks’ offense into the guards freelancing.
Jennings and Ellis combined for 48 points on 18 of 39 shooting, but their teammates couldn’t get anything going to chip in. Ersan Ilyasova and J.J. Redick were a combined 2 of 13, while Larry Sanders’ playoff debut was spoiled by foul trouble.
An unbalanced offense is rarely going to beat Miami, especially coupled with a defense that struggled to contest shots for most of the night.
“I thought we played well enough in stretches but we just have to figure out how to sustain that,” Boylan said. “That’s not an easy task against a really good team, we know that. I like the way we competed for those stretches.
“We just have to figure out how to sustain that effort and that level. I though in third quarter we were a little bit lax with our defense and gave them some easy baskets and some penetration that came kind of easily to them. Our defense wasn’t focused enough for those stretches. They took advantage of that. We need to learn from that and move on.”
But even if the Bucks find a way to sustain a more productive level of play, they have to be wondering if it will even be enough. Miami turned the ball over 19 times, only forced the Bucks into 12 turnovers, and had just 10 fastbreak points, usually a staple of the Heat’s game.
Miami’s turnovers have to be high and its points off turnovers must be low if the Bucks are going to steal a game in the series. That happened Saturday night and the Bucks lost by 23.
Well, it starts with the contributions Miami got from Ray Allen and Chris Andersen off the bench and ends with the best player in the world continuing his incredible stretch of play.
LeBron James didn’t go off by his standards, but he was scarily efficient. James finished with 27 points on 9 of 11 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out eight assists. It was a complete effort Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called “very mature” and a “high IQ” game.
If James is going to need just 11 shots to score close to 30 points for the rest of this series, the Bucks are in trouble no matter how well they play.
“Incredibly efficient,” Boylan said of James. “When you have a game like that, what can you do? I though Luc (Richard Mbah a Moute) battled him well. I thought Marquis (Daniels) battled him and tried to make him as uncomfortable as possible. The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you do? You just tip your hat to him.”
All the Bucks can do now is get back to work Monday and try to figure out exactly what happened in Sunday’s second half. There’s still plenty of time to challenge Miami, but Milwaukee’s response in Game 2 will be a telling sign if they will do so.
“We just have to go back to the drawing board and get ready for Game 2,” Ellis said. “Take the positives from this and go from there and see what happens.”
Despite the blowout, Miami isn’t expecting the Bucks to just lay down, either.
“In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter if you lose by one or you lose by 23,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “Teams are going to make adjustments. We have to be able to make adjustments and when they make them on us, we have to be able to make in-game adjustments. I’m looking forward to seeing what we do and what they throw at us.”