MILWAUKEE — In the end it probably won’t really matter how the Miami Heat played Sunday afternoon in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals because they have a bigger prize in mind.
If the Heat somehow lost to the Milwaukee Bucks, they more than likely would have closed out the series back home on Tuesday. But for the time being, Sunday’s 88-77 victory gave Miami another notch on its belt.
Playing without Dwyane Wade, who was resting his injured knee and forearm, the Heat did something they haven’t done in the Big Three era: Sweep a series.
“I think that was our next big step in seeing how we can continue to improve,” Heat forward LeBron James said. “It’s so hard to win on the road in the playoffs, in someone’s building, especially when someone is playing for their life. It’s a big step for us to be able to close this out. As a team, we like what we’ve been able to accomplish in this series.”
The script Sunday was a familiar one. Miami let a less-talented Milwaukee team hang around for most of the game before using a big run to pull away for the victory. With Wade dressed to play but clearly sitting out, James had to play at an MVP level for the first time in the series.
James scored seven points and assisted on every other basket during a 19-5 run that turned a 69-67 game into a rout with 2:41 to play.
“We don’t take it for granted,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of James. “Great players make great plays and particularly when you need it most in clutch times. LeBron more than anything settled us. We ran virtually every part of our offense through him one way or another. Either he was handling, creating a trigger at the elbow or finding open guys.”
Even in a game in which he scored 30 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out seven assists, James didn’t force anything. He controlled the game in a way that so few can, but it was almost unimpressive because it’s now expected from him. Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy said James sends you in circles as a defender with his unique ability to control the entire game.
“It’s the most efficient I’ve played in my career,” James said. “For the most part tonight, my 20 shots were all good looks. I took one, I think at the end of the second quarter that was an off-balance 3-pointer. For the most part my shots were in the flow of the offense or in a matchup where I was able to get to my spot.”
James’ final numbers for the series are impressive, but he didn’t have to dominate for the vast majority of the four games. Chris Bosh was fairly pedestrian, while Wade struggled mightily in Game 3 and sat out of Game 4.
Miami’s Big Three didn’t have to play well in order to easily dispose of Milwaukee, largely due to the Heat’s bench. Ray Allen continued his strong postseason with 16 points, diving after loose balls and hitting 3-pointers like he’s done all too often on the BMO Harris Bradley Center floor.
Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and Shane Battier didn’t play like they had in the first three games of the series, but again, they didn’t have to Sunday because of the way they played in the first three games.
“They’ve given us a great spark,” Spoelstra said. “Each game we’ve been able to break the game open to double digits with that second unit, or some version of those guys in there. You would hope that our style of play is wearing on the opponent to the point to where those guys come in with that frenetic energy that you can take it to another level.”
For Miami, its journey is just beginning, or so it hopes. The sweep of the Bucks is only important because this version of the Heat has never done it before, and because it allows Miami to get a bit of rest.
The earliest the Eastern Conference semifinals can start is Saturday, giving Wade and the rest of the Heat six days of rest before facing Chicago or Brooklyn.
“It can be good for a lot of our guys because of the bumps and bruises that we have,” James said. “D-Wade, it is going to be great for him. We also have to keep our edge and not lose our rhythm with our practices and our preparation.
“We have an opportunity to get some rest because we took care of business, but business is not done. The only thing we’ve guaranteed ourselves is a next round. That’s it.”
One of the last questions James fielded Sunday evening was one that was only asked because of how talented Miami is. Has he even thought about going 16-0 in the postseason — something that would be much bigger than sweeping a series for the first time?
“I think 16 (wins) is all that matters to me,” James said. “For me 16 is the ultimate goal, but number five is what we want to get next. That will be Game 1 of the next round. That’s the way we approach it. We take (the) next step as its own. Hopefully we are fortunate enough to be able to climb the ladder.”