What’s the best way to treat the final game of an NBA road trip these days?
Simple. Take one against the hapless, hopeless Milwaukee Bucks and feel better in the morning.
Even if their 88-67 victory at the Bradley Center on Saturday night did come against the worst team in the league, the Heat weren’t about throw it back given their makeshift roster and the lateness of the season. They returned home after a 2-1 road trip with renewed confidence in their bench and ability to shut down opponents.
“Great trip. Great trip,” LeBron James repeated after it was over.
Despite a one-point loss to the Pacers in Indianapolis earlier in the week, it was a great, great, great trip in some respects. In the three games, the Heat allowed an average of 76.3 points per game and didn’t allow an opponent to shoot better than 38 percent in the field.
Is it possible that, only days after several players were highly critical of their defense, the Heat are their old selves again?
“We’re getting there,” said Rashard Lewis, who contributed 13 points off the bench. “I don’t want to say we’re there yet, but we’ve started to crank it up at the defensive end these past three games. Even in the Indiana game, we played well at the defensive end and we’ve got to continue to play well. When we play good defense, we flow right into the offense.”
Better yet, the Heat did it with Ray Allen (flu), Mario Chalmers (bruised right thigh) and Dwyane Wade (strained right hamstring) sidelined the last two games. Reserve Greg Oden (sore back) also sat out a second consecutive game. Toney Douglas, Udonis Haslem and James Jones started the last two games and held their own in each one.
As a bonus, James (13 points) and Chris Bosh (14) were required to play only 30 and 26 minutes in the latest victory, respectively.
“We really wanted that game in Indy,” James said. “But it was a great trip overall, just how we bounced back with all the adversity we had to go through as far as guys in and out of the lineup. It was a true professional road trip, especially with these last two games, and we needed them.”
The counterfeit Bucks (14-59) were without three starters of their own — Ersan Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders. They connected on 34 percent of their field goal tries, the second-lowest total by a Heat opponent this season.
“Everybody knows what their record is,” Heat head man Erik Spoelstra said of the home team. “You can come into this on a back-to-back with the wrong attitude and try to short-cut it and take the easy route. But instead, we came in with a workman-like attitude toward the game, particularly at the defensive end.”
Prior to the game, James spent time with cancer patient Ebony Nettles-Bey, 16, whose dream was to meet her idol one day. He presented his game jersey and sneakers to her afterward.
“Basketball is a small part of our lives,” James said. “The way it can impact someone else’s life puts it all in perspective. What she’s going through every single day, the challenges that she’s facing with the Stage 4 cancer that she has, she’s the stronger one out of us two. She’s unbelievable.”