As the postseason approaches, it’s time for a Heat check.
Upgrade defense? Done.
Rest veteran starters? Done.
Find reserves to step up? Done.
Take Eastern Conference lead? Done.
And so it went at AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday night, when the Heat scored a 96-77 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks that went according to plan. They maintained their lead by percentage points over the second-place Indiana Pacers in the conference race.
“We’re playing good ball right now, both offensively and more importantly defensively,” LeBron James said. “When we defend, we’re a very, very good team.”
The Heat allowed 77, 83, 67, 78 and 83 points in their last five games, four of them victories.
“A few weeks ago, we decided to adopt the mentality that this is our norm, and there’s nothing wrong with it,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The quicker we embrace it, the quicker we can conquer it.”
The Heat bolted to 56-38 lead in the first half before the reserves carried the ball the rest of the way.
Chris Andersen, James Jones and Rashard Lewis continued their stellar play off the bench. Andersen finished with eight points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots, while Jones contributed in nine points on a trio of three-pointers. Lewis added seven points and a pair of assists.
The only hint of drama came late in the first half, when Bucks forward Jeff Adrien got a bit rough with James in an apparent attempt to discourage more dunk attempts. Udonis Haslem responded with a hard shove and was whistled for a technical foul on the play.
“If the people from the ’80’s heard this discussion, they would laugh,” Spoelstra said. “That wasn’t anything.”
Ray Allen (stomach virus) and Dwayne Wade (sore right hamstring) did not play but could return against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Allen took part in the pre-game warm-up then watched the game in civvies on the bench.
“The regular season has definitely proven that you have to be ready, because your number will likely be called at some point and it could happen from one game to the next,” Spoelstra said. “James Jones is a perfect example of that. He has been logging 25-plus minutes, and you can’t do that unless you’re putting in an incredible amount of time behind the scenes.”
James and Chris Bosh played sparingly in the second half. James scored 17 points and handed out eight assists in 29 minutes, Bosh scored 15 points in 26 minutes.
Bosh also failed to grab a rebound for the first time in his career, but that wasn’t an area of concern on this night.
“It’s always beneficial for sure,” James said of his extended bench time of late. “We’ve put together some really good games as of late, and some of our big guys have been able to rest in the fourth quarter. That goes with our defense, not turning the ball over offensively, being very efficient and building those leads. The group that has come in has been able to that as well.”