No letdown for LeBron, Heat as reigning champs take 3-0 lead
MILWAUKEE -- Some thoughts from the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Thursday night, where the Heat used a second-half surge to cruise past the Bucks 104-91 to take a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.
Remember a couple years back, when LeBron James would take games off? No longer. If ever there were a time for a letdown, it was Thursday night: in a series you know you're going to win, against a team with bad chemistry, in the first playoff series since winning a title. And yet James played with determination and energy, spreading the ball around, scoring when necessary and knowing exactly when to engage (an efficient 22 points on 14 shots for the night). In this case, that was the third quarter, when it became clear that Dwyane Wade, who finished 1-for-12 from the field, wasn't going to find his shot. That's when James led the reserves on a run that iced the game.
Just as impressive, when James came out at the start of the fourth quarter, he instantly became the Heat's biggest cheerleader -- to that point, Mike Miller held the title. James stood and clapped and waved his arms, but that was nothing compared to his reaction with 8:35 left in the fourth. When Ray Allen swished a three to push the lead to 90-73, James leapt off the bench, landed in a squat and, with eyes afire, roared "YEAAAAHHH! F---- YEAHH!" so fiercely that he scared some people in the first row.
That kind of energy is contagious, especially if it comes from your best player.
Or at least he will if he continues to play like he did Thursday night. When the Heat came out sluggish in the first half, it was Andersen (and, to an extent, Shane Battier) who brought the energy. Andersen is one of those players who helps a team in lots of small, positive ways: deflections, hard screens (he cracked Brandon Jennings with one in the open court) and putbacks. He's especially crucial for a Miami squad that lacks interior players and disruptors --- after all, the Heat are employing five guys whose main offensive skill is hitting three-pointers. Even his fouls are energizing; at one point Andersen flew in to prevent a dunk and while the whistle went against him, he stopped the slam and sent a message to both the Bucks and his teammates. That he later hit a baseline jumper was pure gravy.
Coach Erik Spoelstra lauded Andersen after the game, and deservedly so. In three games this series, Andersen has played 42 minutes and is 13-for-15 from the field, with 20 rebounds and a +38 plus/minus rating. So pumped was the Birdman that he dispensed a round of daps to anyone within dapping distance in the locker room after the game, including TNT's Craig Sager.
Allen had himself a night, hitting 5-of-8 three-pointers and going 8-for-14 overall while scoring 23 points. In the process, he broke Reggie Miller's playoff record for threes (afterward, Allen appeared moved by this, while also reflecting on his own basketball mortality).
Because of who he is, and how quick and high Allen's release is, teams have to stay closer to and be more aware of him than any of the Heat's other spot-up shooters (with the possible exception of Miller). In Game 3, Milwaukee did a poor job of that, often giving Allen wide-open looks.
After the game, Wade told Allen, "Thanks for picking me up offensively," but that frames the performance in the wrong light. This wasn't a pick-me-up. Allen is so valuable and dangerous in the half-court pace of the playoffs that he may well average 15 to 20 points this postseason.
The best Milwaukee looked was in the early going, when the Bucks had Mike Dunleavy and J.J. Redick on the floor at the same time with Jennings. Since Spoelstra was so concerned with Jennings' penetration --- he had Norris Cole, Allen and even James guard him at times --- the Bucks could spread the floor and get open looks, putting a shooter on both wings and running Redick off picks. The shots went down and Miami looked out of sorts, if briefly. It's something that future playoff opponents have no doubt noted.
Give the Bucks' staff credit. It did its best to create a playoff atmosphere. White "FEAR THE DEER" towels were draped over chairs. A pregame video segment meant to whip the crowd into an optimistic frenzy cited various media naysayers -- including this website -- and then pronounced "IT'S HAPPENED BEFORE" while showing a montage of No. 8 seeds knocking out No. 1 seeds.
Unfortunately, the crowd did not mirror the fervor. Even though this was the first Bucks home playoff game in three years, and even though it was a chance to see LeBron and the Heat, vast swathes of seats were open in the upper deck throughout the first half. The fans who did show up weren't all thrilled with their team. From my seat behind one baseline, I heard a soundtrack of frustration throughout the game. "MOVE THE BALL!" a man demanded when Monta Ellis dribbled a hole into the court again. "MAKE A FREE THROW! YOU'RE AN NBA PLAYER," someone shouted at Samuel Dalembert when he bricked a free throw (he bricked the second, too). And, from a passing spectator who looked up to see Jennings get picked at halfcourt: "God, we suck."
Which brings us to ...
That the Bucks were ahead at the half and stayed in this game most of the way was a testament to a couple of players: Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova. They, not coincidentally, are the only two players worth keeping and building around on this team (save maybe John Henson and Redick). To watch Ellis and Jennings engage in a game of Who Can Take the Worse Shot was painful. For the night, they combined to go 7-for-24 from the field and 2-for-13 on three-pointers, few of which were in rhythm. Jennings, in particular, appears enamored of a deep step-back three that is not only low percentage but also negates his quickness advantage.
Someday, Ellis may become an excellent sixth man, a guy who comes in and puts up points like Jamal Crawford, but for now he's a talented but limited score-first guard who will never be one of the two best players on a good team. As for Jennings, his quickness is impressive, both on offense and defense, but his decision-making is not. At the end of the first half, when he should have taken a shot, he instead launched the ball across the court and 10 feet over the head of Dunleavy, who wouldn't have had time to shoot it even if he had caught it. Then, with the Bucks right in the game in the third quarter, he chose to try to throw a lob to Sanders on a fast break when he could have gone all the way to the rim. The pass was both ill-advised and poorly thrown, but Jennings still blamed Sanders, haranguing him afterward. Jennings is young, and he may figure it out in time, but at the moment he's not ready to lead a playoff team out of the first round.