There’s just something about the Milwaukee Bucks the Miami Heat can’t seem to figure out lately.
Wednesday night, it was a trio of things: How to keep them off the free-throw line, how to keep them out of the paint and how to keep their hands off the ball when the Heat had it.
Led by 6-11 point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists, Milwaukee ended the Heat’s season-long five-game winning streak with a 114-108 victory at the Bradley Center.
The Bucks, who have beaten the Heat in six of the past seven meetings, made 26 of their 37 free-throw attempts, scored 66 points in the paint and forced 17 Heat turnovers that led to 23 points.
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That all offset some quality bench work by Hassan Whiteside (23 points, 13 rebounds 3 blocks in 29 minutes) and rookie Josh Richardson (14 points, three three-pointers) and dropped the Heat (37-27) to 1 ½ games behind the Boston Celtics for third place in the Eastern Conference.
“They had 66 paint points and we had 60,” said Dwyane Wade, who had 18 points, six assists and six turnovers in 33 minutes. “It’s not where they beat us. They beat us on second-chance [points] and they beat us at the line. We had too many turnovers as a team. I had way too many. But they beat us on second-chance points and slowing the game down, going to the free-throw line.
“You never have a rhythm against that team. It’s a nasty game, a junk game.”
And that’s exactly what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to do after Wednesday’s defensive effort — toss it in the trash. Even though the Heat has picked up its pace and scoring after the All-Star break, Spoelstra hasn’t always been pleased with the team’s defensive efforts, and the fact the Bucks got to the line 37 times (the most allowed by the Heat this season) didn’t sit well with him.
“We just didn’t bring enough from a competitive, defensive standpoint,” Spoelstra said. “Our identity has not changed. We’re not a team that’s just trying to outscore you and come in here and see if we can put more points on the board and win that way. It’s disappointing, but we have to get ready for Chicago [on Friday], a team that will be waiting for us.”
Outside of the Golden State Warriors, no team in the league had done a better job winning games when the difference on the scoreboard was five points or less and under two minutes to play than the Heat this season.
But Miami fell to 21-9 in those situations after it let a three-point lead slip away midway through the fourth quarter.
The Heat had a 92-89 lead after a Luol Deng three-pointer with 7:56 to play, but the Bucks turned that three-point deficit into a three-point lead without giving the Heat the ball back on the ensuing possession.
First, Miles Plumlee scored in the paint and drew Whiteside’s fourth foul. After Plumlee missed the ensuing free throw, the Bucks grabbed the rebound, and after Khris Middleton missed a three-pointer, Justise Winslow grabbed the rebound. But the Heat’s first-round pick drew a flagrant foul on the play for elbowing Plumlee in the eye as he grabbed the rebound.
Plumlee then made the two ensuing free throws to give the Bucks the lead. Then, with the ball still in the Bucks’ possession after the technical free throws, Antetokounmpo drove into the paint and scored to make it 95-92.
“Guys get hit by elbows on 50 percent of rebounds,” Winslow said. “I like the Plumlees. I played with a Plumlee [in college]. It was unintentional. But they made the call.”
The Heat trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half and didn’t take its first lead until Richardson buried a pair of free throws to make it 74-73 with 4:05 left in the third quarter.
Whiteside had 19 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in the first half. His most dominant moments? He swatted away a pair of drives into the paint on the same Milwaukee possession and later spun past a defender in the paint, dunked and hung on the rim with 41.3 seconds left.
Yet, Spoelstra wasn’t exactly happy with Whiteside. He subbed the center out with 8:14 left in the second quarter, had words with him on the bench, and then put him back in with 7:27 to go. What did they talk about during those 47 seconds on the bench?
“It was just something between me and him,” Spoelstra said.
Said Whiteside: “We didn’t have a conflict. We had a conversation. It wasn’t a conflict between me and Spo.”
The Heat trailed 57-54 at the half, but considering how the game started, that was a victory for Miami. The Heat turned it over seven times in the opening quarter — including three Wade turnovers in the first three minutes. The Bucks took advantage, scoring six fastbreak points and 16 points in the paint, including four dunks from Antetokounmpo in the opening period.
Richardson and Whiteside then rallied the Heat in the second quarter. A small section of Bucks fans known as the Cream City Clash taunted Richardson by chanting “Who are you?” when he stepped to the foul line with 3:25 left in the first half. Richardson answered a minute later when he drove past Tyler Ennis and threw down a nasty one-handed dunk over center Greg Monroe.
“It was amazing,” Whiteside said of the dunk. “I was really surprised by it. I know he can jump, but the way he took off. I had the best view in the house besides Greg.”