1. Stifling once again, the Heat shuts down the paint and the perimeter against one of the NBA’s biggest stars.
Noting its inconsistencies, Erik Spoelstra described the Heat’s defense as mediocre and middle of the pack after Saturday’s practice. Maybe the Heat took it as a challenge as it upped its efforts in the second half of Sunday’s victory against the Bucks and limited them to a season-worst 31.6 percent shooting. The Bucks are eighth in the league in offensive rating (107.4 points per game). The Heat is now eighth in defensive rating (104.2).
“We went away a little bit [from our defensive plan] in the first half,” Goran Dragic said. “They had a lot of points in the paint, second-chance points and then at halftime we talked about we needed to be on the nail more, try to close the paint. In the first half, they only made two threes. That was our goal and we executed well.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, currently the second-leading scorer in the NBA (28.4 points per game), finished with 22 points, but was a non-factor down the stretch with only two points in the fourth quarter.
Miami’s defense also limited forward Khris Middleton to only 3 of 16 shooting and 1 of 8 from three-point range.
The Heat’s defense on the perimeter was stellar for the second consecutive game as the Bucks made only 4 of 28 attempts from three-point range. In Miami’s previous game against the Pacers, Indiana made just one three-point shot in 18 attempts.
“It was just simply execution,” Dragic said. “They had too many fast break points and they got inside the middle especially [Eric] Bledsoe and Giannis and that hurt us. So we just talked that we needed to be on the same page and try to get everybody to be inside the paint and make them pass the ball outside and contest those open shots and we did that.”
2. While it was another collective effort for the Heat it was Dragic’s turn to be the closer in a comfortable win for a change. Dragic scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half and 11 in the fourth quarter including three three-pointers to help Miami secure its first double-digit win of the current streak.
“We developed that grit and that confidence that we could win even if you have a bad shooting game as long as we play defense,” Dragic said. “It’s great because we knew we were going to put those two parts together especially defense when we were going to have good shooting nights we’re going to win by double digits.”
3. Hassan Whiteside has key third quarter, is praised by Spoelstra for his hustle and gets the Heat’s “game ball.” Whiteside recorded the 134th double-double of his Heat career moving him into third place past Udonis Haslem on the franchise’s all-time list. Whiteside scored nine of his 15 points in the third quarter, which keyed Miami’s late push to beat the Bucks.
“I told him when he came out [of the game], I said, ‘Take a snapshot of what you look like right now,’” Spoelstra said. “Totally gasping for air, out of breath and what that picture is is a vision of a competitor who put it all out there. He didn’t leave anything else in the tank. He was making big time efforts on both ends of the court, even those offensive tips when we didn’t score. He was burning calories and expending a lot of energy. Those extra multiple efforts are inspiring.”
Whiteside finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds and blocked four shots in the first quarter in his ninth game back since sitting out 13 in a row with a left knee bone bruise.
The effort was so inspiring, Whiteside was given a wooden trident, which is the Heat’s in-house version of a game ball awarded to players and given from one teammate to another after games in honor of their inspiring play.
“The last player that got it just gives it to the guy that inspired him,” Whiteside said. “I inspired Tyler, who had it before. They just talked about how much I impacted the game and how they fed off my energy and it had an impact and how it was really inspiring.”
4. Justise Winslow delivers brief, but effective return to the Heat’s rotation. Playing for the first time since Dec. 13, it was unclear how much Winslow would play or what his role would be as the Heat tries to maintain the continuity it has achieved during this winning streak. Winslow played 13 minutes and 11 seconds, and made his lone three-point attempt, going 1 for 4 overall. But he had four rebounds and four assists as the Heat finished with 23 assists overall.
“I felt pretty good,” said Winslow, who sat out the previous 14 games with a left knee strain. “I actually wasn’t as tired as I thought. In the second half, I got in a better rhythm making plays on both sides. It felt good to be back out there competing.”
Dragic said the depth Winslow brings and his versatility was what the Heat missed most during his absence.
“We need bodies especially for this road trip and it was good to finally get Justise back,” Dragic said. “It means a lot because you get a guy back who can defend multiple positions and create for others and now he’s shooting the ball better so I think that will help us on this road trip.”
5. Yes, Miami, the Heat really is creeping up on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s team in the standings. The latest impressive Heat triumph Sunday pulled Miami within one game of the three-time reigning conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers for third place in the East.
But if you ask the Heat players what it means to win seven consecutive games, which Miami has done to put itself in that position?
“What winning streak?” Whiteside said after the game.
The Heat will try to keep the momentum going when it embarks on a five-game, eight-day road trip starting Monday in Chicago and continuing with a rematch against the Bucks in Milwaukee followed by stops in Brooklyn, Charlotte and Houston.
“It means nothing because we still have 40 games left,” Dragic said. “We cannot be satisfied with that. We still need to improve. We still have tough games at home and on the road.”