For 24 minutes Friday, Justise Winslow had never been better. In the midst of a breakout season, Winslow did everything for the Miami Heat as it raced out to a 20-point lead against the Milwaukee Bucks. He scored 20 points and dished out four assists. He erased a Bucks basket with a just-in-the-knick-of-time chase-down block. He even got to be the recipient of a Dwyane Wade alley-oop.
And then there was nothing. A thigh injury slowed the point forward and Milwaukee deflated Miami with an overwhelming second half. Winslow didn’t score after halftime and handed out only one assist. The Heat’s 20-point halftime lead turned into a 113-98 loss in Miami.
“Them hitting shots deflated us and that took away from what we were doing on both sides of the court offensively and defensively,” Winslow said after the loss Friday. “It just kind of took the life out of us. Once that momentum shifted, we just weren’t the same team again.”
For Winslow, a minor injury also kept him from keeping a dominant second half going. Late in the second quarter, a Buck’s knee slammed into Winslow’s right thigh. Winslow started the second half for the Heat, but went to the locker room with 4:24 left in the half to have his bruise checked out. He returned with 13.8 seconds left in the period to finish the game, but could never recapture any of his first-half magic.
Coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday at his postgame press conference he doesn’t expect Winslow’s injury — or a right hip injury suffered by Wade in the third quarter — to be any sort of long-term concern. Both players are listed as questionable to play Sunday at 1 p.m. when Miami plays a critical home game against Charlotte Hornets at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Heat (32-36) now leads the Hornets (31-37) by just one game in the race for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I just didn’t have the top gear that I usually like to play with on both ends of the floor,” Winslow said, “so it affected me.”
In those first 24 minutes, Winslow played with the sort of gear he wants. He was explosive — racing the length of the court for his chase-down block and finishing multiple dunks in transition, including the lob from Wade. He was crafty — dropping a behind-the-back bounce pass to post player Bam Adebayo midway through the first quarter and destroying Milwaukee forward Nikola Mirotic with a quick crossover for a layup midway through the second quarter.
Sometimes, though, it’s just as simple as making shots. Winslow started 3 of 3 from three-point range — and Miami started 6 of 6 — to spark the Heat to an early 23-point lead. That this can now happen on any given night for Winslow, who’s shooting 38.0 percent from three-point range on 3.8 attempts per game, means performances like his first half Friday can happen.
“I was just in attack mode,” Winslow said. “It helps when you make shots early. You want to get in a rhythm.”
Even if the injury was the primary culprit for Winslow’s second-half disappearance, Miami’s young core of Winslow, Adebayo and combo guard Josh Richardson is still learning to manage emotions, too.
Nearly every one of Winslow’s signature first-half plays was punctuated by a celebration. He yelled to the crowd after momentum carried him into the courtside seats after his chase-down block. He did the same after flushing home his lob from Wade. And when he threaded the Bucks’ defense for an inch-perfect bounce pass to Adebayo from the top of the key for an and-one, he turned to face the crowd at midcourt and threw up his arms to goad the AAA into a frenzy.
The Bucks stamped out the excitement early in the second half, though, and the Heat unraveled. Winslow knows it and so do his teammates.
“An eighth-seed team? You go through that. That’s why you eighth seed,” Wade said. “It’s not always just talent. There’s other things that come into play, so there’s definitely things that we need to get better at. I think we have of late. That’s what why we’ve been able to put ourselves in the position to get back in the playoffs.”