Five takeaways from the Heat’s 94-87 win against the visiting Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday – Miami’s fourth win a row and sixth in its past eight:
▪ The Heat continues a streak of torrid defense, and that has everything to do with Miami’s best stretch of the season.
For the sixth time in 11 games and fourth game in a row, the Heat held an opponent to less than 100 points – an impressive achievement during a season when scoring is up around the league. More impressively, Miami did it against a team that entered leading the league in scoring at 117.8 points per game. Milwaukee’s 87 points were a season low.
Miami used a zone defense sparingly Saturday but when it went to the 2-3 zone late, it made an enormous difference. “It frustrates [opponents],” Hassan Whiteside said. “They’re not used to it.”
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(More on the zone in a minute.)
You had the sense this would be another terrific night defensively for the Heat when Milwaukee – which arrived in Miami at 4 a.m. after beating Boston on Friday - scored only eight in the first quarter (on 4 for 21 shooting) and missed its first 13 three-point attempts.
The Bucks closed at 37.3 percent from the field -- well below their 47.7 percent average entering the game – and 9 for 43 on threes (20.9 percent).
Keep in mind that the Heat entered holding teams to 44.1 percent shooting, third best in the league.
And the Heat played suffocating defense on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounpo, who missed his first seven shots and didn’t hit a shot from the field until an alley-oop dunk with 5:13 left in the third.
James Johnson (and during stages, Derrick Jones Jr., Bam Adebayo and others) did excellent work on Antetokounpo, who managed only nine points after entering sixth in the league in scoring at 26.8 points per game and 10th in field goal percentage at 59.1.
He finished 3 for 12 from the field – including of all things, an airball on a driving layup - and Heat defenders often kept him out of the paint.
“The Heat put a ton of bodies in front of him,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “To loosen them up, we have to make more shots.”
Miami played zone very briefly in the first 45 minutes of the game but then went to the 2-3 zone with an 84-81 lead in the final three minutes. That seemed to flummox the Bucks, and Miami then unleashed an 8-2 run to seal it.
Playing zone “gets you communicating,” Josh Richardson said. “You have to move more in the zone, and it’s a challenge but we really enjoy it.”
Before the game, Budenholzer said the zone has “had a big impact on their team.”
One difference on Saturday, though, was it was Whiteside, not Bam Adebayo, anchoring that zone late.
“I love playing the zone,” Whiteside said, adding that he hadn’t played it since high school and wishes that Syracuse would have offered him a scholarship so he could have played it there.
“It’s so easy for me to play a zone,” he said. “All that length [that opponents must deal with]. I’ve got a 7-9 wingspan. Our length takes up the whole court.”
Whiteside, incidentally, noted that “we’re on a four-game win streak since I came back” from the birth of his child.
The disparity between the Heat defense during the first quarter of the season – and since then – is pretty striking.
Miami allowed 110.5 points per game and 44.7 percent shooting during its 7-13 start.
But in the 10 games since – Saturday was the 11th – Miami has permitted 101.3 points per game while opponents shot 42.9 percent.
▪ The Heat remains offensively challenged at times but has been able to win on its worst shooting nights more than other teams.
While the rest of the league entered the weekend 10-110 when shooting under 40 percent, the Heat are 5-4 in those games after shooting 38.2 percent in Saturday’s win.
“They are long; they get you out of your comfort zone,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They got us deep into the clock a few possessions. One of these nights, we will probably break out and shoot 60 percent. I think our offense will improve.”
On Saturday, Miami closed at 31.2 on three-pointers (10 for 32)and 69.6 percent on free throws (16 for 23). Miami entered last in the league in shooting percentage at 43.1, 29th in free throw percentage at 69.8 and 24th in points at 106.6.
Nevertheless, the Heat’s best three-point shooter – Wayne Ellington – remains an afterthought this season. He was a DNP-CD (did not play/coach’s decision) for the sixth time on Saturday and has played just 10 minutes combined over Miami’s past three games.
But it’s difficult to question that decision with the Heat in the midst of its best stretch of the season.
▪ The Heat’s bench continues to outplay opponents’ reserves.
Miami’s quintet of Dwyane Wade (13 points), Kelly Olynyk (11), Tyler Johnson ( 7), Bam Adebayo (four) and Derrick Jones Jr. (five ) outscored the Bucks’ reserves (D.J. Wilson, Sterling Brown, George Hill, Thon Maker and pat Connaughton) by a margin of 40 to 25.
Entering Saturday, the Heat’s bench had outscored their opponents’ reserves by 19.2 points per game (51.1 to 31.9) over the past 12 games. Miami’s bench is second in rebounds and seventh in points this season.
Wade shook off a scoreless first half on 0 for 3 shooting to score 13 in the second half, including critical two critical jumpers in the final two minutes to highlight a seven-point fourth quarter.
▪ James Johnson’s revival continues and for the first time all season, he played late in a close game.
The Heat is so much better when Johnson is at his best, and these past two games are the best he has looked since returning Nov. 18 from May sports hernia surgery.
On Saturday, he was splendid defensively while adding 11 points, six rebounds and four assists and two steals, including a nifty fourth-quarter pass to Whiteside for a dunk.
And he had the biggest block of the game, on Khris Middleton, with 38 seconds left.
“He’s moving so much better, in so much better rhythm,” Spoelstra said. “Where you notice the most is laterally, someone his size who can move and slide like a guard and still have the strength. He’s starting to get his jumping back. Guys that have been out a long time; game minutes are different than all the stuff you do behind the scenes.”
Asked if he’s finally starting to feel like himself, Johnson said: “My legs feel way better. I can move more fluidly. Justise [Winslow] lets me handle the ball to get more rhythm.”
Whiteside also played the closing minutes for the second game in a row and scored five consecutive points during one stretch, closing with 11 points (5 for 17 shooting) but 13 rebounds.
▪ Miami is back in a familiar spot – holding a playoff seed.
That doesn’t mean a ton in December, but as Spoelstra said, “clearly it’s something we want.”
By climbing to within one game of .500 at 15-16, the Heat will enter Sunday’s game at Orlando in eighth, a full game ahead of the 14-17 Magic.
Miami stands one half game behind No. 7 Detroit (15-15) and one game behind No. 6 Charlotte (16-15) and three behind No. 5 Boston (18-13).
These four wins in a row follow an 111-84 drubbing at Utah.
That loss was “maybe the kick in the butt we needed,” Richardson said. “Sometimes it takes to get to rock bottom to figure it out.”
Getting back to .500 would be a “great accomplishment,” James Johnson said. “We definitely want to make a playoff push and be on top of the Eastern Conference. There’s a lot of work ahead but we’ve got the guys to do it.”