Barry Jackson

Heat at a loss how to defend Bucks, now just 2-12 against top five in East

Milwaukee Bucks’ Brook Lopez, center, and Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo reach for the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 22, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Milwaukee Bucks’ Brook Lopez, center, and Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo reach for the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 22, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps) AP

Five takeaways from the Heat’s 116-87 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, dropping Miami to a 2-1 on this four-game road trip:

The Heat – like much of the rest of the league – has no answer to stop MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Miami held him well below his averages in the first two meetings between the teams this season:

He had just nine points on 3 for 12 shooting in a 94-87 Heat win on Dec. 22, then had 12 points on 4 for 9 shooting and was needed for just 24 minutes of a 124-86 Bucks blowout of Miami on Jan. 15.

But he’s been unstoppable against the Heat on the past two Friday nights, scoring 33 in 34 minutes (to go with 16 rebounds and nine assists) in Milwaukee’s 15 point win a week ago, and produced 27 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 blocks in 28 minutes on Friday.

No matter who was defending him on Friday, Antetokounmpo found a way to the basket, against both the Heat’s zone and man to man defenses.

“He’s really improved dramatically as a passer, making you pay for bringing extra bodies,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

He began the game by dancing past Kelly Olynyk, who fouled him – to boot – for a three point play. Then he twice drove by Bam Adebayo for lay-ins, and maneuvered past two Heat defenders for a dunk.

Then he drove easily past Hassan Whiteside for a basket, dunked when Olynyk and James Johnson were slow on a switch, tipped in an offensive rebound and hit a three en route to 20 first half points on 9 for 11 shooting.

Not even an awkward fall could slow him. Antetokounmpo, who had missed the previous two games with an ankle injury, appeared to roll his right foot midway through the second quarter when he came down on teammate Tony Snell’s foot, but walked it off and returned to the game.

Adebayo, Johnson and others all tried to defend him, without success.

“Giannis’ ability to drive, the shooters they put around around him -- amazing job of putting the right guys around -- makes them tough to guard,” guard Dwyane Wade said. “We haven’t cracked the code. If we get a chance to play them in the playoffs, hopefully we’ll play better than we have these last three times we’ve played them.”

The Bucks, for the third time this season, simply overwhelmed the Heat for an extended stretch, and that’s an alarming sign should the teams meet in postseason.

Though Miami won one of the four games in the season series and led by 20 at the half of their loss to the Bucks a week ago, Milwaukee had lengthy stretches of dominance in three of the four games, with Miami seemingly helpless to stop it.

Friday’s Bucks surge during a 30-19 second quarter and 31-18 third quarter.

Since intermission of their game a week ago (when the Heat was up 20), Milwaukee has outscored Miami 187-123 over the next six quarters.

Three-point avalanches have been a key each of those extended runs.

Milwaukee was 17 for 39 on threes in the previous home blowout of Miami, 11 for 19 in the second half of that staggering comeback a week ago and 17 for 33 in Friday’s game.

Milwaukee entered just 17th in three-point field goal percentage but second, behind Houston, in three point baskets and attempts per game. And the Heat entered Wednesday 19th in three-point field goal percentage defense at 36.0.

So this is hardly a favorable matchup for Miami.

“They keep coming at you with attacks, threes,” Spoelstra said. “It would have required one of our better games. It was one of our poorer games in a while. They have so much spacing, so much shooting that it makes it tough. We didn’t protect the paint well and they got their open threes. They got everything they wanted.”

And consider that the Bucks rolled Friday without starting guard Malcolm Brogdon (who’s shooting 42.6 percent on threes and might be back from a foot injury by the second round) and Nikola Mirotic (36.5 percent on threes/expects to be back from a thumb injury for the first round of the playoffs).

For its part, the Heat played a fourth consecutive game without Justise Winslow (bruised thigh) and also was missing Rodney McGruder (knee soreness).

Josh Richardson’s shooting slump continues, and Goran Dragic’s brilliant stretch came to an end.

Richardson entered having shot 2 for 17, 3 for 14 and 6 for 16 in the three previous games, including 3 for 20 on threes. On Friday, he was 4 for 12 and 2 for 7 on threes.

Dragic entered averaging 22.3 points in his past three games on 58.5 percent shooting and 63.6 percent on threes. But he missed all nine of his shots on Friday, going scoreless in 21 minutes.

The Heat closed at 37.6 percent from the field (32 for 85) and 11 for 37 on threes (29.7 percent).

“We’re an attacking paint team and they shut that basically completely off,” Spoelstra said.

One highlight: Wade, who scored 12, received a video board acknowledgement and a loud and lengthy standing ovation in the city where he played his college ball at Marquette. This would have been Wade’s final game in Milwaukee unless the teams meet in the playoffs.

Orlando drew closer to the Heat in the battle for the East’s final playoff spot.

By rallying from a big deficit to beat Memphis in overtime, the Magic drew to within one half game of the Heat for the eighth and final spot. The teams play Tuesday in Miami.

If the Heat wins Tuesday to even the season series with the Magic at 2-2, a potential tiebreaker between the teams would come down to division record, a category Orlando leads at the moment (7-6 record in the Southeast to Miami’s 6-8).

The Heat is now two games behind the No. 7 Nets, who won at the Lakers on Friday night, and 2.5 games behind No. 6 Detroit, whose next three games are at Portland, at Golden State and at Denver.

One advantage for Miami: Of Brooklyn’s final eight games, seven are against teams in the top five of the Eastern and Western Conferences. The other is the regular-season finale against Miami in Brooklyn.

The Heat still can go 3-1 on this road trip by winning Saturday at lottery-bound Washington.

Unfortunately, the Heat cannot participate in the Western Conference playoffs.

While the Heat finished the season 9-7 against the eight teams very likely to make the Western Conference playoffs, Miami fell to 6-15 against the seven other teams who hold Eastern Conference playoff positions.

And Miami’s record is just 2-12 against the top five teams in the East, with the only wins against Milwaukee and Boston.

The Heat is now 0-3 against Toronto, 1-3 against Milwaukee, 1-1 against Boston, 0-2 against Philadelphia and 0-3 against Indiana.

Miami still has two games left against Boston, one at Toronto and one at home against Philadelphia.

“We haven’t figured them out yet,” Wade said. “You play them more times than you do against Western Conference teams. It’s hard for an Eastern Conference team to come in for a Western Conference team, it’s hard to prepare.

“[But with Milwaukee] , we just played them a week ago. They know us and they’re the No. 1 seed. This is expected for them. We have to figure out a way to beat them. They’re just doing their job.”