Heat wrap up Bucks in first-round sweep, continue march toward repeat title
Every playoff sweep is an assertion of specific dominance, as four straight wins over a single opponent don't come by way of close calls or fluke performances alone. Yet in the case of the title-favorite Heat -- who dispatched the Bucks with a fourth consecutive victory on Sunday afternoon -- that dominance was amazingly casual. No game in this series was decided by an emphatic opening statement, and none was rendered uncompetitive by the upholding of a massive lead. Miami simply went about its business throughout the series in the most mellow fashion possible, setting up a string of fourth-quarter conclusions that were technically in contest but never truly in doubt.
This wasn't the best of the Heat by any measure, yet sub-peak performance hardly mattered in a series like this one. That's meant in no disrespect to the Bucks, who did a sound job of feeling their way through a messy four-game affair, filled with turnovers aplenty and broken plays on both sides. But Miami held such commanding advantages in this first-round series they could easily get by with a lesser showing, saving those vaunted extra gears for later rounds and tougher opponents. The offense was sloppy, the defense merely serviceable, and the three-point shooting oddly errant. Yet it's amazing how little any of that actually mattered, as even the worst stretches of Heat basketball were solved with quick, concentrated bursts of scoring and energy. Even when the Bucks held a slight lead -- and a chance to extend their playoff lives -- in the second half of Game 4, their play seemed lifeless, as if they had glanced ahead in their scripts and already knew of the explosive runs to come.
LeBron James has given this Miami team that sense of inevitability, by which every deficit is surmountable and every injury manageable. Dwyane Wade sat out the series-clinching game to nurse his sore right knee, but James (who wrapped the series with averages of 24.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game) propelled the Heat to an all-too predictable finish. In the second halves of the four games in this series, Miami outscored Milwaukee by an astounding 27.1 points per 100 possessions, undoing every wrong and making up every point surrendered in a 24-minute blaze. There was just no way for the overmatched Bucks to continue apace once the Heat ratcheted up their intensity and honed their execution -- a sentence likely to be just as applicable to a few more of Miami's opponents by postseason's end.
After all, this Heat team was good enough to beat out a slew of contenders en route to last season's title, only to significantly improve its spacing and rotation in the months since. James is better than ever before, and in this series surged past the truly admirable individual defense of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to offer but a taste of what he's capable of in max-out bursts and bits of omnipresent, sideline-to-sideline defense. Ray Allen, making his first playoff run as a member of the Heat, had a terrific opening series in dropping 16.5 points per game, drawing defenders away from James's drives, and hitting his three-pointers at a reliable 46.4-percent clip. Chris Andersen, another of Miami's recent additions, compacted colossal on-court influence into small gushes of playing time. If we adjusted his astounding per-minute production to the playing time of a regular starter, Andersen would have averaged 20.1 points (on stupefying 81.3-percent shooting) and 12.1 rebounds per 36 minutes, to say nothing of the way he energized the Heat's play on both ends. Beyond those newcomers, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, and Norris Cole all had strong series in their respective roles, while Wade, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers struggled with fits of scoring inefficiency. Some of that is merely the result of missing a mess of makeable shots and some a credit to Milwaukee's defense, but regardless of the cause even those specific deficits couldn't deter the rest of the Heat from filing this series away in short order.
Neither could the weird prevalence of Miami turnovers (the Heat gave the ball away on 18.5 percent of their possessions in this series) or the occasional success of an often chaotic Milwaukee offense, in part because the Heat helped their cause by creating a huge influx of additional possessions. The Bucks weren't quite as prone to giveaways, but committed enough live-ball turnovers (9.6 per game, a few notches higher than the Heat's season average in live-ball TOs forced) and defended poorly enough in transition to surrender that bit of potential advantage. Plus, the Heat became a monstrously effective rebounding team over the course of the last four games, grabbing an offensive board on 29.3 percent of the available opportunities. Active team rebounding helped to create some 43 additional scoring chances over the course of this series, which all but eliminated any hope that the Bucks had of keeping pace. Milwaukee doesn't utilize possessions as efficiently as Miami, and over the last four games didn't have the benefit of winning the possession battle overall. At that point, all that remains is the formal ending of a decided series, which Miami brought on Sunday without much ado.
The Heat don't exactly need the time off that will likely come before beginning the next stage of their playoff progression, but they will have that brief window as reward for their expedience. Wade will have some extra days of rest and treatment for his ailing knee. Erik Spoelstra and his staff will benefit from some additional time to game plan for the challenges of playing the Bulls -- or Nets, in the case of a miracle -- in the second round. The Heat on the whole will have a chance to get rested and get right, all before continuing on-track with what seems to be an easy road to the NBA Finals. Not every series will be this straightforward, but it's tough to argue at this point that any of the series to come will prove much less predictable; one single sweep may not a champion make, but the Heat roll on without even the slightest indication of glaring weakness or backstage drama. They'll play tough games against quality opponents soon enough, but such easy dominance has made Miami's repeat title quite fairly assumed -- as sure as that looming fourth-quarter run, and imminent until we have reason to believe otherwise. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.