Milwaukee’s Luc Richard Mbah a Moute spent the first half Saturday night cementing his reputation as one of the NBA’s premier defenders, keeping the best basketball player in the world in check as well as humanly possible.
But when LeBron James scored on his team’s final possession before halftime and the Bucks couldn’t score as the buzzer sounded, Milwaukee held what was quite possibly the most tenuous 12-point lead in memory. The BMO Harris Bradley Center was buzzing at the break- buzzing with nervous energy for Bucks’ fans while those cheering the Heat likely sensed a coming storm of the kind only brewed by world champions.
Sure enough, when the game resumed, Miami unleashed a deluge of points and the Bucks’ shooting percentage was even more frigid than the outside temperature. Chris Bosh scored two baskets for the Heat. Then Dwyane Wade got in on the act. And then there was that LeBron guy.
The reigning MVP scored 14 in the third, and he, Bosh and Wade scored 24 of their team’s 27 points in the period. Milwaukee countered by missing its first 12 shots, and in a blink, a 12-point edge became a nine-point hole for the Bucks. Milwaukee crowds have seen James get into the zone before, and it seemed for a little while that his latest flurry was destined to morph into a blizzard from which the home team would not escape.
But then something a little bit strange and quite wonderful happened, and if the turn of events is any indication of what’s to come, winter won’t be quite as long and cold around here this year.
After what players described as an especially animated timeout, the Bucks absorbed Miami’s blows, gathered themselves, punched back, and threw their competition down a flight of stairs in a knockout blow spanning the entire fourth quarter. The result was a hard-earned, exhilarating 104-85 victory before a sellout crowd.
The Bucks (16-12) finished on a 42-14 run in dealing the Heat their second road loss in as many nights. Miami (20-8) fell to 6-6 on the road this season and left the building believing in Milwaukee’s talent.
As Bucks coach Scott Skiles knew his team would have to coming in, Milwaukee did many things right and had a plethora of contributors in the win. Brandon Jennings, who usually shines against the Heat, posted 25 points, seven assists and four steals to lead the way, and backcourt mate Monta Ellis bounced back from missing six shots in the third to finish with 14 points, nine assists and five steals. Mike Dunleavy was spectacular in his Sixth Man role, totaling 18 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals.
As with any big win, Milwaukee received a huge boost from its supporting cast. In addition to hounding James, Mbah a Moute had a solid night offensively, especially in the first half. The forward cut sharply to the rim and was the frequent beneficiary of pinpoint passes from the guards for easy baskets. He finished with 19 points and seven boards.
The second half was The Larry Sanders Show. Someone in the front office figures to be starting a campaign for the third-year center to win the Most Improved Player award. Sanders took full advantage of Udonis Haslem’s absence in the paint due to a hip injury; recording 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. He also committed only two fouls in 32 minutes.
It is increasingly evident with each game that Sanders is often the Bucks’ fulcrum on which outcomes swing. Team veterans such as Marquis Daniels and Samuel Dalembert have effusively praised Sanders for his physical abilities this season while counseling him to better harness his emotions on the court. Sanders delivered on both counts Saturday, executing a pair of pick-and-rolls to perfection for dunks during the decisive run and not engaging in banter with the often-mouthy Heat. If this Sanders shows up with regularity for 54 more games, there is no reason this team wouldn’t be a tough out in the playoffs.
Of course, as any coach would remind his team, there’s still a long way to go to get there. We’ll quickly find out if Saturday’s euphoria produces a hangover; the Bucks travel to Auburn Hills to take on a Pistons squad still basking in their own thrashing of Miami. If Milwaukee comes out stagnant and lethargic, all momentum could be lost.
But if the Bucks can take care of business, we could end up talking about Saturday’s game three months from now as a win that made them realize they were going places. That, however, is a topic for future discussion.
Skiles said after the game that his team was “able to hold off” the Heat. While coaches are almost contractually obligated to be guarded, columnists are not. So I will happily correct the coach: the Bucks beat Miami down.
Because while I typically remain cautious about the Bucks’ process in December, there was nothing subdued about the scene Saturday night as the clock ticked away. As the stunned Heat groupies left in droves, the home crowd partied like it was 2013, their team tied for first in the Central.
Happy New Year, Bucks’ fans. Stay tuned.