MILWAUKEE – Gone swiftly and, let’s be honest, dismissed for all practical purposes weeks ago as they settled into the unenviable No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks might have done a major solid for the rest of the NBA’s playoff teams.
They put the red meat of a series sweep in front of the defending champions, and the Heat pounced like Dobermans on a Milwaukee kielbasa.
Another micro-goal accomplished, within the macro-framework of a second consecutive championship. Maybe that makes it easier for the next guys to eke out a victory or two.
“That was our next big step, seeing how we can continue to improve,” LeBron James said after Miami dispatched the Bucks at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Game 4, 88-77. It was the closest of the four – the margins were 23, 12, 13 and 11 – though it wasn’t really close at all. The Bucks never led Sunday and, even when they missed repeated shots in the third quarter that could have tied or put them in front, it was as if a “Why bother?” alarm went off in their heads as they released the ball. At some point, James and the Heat were going to stand on the gas, asserting their No. 1 seed superiority in all its glory.
“It’s so hard to win on the road in the playoffs, in someone’s building, especially when someone’s playing for their last life,” the NBA’s presumptive 2013 Most Valuable Player said after hanging 30 points, eight rebounds and seven assists on the Bucks, while buying Dwyane Wade‘s bruised right knee another day off.
“It’s a big step for us to close this out. It’s the first time, I guess, in the ‘Big 3’ era we’ve had a sweep. So as a team, we like what we was able to accomplish in this series, Now we sit around, wait around to see who our next opponent is.”
Boy, do they. The soonest Miami could play again would be Saturday and that’s if the Brooklyn Nets-Chicago Bulls series cooperates swiftly. The flip side of finally sweeping – after two five-game series in 2012 and three in 2011 – is that the Heat will have at least five days before they play along.
It is the longest layoff of this group’s three postseasons. A year ago, they had three, three and two days between series. In 2011, it was three, three and four.
Anything you read or hear about the dangers of dreaded rust in the coming days likely will be overblown and media-driven. Seriously, would you rather have time off to prepare, refresh and lock in or would you prefer to rush immediately into your next best-of-seven? Still, there is a practical side to navigating the between-series days that makes it at least the little brother of navigating the challenges of the series themselves.
“The biggest focus for us will be keeping ourselves physically ready,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s probably the most abnormal thing of the circumstances. You’re used to playing every 48 hours or so, that’s the NBA rhythm when you get into the playoffs. Mentally, I’m not as concerned about our guys gritting their teeth. It’s too far ahead.
“We don’t even know how long this time will be but we have to make sure we strike a balance between our conditioning, staying fit, working at our game, getting after it with pads in practice, and always making sure guys are healthy and we’re not doing too much.”
For starters, the Heat planned to take Monday and Tuesday off. After that, depending on the Nets-Bulls series, they’ll start aiming for a second round that starts over the weekend. Or into next week.
“Nothing can replicate the edge of a playoff series,” forward Shane Battier said. “You can practice for four hours but it’s not like a playoff series. You still have to get up and down, you still have to bang, you still have to keep the mojo going someway.”
Never mind any macho appeal of flexing in full and sweeping a postseason opponent. The fewer games a team can play en route to a title, the less its players are exposed to the sort of mishaps and shutdowns we’re already seeing. Sure, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook got hurt in Game 2 against Houston and Derrick Rose went down in Chicago’s playoff opener last year. But bad stuff can happen in Games 5, 6 or 7, too, and if that’s the result of poor concentration and letting a lesser opponent hang around, then it becomes ripe for second-guessing.
“Injuries are part of it,” Battier said. “They seem to get more freakish every year. So yeah, of course we would like to end series more quickly so we can rest up a little bit and prevent ourselves from unnecessary injuries. But you can’t play this game with kid gloves on.”
There’s no shame, he said, in ducking “pivotal” or even “ultimate” games late in a best-of-seven series by pounding someone four straight. “It’s hard enough to win one playoff game,” Battier said. “The amount of preparation and energy and focus and everything that goes into winning one playoff game – I don’t care if it’s at home or on the road – takes a lot.”
Hmm. So following the logic and self-preservation aspects of it, rather than implying anything cocky or bombastic, might the Miami Heat – winners of 27 in a row in the regular season – have their eyes on 16 in a row in the playoffs? Or as Moses Malone might say, fo’, fo’, fo’ fo‘?
“Oh Lord,” Battier said. “I’m going to go home, enjoy my kids for a few days and then get ready for a physical, physical battle against the Nets or the Bulls. That’s not even on our minds.”
But James didn’t entirely reject the concept. He just didn’t quite fully engage it.
“I think 16 is automatic [as a motivator],” he said. “Sixteen in a row, I’m not even going to look at that. For me, 16 is the ultimate goal. But No. 5 is what we want to get next. That would be Game 1 of the next round.
“So that’s the way we’ll approach it. We’ll take each step as its own and hopefully, if we’re fortunate enough, we can continue to climb the ladder.”
Yeah, but in as few rungs as possible.