An earlier start than usual may have slowed the Miami Heat in the beginning.
By third quarter, though, they resembled the streaking team they have been the past two weeks. The Heat used a 14-0, second-half run to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks, 97-79, Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena. It was their seventh consecutive victory, tying the Boston Celtics for the longest current winning streak.
“I thought the guys really stepped it up in the second half. It was great to see those inspiring efforts,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “ Even at the end, the loose balls, [James Johnson] diving on the floor. You don’t need to do that at that point but that’s becoming the DNA of this group. It was good to see us put together one of our better, more complete defensive efforts for the entire game.”
The Heat were led by guard Goran Dragic, who scored a game-high 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Guards Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson added 16 and 14 points, respectively.
“They’ve won seven in a row now and they’re playing hard on both ends,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said.
The 1 p.m. tip-off was mandated because league rules require a 24-hour period between games. The Heat play at Chicago Monday at 3:30 pm, causing the early start. Against the Bucks, they looked every bit of a team of struggling with the time through the first half.
“At the beginning of the game, we went away [from the game plan] in the first half,” Dragic said. “They got a lot of points inside the paint and on second-chance points. Then at halftime, we just started saying we need to be in the middle more, try to close the paint. That was our goal for the second half and we executed well.”
After trailing by two at halftime, the Heat awoke in the third quarter. A Richardson 3-pointer gave them their first lead in the second half at 44-43. The Bucks regained the edge on guard Malcolm Brogdon’s 3-pointer with 7 minutes, 33 seconds left in the quarter.
The Heat then took control during the next four-minute stretch. The run started with a Tyler Johnson 3-pointer and ended with a Dragic jumper. They led by double-digits most of the remainder before holding off a late Milwaukee charge in the fourth quarter. The Heat improved to 9-0 when holding teams under 90 points this season.
“It took us a little bit of time to adjust to their speed and their trapping and how they help and protect the paint. They do a very good job of that,” Spoelstra said. “They have great length at all five positions, so a lot of times the play was to be patient, to get it into the paint.”
Dragic served as the Heat’s closer. At one point, he scored 11 points in a row, including three 3-pointers, in the final quarter. The last basket was from 29 feet.
“I just started feeling it,” Dragic said. “The first half, I was struggling. The game is long so I just need to stay with it. I was kind of in that hot zone and just shooting.”
Added Richardson, “He stepped up. He was bringing the ball down. He was making the right plays. He was taking big shots and knocking them down and that’s all you can really ask for.”
The Heat are now just one game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference standings. With the Cavaliers facing a possible loss against the Golden State Warriors on Monday, a Heat victory against Chicago would create a tie.
Still, they refuse to look too far ahead.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Spoelstra said. “You have to start over from scratch every single game. What we’ve been really committed to is the process of getting better. So often in this league, even saying that, can become cliche but it’s about everything matters.”