MILWAUKEE — With 13.5 seconds remaining on Wednesday night, the Miami Heat were clinging to a one-point lead as they tried to inbound the ball near midcourt. On the first attempt, they were a split-second away from being whistled for a five second call, but Gabe Vincent was able to sneak in a timeout. Trying to avoid a similar situation coming out of the break, Vincent lobbed a pass up to Jimmy Butler, who fell down on the catch and was tied up by Giannis Antetokounmpo for a jump ball.
Giannis won the ensuing jump, giving the Bucks possession and a chance to win the game. That’s just what they did, as Jrue Holiday went the full length of the court and banked in a runner with 1.9 seconds remaining to put the Bucks in front. Because of the previous inbounds fiasco, the Heat had no timeouts left to set up a play, and the Bucks escaped with a thrilling 120-119 victory.
“He’s one of the tougher guys to guard with a live dribble,” Khris Middleton said. “He’s so good at getting into the paint and creating and finishing… Just give him space and let him create. He did a great job putting his head down to get to the basket, hitting that big layup for us to get the win.”
Just a few minutes earlier, such a result seemed impossible. The Heat were unguardable for most of the night, particularly from behind the arc as they poured in 21 3-pointers — one short of tying a franchise record. With 7:12 left in the fourth, Vincent knocked down his fifth triple of the game to give the Heat a 113-99 lead, at which point they had 98.1 percent win probability per ESPN.
Miami did not win, of course, and that was thanks to Milwaukee’s defense. Over the final seven minutes, the Bucks held the Heat to 3 of 10 from the field and forced four turnovers as they closed on a 21-6 run. For a team that has been trending in the wrong direction on the defensive side of the ball — February was the worst single month of defense in the Mike Budenholzer era — it was an extremely encouraging turnaround.
“I think the group we had out there — [Wesley Matthews], Jrue [Holiday], Bobby [Portis], Khris [Middleton] and me — I think we can guard anybody,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We can switch, we can just make it tough for everybody. We were able to keep our composure, keep making good plays defensively, keep getting stops.”
Even with Brook Lopez’s continued absence, the Bucks do have the talent to lock teams down. They haven’t done so often enough over the course of the season, but the final few minutes on Wednesday night were a perfect example of their capabilities.
They ratcheted up the physicality, bumping cutters, fighting through screens, and committing fouls when necessary. They crowded the Heat’s jump shooters, giving them little space and contesting with high hands. (After the Heat started out 21 of 39 from deep, they didn’t make a single 3 over the final seven minutes.) They got into passing lanes, reached out for deflections and generated turnovers. In short, they turned the Heat’s elite offense into a discombobulated mess.
Nothing exemplified that effort more than the job Matthews did against Tyler Herro. Overall, Herro was terrific in his return to Milwaukee, dropping 30 points off the bench. Down the stretch, however, Matthews made his life miserable. In the final seven minutes, Herro scored only two points and had three turnovers.
“I thought [Matthews’ defense on Herro] was amazing,” Holiday said. “Tyler hit some tough shots but Wes is a dog. I think it’s gonna be tough for teams seeing the lineups that we have and having Wes in there and just knowing the defensive intensity and prowess — there’s no step down. The level of intensity is always there, so I think we’ll be really good.”
With five minutes left, Matthews picked Herro up early, forcing him into a bad pass that Portis picked off and turned into a trip to the line, where he made one of two free throws to cut the deficit to nine.
Then, as the clock wound down to two and a half minutes, Matthews again picked Herro up fullcourt and forced an over-and-back violation. Portis converted a tip-in on the ensuing possession, making it a four-point game.
And finally, with less than 30 seconds to play, Matthews and Portis trapped Herro and created another turnover. This time, Middleton picked up the loose ball and drained a 3 from the top of the key to make it a one-point game.
Though just one out of 82 games, this was a massive result for a Bucks team that has not been playing its best basketball as of late. Thanks to their 14-point comeback they improved to 38-25, split the season series with the Heat and are now just three games back of the Eastern Conference leaders.
This game was also a reminder that for the defending champs, success starts and ends on defense.
“We gotta defend,” Giannis said. “We can make as many good decisions in 48 minutes as we can, but if we don’t defend it’s gonna be a tough night, a long night. When we defend we are at our best.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism