LeBron James tabled his long jumper Tuesday night and took it to the rack instead.
LeBron on the attack
The Heat faced Milwaukee only three nights ago in Miami, surging past the Bucks in the fourth quarter for a 101-89 win. LeBron James did something has hasn't done since Dec. 6, 2009 (also against Milwaukee) -- he refrained from attempting a 3-point shot. As spectacular as James has been over the past month, his success rate from 16 feet and beyond has been unsustainable for any shooter, even Dirk Nowitzki. It might be a stretch to call James' long-range exploits in December fool's gold, but at some point we knew he'd have to re-focus his sights on the rim, where he's been the best perimeter finisher in the league for several seasons. It wasn't surprising to see James begin his reorientation Saturday night against Golden State, which has no inside presence. But getting to the basket is a much harder task against Milwaukee's tough perimeter defenders and Andrew Bogut, who waits in the paint. Nevertheless, James got a steady diet of strong high screens from Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony and was clearly thinking "drive-first" all game. As a result, he took 11 shots inside 15 feet, nailing seven of them, and got to the stripe for 11 free throw attempts. Scott Skiles is certainly aware of this and will adjust his normally dependable pick-and-roll coverage. The Bucks aren't a team that generally blitzes the ball handler, but unless Milwaukee wants to rest its hopes on James hoisting up 21-footers, something has to change.
Wade a man possessed
Unlike James, Dwyane Wade rarely needs an invitation to go to the rim. His first bucket Tuesday night came when Zydrunas Ilgauskas found him in motion on a back door cut to the basket. Easy slam. From there, Wade tormented the Bucks' usually sturdy wing defenders, racking up half of his 34 points in the fourth quarter. How did Wade generate such easy shots against the NBA's sixth-ranked defense? Like James, Wade attacked the Bucks aggressively off high screens to get to the rim. But Wade has also become the Heat's most potent offensive threat off the ball. More and more of Wade's shot attempts are coming off those weakside cuts and handoffs from big men at the elbow. The Bucks did a respectable job anticipating Wade's actions and walling off the paint over the first three quarters, but Wade eventually wore them down in the fourth. When he's in motion, even a defense as capable as Milwaukee's can't possibly react quickly enough, particularly after 36 minutes of constant assault from James and Wade.
Play tight ... but don't foul!
How on earth did Milwaukee stay in the game -- and at times control it -- in the first half against the Heat? The Bucks weren't exactly lighting it up and the Heat were generating plenty of good looks for themselves. So what happened? The Heat allowed the Bucks to make a living at the line. In the first half, Milwaukee sank 17 free throws (all in the second quarter) -- but only 15 shots from the field. The Bucks are the only team in the NBA with a true shooting percentage below 50 percent, but give them free points and they have a fighting chance. In 22 second-quarter possessions, the Heat committed 12 fouls. Luc Mbah a Moute isn't on the floor for his offense, but he got to the line eight times in the quarter either because the Heat's defensive rotation was late or because Miami was overly aggressive while in the penalty. Keyon Dooling picked up four easy points at the line because Carlos Arroyo fouled him after laboring to fight through a high screen more than 20 feet from the basket. The Heat put opponents on the line more frequently than they should (they rank 16th in the league in opponents' free throws attempted/field goal attempted). Great defensive teams don't bail out bad offensive ones.
Don't let the Bucks' defense get set
The Bucks rarely hemorrhage the way they did Tuesday night and have posted only one truly dreadful defensive performance on their home floor all season (versus the Lakers). Skiles makes adjustments on the defensive end as deftly as any coach in the league (see Games 3 and 5 against Atlanta in the 2010 playoffs). The easiest way to render those fixes irrelevant is to race up and down the floor with the ball. The Bucks miss a higher percentage of their shots than any team in the league, and the Heat should collect those misses with the intention of beating Bogut down the floor. Erik Spoelstra prefers that his defenders not gamble in the passing lanes -- a sure-fire way to pick up fouls on your back line. But it might be worth taking off the leash and allowing the likes of Wade, James and Mario Chalmers a few judicious jabs at the ball to muck up the Bucks' painfully deliberate half-court offense and get easy run-outs.
Pressure the ball
This has clearly become a halftime mantra for Spoelstra, and it was evident to start the second half Tuesday night -- just as it was the previous two games, against Charlotte and Golden State, after intermission. It seems intuitive to smother a player with the ball, but too often the Heat have been dropping off point guard and wings on high screen-and-roll action and drifting into the paint. There are instances when running under a screen or protecting against the drive is a prudent strategy (i.e., Rajon Rondo at times), but the Heat have been far too permissive along the perimeter of late in the first half of games. It's fine to induce Mbah a Moute to shoot from 20 feet by offering him a modicum of space, but passes need to be contested and shooters must be crowded. If nothing else, that kind of pressure allows guys like Anthony and Dampier time to get into position just in case the penetrator successfully makes his way into the paint.