Home court advantage. It is a notion able to give a great team a vicious edge and elevate a good team just enough to defy odds, or, in the Bucks’ case, gain the traction needed to knock off the Miami
Death Machine Heat and avoid going down 3-0 in a series against the NBA’s reigning champion.
Truth is, Milwaukee’s BMO Harris Bradley Center drew the fourth-fewest attendees among NBA arenas during the regular season. If the audience swells tonight, it is likely because LeBron James is in the house and a slight tip of the cap to Dwyane Wade. The chance to watch the world’s best basketball player go to work brings out the ranks of casual fandom, but there will also be thousands of diehard Bucks fans swaying the fickle masses to contribute to a playoff atmosphere the likes of have not been seen in Milwaukee for years. This year’s iteration of the Heat holds a little more gravitas than the 2009-10 Atlanta Hawks, to say the least, and the Bucks eclipsed the underdog mentality typical of an eighth seed while staying with the Heat for three quarters in Miami on Tuesday night before giving up a late 12-0 run to solidify their second loss of this year’s playoffs. Whether or not the Bucks can sustain the mindset of a competitor, not an underdog, and bring it into Game 3 is the make-or-break point in this evening’s contest.
After a day off, Milwaukee’s frontcourt should be re-focused on cleaning the glass, particularly on the defensive end. Miami’s uncontested 12-point run to open the fourth quarter on Tuesday was a direct result of letting the Heat grab five offensive rebounds on its first four possessions of the stanza. The Bucks were able to keep an even keel until Chris Andersen, playing with an energy Milwaukee should have been able to match at the time, compiled eight points and five boards through five minutes of playing time in the quarter. Birdman’s contributions helped bump the offensive rebound differential to eight – 12 for the Heat, four for the Bucks.
Shooting 56 percent in the first quarter, as the Bucks did Tuesday, offsets the need for offensive rebounds if the shooting remains on-point. The Bucks’ final 50 percent rate of makes was still phenomenal, and will be necessary to stay in tonight’s game against a Heat team that has never lost a playoff series after going up 2-0. However, the Bucks’ perimeter threats must show up after shooting an awful 22.2 percent from three – a number that makes it look like only Monta Ellis was throwing long-range bombs. Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy both netted two triples, but Ellis went 0-3 and Brandon Jennings shot 0-7 as J.J. Redick never had the chance to execute his specialty while only playing eight minutes.
“Two scoring guards and a need for scoring from the supporting cast” is a familiar narrative for the Bucks, though the opposite was true with Ilyasova scoring a team-high 21 points as neither Ellis nor Jennings broke the 10-point plane on Tuesday. The Bucks do not need everyone to score at once, but they do need their guards in sync and putting the ball through the hoop – at the hoop, specifically, for Ellis – to create space for outside shooting.
The true sticking point that could have tipped Game 2 in the Bucks’ favor and will play a large role in determining tonight’s outcome is this: Sanders must protect the rim and rally his fellow big men to do the same. He is the clear heart of this Bucks team and without Scott Skiles on the bench pushing players to take the court with a defensive tenacity that gave Milwaukee an identity in years past, Sanders must lead the team in this respect. Most statistical categories were a wash between the Bucks and Heat last game (Bucks: nine steals, two blocks, 16 turnovers; Heat: 10 steals, three blocks, 14 turnovers) with Milwaukee gaining the edge in assists (23-17).
But sharing the ball is not always enough against a team built to score efficiently and in spurts like Miami. Ten rebounds essentially gave Game 2 to Miami. The Heat out-boarded the Bucks 43-33. Sanders tied Ilyasova and Dunleavy – who played closer to the perimeter, out of his natural rebounding position – with a team-high six rebounds. It was decidedly un-LARRY SANDERS! of a young man who understands his ever-evolving role on a team in transition with questions of coaching and looming free agency for teammates. What Andersen does to get rebounds is best described as “crashing”; what Sanders does is get position and use his length to wrangle caroming shots.
Let the crowd get louder than it has all season with all the extra voices in attendance to see a playoff game. Let Ish Smith play intermittently, but not for long stretches late with a win still in reach. Let Luc Richard Mbah a Moute worry about defending LeBron. Let Ellis and Jennings use their speed and court vision to create scoring. Let LARRY SANDERS! loose to wreak havoc in the paint and energize the Bucks. This is what must happen if the Bucks want to win Game 3 and this is their best chance to avoid getting swept in the series.
What else do the Bucks need tonight? Sound off in the comments.