MIAMI — Everyone in the Miami huddle was bracing for a grind to the finish. On the other end, the sense around the Milwaukee bench was that an upset was there for the taking.
Then the Heat landed a swift knockout punch.
Dwyane Wade scored 21 points, LeBron James finished with 19 and the Heat used a frantic start to the fourth quarter to pull away and beat the Bucks 98-86 in Game 2 of the teams’ Eastern Conference first-round series on Tuesday night.
It was 68-65 entering the fourth. With James and four backups on the court, the Heat needed only 2 minutes, 22 seconds to outscore Milwaukee 12-0 and stretch the lead to 80-65 — ensuring the reigning NBA champions would take a 2-0 series lead into Game 3 on Thursday night.
“We held court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We protected it for two games. We did what we’re supposed to do. And that’s it.”
Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen all scored 10 points for the Heat. James’ postseason streaks of 22 straight games with at least 20 points, and 16 straight games of at least 25 points, both came to an end.
Ultimately, none of that mattered.
“We didn’t get into our game like we wanted to in that third quarter,” James said. “But we went into the fourth with a (three-point) lead and we were able to jump on them.”
Ersan Ilyasova scored 21 points for Milwaukee, which got 16 from Mike Dunleavy and 14 from Larry Sanders. The Bucks’ starting guards, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, combined for only 15 points — after teaming up to score 48 in Game 1.
“It’s a series,” said Sanders, who had a sore right ankle after he collided with Battier in the fourth quarter. “We made progress this game.”
They’ll need to make more, and do it quickly. James has never lost in 10 previous series where his team takes a 2-0 lead, and Wade is 8-0 in that same situation.
“In the playoffs you’ve got to find different ways to win,” Wade said. “No matter what everybody says on the outside, (Milwaukee) is a good team. They played us very well.”
For about 46 minutes, the Bucks played them even.
It was that 12-0 run that was the difference — in what finished as a 12-point game.
Andersen started it with a three-point play, James had a layup not long afterward and the Heat were starting to roll. Another basket by Andersen off a pass from Ray Allen made it 77-65, and James found Norris Cole for a 3-pointer that capped the flurry and made it 80-65.
Just like that, it was over, even to Miami’s surprise.
“They were doing some things that had us spinning around a little bit defensively, got us on our heels, and offensively we never got into a rhythm,” Spoelstra said. “So we figured we were just going to have to find a way to grind in the fourth quarter, figuring it was going to be a close game.”
The Heat have raved about their depth all season, so they had no qualms about sending James out to start the fourth with Cole, Andersen, Battier and Ray Allen.
By the time starters like Wade and Bosh got back onto the court, the task was merely protecting the lead, which the Heat did with relative ease.
“We felt pretty good about the position we were in, giving ourselves an opportunity on the road with 12 minutes to go,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “You feel good about that. Then they come out, go on a 12-0 run and it changes the complexion of the game. Playing catch-up is very hard to do against a high-quality team like Miami.”
Jennings and Ellis combined for 48 points in Game 1, and the Bucks got blown out. So in the first half of Game 2, they combined for one point, were held to five shots that all missed … and the Bucks were within 47-43 at halftime.
Chances are, very few would have seen that coming.
But play was sloppy from the outset, with the teams combining for eight turnovers in the first 6 minutes to set the tone for a clumsy first half. Wade, James and Chalmers shot 15 for 19 combined in the first half for Miami — and the rest of the Heat were 3 for 17. For Milwaukee, Ilyasova had 12 points in the first 10 minutes, then two points the rest of the half.
So much like in Game 1, Milwaukee came out for the second half with a chance of stealing home-court advantage.
And for the entirety of the third quarter, the Bucks hung around, though the Heat showed some signs of getting things going. Bosh had a dunk for a six-point lead, then made a jumper — on a play that James started by running down a loose ball and flicking it between his legs for a save along the sideline — for a 68-60 lead, what was then the biggest Heat margin of the night.
The Bucks got within 68-65 to end the third, but then came the run that Miami had been waiting for all evening.
Jennings said Milwaukee would win in six games before the series began, and his confidence didn’t waver even now with his club in an 0-2 hole.
“We showed a lot of improvement tonight,” said Jennings, who shot 3 for 15. “Aside of making that run in the fourth I think we should have won this game.”
Both teams got a big scare with 6:59 left. Battier drove for a layup from the right wing, and Sanders rushed down the middle of the lane to attempt a block. A collision ensued and both players hit the court awkwardly, Battier hitting his head on the hardwood and Sanders — who fell over Battier — grabbing at his right leg.
Battier made two free throws, then departed for the Heat locker room to get stitches on his chin.
NOTES: It’s the 11th time the Heat have gone up 2-0 in a playoff series. They’re 10-0 in the previous instances. … Milwaukee has lost 21 of its last 29 playoff games. … Sanders was third in the NBA’s Most Improved Player voting, behind Indiana’s Paul George and New Orleans’ Greivis Vasquez. “Look where he was last year and where he is today. The improvement is very obvious,” said Boylan, who thought Sanders should have won. … Jennings was held without a first-half basket for only the fifth time all season.