So much went right for LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the first half of Wednesday's game against the Milwaukee Bucks that any outcome other than a comfortable road win seemed impossible. King James outscored the entire Bucks roster 24-23 in the first period, the most points by any player in any single quarter this season, as the Heat jumped out to a 13-point halftime lead. Then Brandon Jennings put on a three-point shooting clinic -- hitting 5 of his 7 triples after the intermission on his way to 31 points, 8 assists and 0 turnovers -- and the Bucks completely turned the tables by outscoring the Heat by 21 points in the second half to earn an emotional 105-97 win at the Bradley Center.
Even in the loss, LeBron's first quarter performance deserves proper recognition. In his first 12 minutes, James accounted for 31 of Miami's first 42 points -- 24 points on 8-9 shooting to go with seven points off of three assists -- and amassed more value in a single quarter than most other players managed over the course of the game. Everything signaled that the Heat planned on mounting a resounding response to their 91-82 loss to the Bucks in Miami back on January 22. Milwaukee looked more pesky than dangerous during the first half, as they desperately tried to stay upright while absorbing the devastating body blows from the red-hot starting lineup of the Heat, who scored 55 of Miami's first 60 points and did so on a collective 68.9 percent shooting.
Suddenly the jump shots just stopped falling, and when the Bucks started to make their shots (52.2 percent shooting in the second half and 7-11 on threes) it stymied the vaunted transition game Miami can usually fall back on for instant offense. Luc Mbah a Moute spread his defensive efforts across the Big 3 spectrum all night, and head coach Scott Skiles coaxed excellent defensive rotations out of his team as they limited Miami to just 12 points in the paint in the second half. Everything that looked so wrong in the first half started to take on a different tone when the shooting percentages moved off their first quarter marks.
Jennings willed the huge reversal of fortune to fruition by what seemed like sheer force of personality at times. Feeding off the larger and more-engaged-than-normal home crowd, the speedy point guard looked like he was always plotting the path to his next made three-pointer. As he continued to rain down triples on a stunned Heat team, his confidence infected his teammates and everyone else in the Bradley Center not wearing a black jersey. Maybe 20 second half points and seven more assists against one of the NBA's elite teams has a way of evoking that type of response on its own, but the genuine bravado of Young Buck undoubtedly influenced anyone with an eye on the game Wednesday night. Everything alluring about Jennings was on full display in the 105-97 win, that's for sure.
As for Miami, all of their flaws and shortcomings emerged in the second half. LeBron, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers combined for 88 of the of the 97 points scored, but that lack of quality depth hurt the Heat when the Bucks made their run. Erik Spoelstra had nobody else he could turn to when the jumpers stopped falling and the transition opportunities dwindled, so the headline players just started to force up shots. James still finished with a game-high 40 points, but he slowed his scoring pace considerably after the first quarter, while Wade added 23 points and Bosh contributed just nine points. When required to alter the formula that served them so well in the first half, the Heat couldn't quite find the right balance to make it all work.
While Miami's top-heavy collection tipped fatally off its axis, the well-balanced (albeit less talented) unit in Milwaukee managed to find their equilibrium at the right time. Beyond Jennings' explosive perimeter attack, the Bucks tapped role players like Mike Dunleavy (10 points, 5 assists), Drew Gooden (17 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (13 points, 8 rebounds) for meaningful contributions. Unselfish play and crisp ball movement played a central role on a Bucks offense that dished out 30 assists on 39 made baskets. For the second time this season, the hodgepodge style of the Bucks frustrated the Heat.
The Bucks are now winners of six of their last eight games and move to 10-11 overall with the win. Meanwhile, the Heat fall to 16-6, and their only two losses in the last ten games have both come against Milwaukee. The victory clinches the head-to-head season series for Milwaukee, while the third and final regular season matchup will take place at the Bradley Center on February 13.
Note: In the first quarter, LeBron James recorded his 4,500th career assist. He became just the 17th player in NBA history to reach 17,000+ points, 4,500+ rebounds and 4,500+ assists over a career, and he joined Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant as the only active players to reach those levels. It is a special achievement, but everyone knows LeBron is nowhere near finished when it comes to rewriting the NBA record books.