MIAMI — No, it was not an ultimate show of superiority or perhaps even anything with long-term consequence in the head-to-head series, with the Milwaukee Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Miami Heat lacking three starters.
But this moment is not about statements for the Heat, but rather simply mounting a climb up the Eastern Conference standings to somewhere closer to where the Bucks have resided all season.
So while something more substantive might play out Saturday, when the teams again meet on the Heat’s court, Thursday’s 108-102 decision was victory enough for Erik Spoelstra’s team.
With Bam Adebayo back in the mix, but Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry and Caleb Martin still out, the Heat rode unexpected contributions from Gabe Vincent and Max Strus to their seventh victory in the last 10 games.
Vincent closed with a career-high 28 points, with Strus securing a career-high 10 rebounds as part of the Heat’s 61-39 dominance on the boards, along with 12 points.
“As I got rolling, the basket got big for me,” Vincent said.
As for Adebayo, he very much was back to looking like himself, after sitting out a game with a wrist bruise, closing with 24 points and 12 rebounds.
“Bam, thank God, he just forced his way back,” Spoelstra said. “And that’s what you love about Bam.”
Said Adebayo, “Today it felt better, obviously.”
The Bucks, who ostensibly gave Antetokounmpo the night off for rest on their second night of a back-to-back set that opened with a Wednesday night road victory over the Atlanta Hawks, were led by Jrue Holiday’s 24 points.
With a Jimmy Butler miss late, the Heat’s streak of 55 consecutive converted free throws came to an end in the waning seconds. Butler finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
With the victory, the Heat moved three games above .500 for the first time this season, at 23-20. The Bucks fell to 27-15.
“Probably the one thing that stood out to me, and I even mentioned to the team, is we’re developing some grit and mental ability and toughness,” Spoelstra said.
Five Degrees of Heat from Thursday’s game:
1. Closing time: The Heat trailed 23-14 at the end of the first period, went down by 15 in the second period, before moving to a 45-45 halftime tie and then a 78-73 lead entering the fourth.
A 5-0 open to the fourth quarter moved the Heat their first double-digit lead at 83-73, with that advantage growing to 16.
“We stayed stable and just worked the game,” Spoelstra said.
Unlike recent games, the Heat then were able to close it out without much in the way of drama.
“I think we just had to feel it out.” Vincent said of overcoming the 14-point first quarter.
2. Adebayo back: Adebayo returned after missing Tuesday night’s victory over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder.
It initially appeared that Adebayo would miss more time, after being held out of the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s loss to the visiting Brooklyn Nets, but Spoelstra said his center was having none of that.
“It was around-the-clock treatment,” Spoelstra said. “It’s being young and the most important thing is he just wanted to be out there for the group. I’m not going to get into any kind of percentage.
“It was really eating at him, us only having nine guys the other night. So he’s ready.”
He closed 11 of 19 from the field.
“He makes the game easy for all of us,” Vincent said.
3. Vincent steps up: With Oladipo off with his offense, Vincent stepped up with 13 first-half points, matching his scoring high over the previous 13 games.
Vincent’s season high had been 20 against the Nets on Nov. 12. His previous career high was 27.
Vincent, starting in place of Lowry, was 5 of 11 on 3-pointers, with the rest of the Heat 4 of 23.
“Gabe was terrific,” Spoelstra said.
With plenty of support.
“My guys were encouraging me like they were all season,” he said.
4. Strus’ strength: Already with a career-high 10 rebounds and a double-double by the end of the third quarter, Strus added a boost on the boards on a night it was needed for the undersized Heat.
“I thought Max probably had four or five that were in a crowd,” Spoelstra said.
It was an overall solid rebounding effort, with every Heat starter except Vincent with at least eight through three quarters. No Milwaukee player closed with more than seven rebounds.
“The ball just bounced my way, got lucky,” Strus said. “It was fun.”
5. One more time: The teams will be back at it Saturday, in a nationally televised ABC game, closing out the Bucks’ two visits this season.
The scheduling is part of the NBA’s attempt to reduce travel.
It is the Heat’s third home-and-home set of the season, having split with the Toronto Raptors in October and then swept the Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards in November.
The Heat’s remaining such set of consecutive home games against the same opponent is March 8-10 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“As far as playing each other twice in a row, it’s not that bad,” Strus said. “It’s kind of like a playoff experience, that you play ‘em one time and get to see what works and fix it the next game.”