MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James typically cannot sleep much before the first game of a postseason. Even after 10 years in the league, three MVP awards and a championship, Game 1 still kicks his anxiety level into high gear.
“Like the night before Christmas,” James said.
Makes sense, since the Miami Heat have been waiting about a year for this.
The eight preseason outings, the 82 regular-season contests, it’s all forgotten now by the Heat — who, from the moment last season ended amid a championship celebration, have been fixated on the challenge that awaits in this postseason. For them, Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday may as well be Game 1 of their season, since to the Heat, this is all that matters.
The Heat are overwhelming favorites to steamroll Milwaukee, after finishing 28 games ahead of the Bucks in the standings, though Miami coach Erik Spoelstra wants no part of that sentiment.
“For some ill-informed people, this series probably draw enough interest in their eyes,” Spoelstra said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth from our perspective. This is a team that’s challenged us and we struggled against them in our first two games, where that speed and quickness got to us. … I believe our guys have the right respect and perspective for this team as a dangerous team.”
For Milwaukee, the road back to the playoffs after a two-year absence was not without some bumps. The Bucks endured a midseason coaching change, with Scott Skiles departing after 32 games. And the man who replaced him, Jim Boylan, acknowledged that there was a couple of times Milwaukee’s season might have seemed on the cusp of slipping away.
Milwaukee went 6-1 between Feb. 26 and March 10, then went 6-15 the rest of the way — yet still got into the playoffs, four games ahead of No. 9 Philadelphia and No. 10 Toronto.
“We’ve had ups and downs, two weeks where we play great, two weeks where we don’t play so great,” Boylan said. “But we’ve played well enough, so here we are. And I want the guys to feel good about it, and I think they do.”
One of his guys apparently feels better about it than anyone else.
Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings averaged 23.8 points against the Heat this season, and put up 30 in the last meeting between the clubs. And he raised some eyebrows in recent days when he said that he wanted to see Miami in the postseason.
“I asked for this matchup, actually, a while back, just for the fact that I think we match up well against them,” Jennings said. “Every time we play the Heat it’s either a close loss or we probably blow them out or something happens. I’m real confident in this, I’m sure everybody’s writing us off, but I see us winning the series in six.”
That’s at least the second time Jennings has been quoted saying he thinks Milwaukee matches up well with Miami. When Jennings said it not long before the teams’ final head-to-head matchup in the regular season, as it became obvious that Miami-Milwaukee would be a first-round matchup, James found his opinion to be a bit amusing.
“That’s OK,” James said. “If they feel that way, they have us in the first round. And we’ll see how well we match up.”
Other Milwaukee players seemed to take a slightly less aggressive approach than their loquacious teammate when it came to series predictions.
“I think whoever wins the series is going to win the whole thing,” Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy said, with the slightest bit of a smile. “Feel pretty good about that. It’s a team that’s lost four games in the last 40 or 50. We’ve got to do it in seven. So I think our best approach will be try to get one game. You get one game, try to get another game.”
Added guard J.J. Redick, speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “We have nothing to lose. They’re one of the greatest teams ever assembled.”
Perhaps Dunleavy and Redick both learned a bit about diplomacy when they studied at Duke.Heat forward Shane Battier, Miami’s resident Blue Devil alum, didn’t seemed too worked up about Jennings’ assertion, either.
“I’m old-school from Detroit, ’80s,” Battier said. “There’s no need for talk. Just play. Just play. Let your game speak for itself.”
Miami has done that all season.
The Heat set a franchise record for wins, won 27 straight times in one stretch, finished six games better than anyone else in the league and 12 games ahead of their closest competition in the Eastern Conference. And even though Miami could have coasted to the finish, it went 30-2 since the All-Star break — the best post-break winning percentage in NBA history, topping the 31-4 mark by the Utah Jazz in 1996-97.
No team has ever entered the playoffs on a bigger roll.
Then again, the Heat won’t even allow themselves to accept that way of thinking.
“We respect the game, but we respect teams,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “I feel that we respect teams more than they respect us. We know that the Milwaukee Bucks are a good team, especially if you let them get to their game. If you let them get to their game, they’re a very good team. And anybody can be beaten when you let them play their game.”
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