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Heat scorch Bucks, close in on Cavs

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Goran Dragic’s 25 points propelled Miami to a 97-79 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday that pushed the Heat within one game of the Cleveland Cavaliers for third place in the NBA Eastern Conference.

The Heat, a tad sluggish to start, used a 14-0 second-half scoring run to notch their seventh straight victory, tying the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics for the longest active winning streak in the league.

“I thought the guys really stepped it up in the second half,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was great to see those inspiring efforts. Even at the end, the loose balls, (James Johnson) diving on the floor. You don’t need to do that at that point, but that’s becoming the DNA of this group.”

Dragic connected on 9-of-17 shots from the floor en route to his 25 points.

Guard Josh Richardson added 16 points and Tyler Johnson chipped in 14.

“They’ve won seven in a row now and they’re playing hard on both ends,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said.

The Heat looked as if they had been caught out by the early afternoon tip-off time — made necessary by their scheduled afternoon start against the Bulls in Chicago on Monday.

“At the beginning of the game, we went away (from the game plan) in the first half,” Dragic said. “They got a lot of points inside the paint and on second-chance points. Then at halftime, we just started saying we need to be in the middle more, try to close the paint. That was our goal for the second half and we executed well.”

Richardson’s three-pointer gave them their first lead in the second half — at 44-43.

Milwaukee regained the advantage, but the Heat responded with a scoring explosion that started with a three-pointer by Tyler Johnson and ended with a jump shot by Dragic.

They enjoyed a double-digit cushion until they were called on to fend off a Bucks charge in the final frame.

Dragic’s second-half surge included a burst of 11 straight points, including three three-pointers.

“I just started feeling it,” he said. “The first half, I was struggling. The game is long so I just need to stay with it. I was kind of in that hot zone and just shooting.”

– LeBron no focus for Heat –
While the Heat are rising in the East, Spoelstra insisted they weren’t focused on overtaking a Cavs team led by LeBron James — who won two titles with Miami before returning to his home state to rejoin the Cavaliers.

The Cavs are heading into the second half of the season in some disarray, having lost seven of their last nine games. That includes squandering a 22-point lead in a loss to the Indiana Pacers on Friday.

James and the Cavaliers face a tough clash with the reigning champion Golden State Warriors on Monday, part of the NBA’s slate of marquee matches celebrating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Spoelstra insisted. “You have to start over from scratch every single game. What we’ve been really committed to is the process of getting better. So often in this league, even saying that, can become cliche but it’s about everything matters.”

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