Kyle Lowry's move to Miami is official, giving the Heat another playoff-tested veteran to lead what they hope will be a charge back to the NBA Finals. 

The Heat announced on Friday they have acquired Lowry from the Toronto Raptors for Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa. 

Miami did not disclose the contract terms in Lowry's sign-and-trade deal, but The Athletic reported he has signed a three-year, $85million contract. 

"Kyle Lowry is a great leader and an exceptional defender," Heat president Pat Riley said in a release. "As a point guard, he will bring important skills to run the offense, score the ball and defend with the very best."

A 15-year NBA veteran, Lowry became a star after joining the Raptors in 2012 after serving as more of a role player previously with the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. 

He had started fewer than half of his NBA appearances before moving to Toronto but will leave there as arguably the best player in franchise history after averaging 17.5 points, 7.1 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game over the last nine seasons, which saw him make the All-Star Game six times.

After leading the Raptors to their first NBA title in 2019, Lowry joins a Miami team that lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Finals and went out in the first round to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks this year. 

He will team up with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson on a squad that should be a threat in the Eastern Conference. 

The Raptors get back the veteran point guard Dragic, who averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 assists last season, and the 21-year-old Achiuwa, who averaged 5.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game. 

But Lowry will be missed, and the feeling is mutual. In a lengthy Instagram post on Thursday, Lowry thanked the franchise and its fans for his time there, saying his bond with the city is "unbreakable." 

"Toronto will forever be my 2nd home and I will always be tied to the franchise, the city and the country of Canada which makes me so happy to say," he wrote. 

Free agent Victor Oladipo has agreed to a one-year deal to stay with the Miami Heat, according to reports.

The 29-year-old point guard had joined the Houston Rockets from the Indiana Pacers as part of January's James Harden trade, before moving again to the Heat in March.

Olapido is set to remain in Miami and consider free agency in 2022 once he is at full fitness, after a sustaining a knee injury before opting for season-ending surgery on his quad in May.

The Athletic's Shams Charania reports that the Heat will retain Oladipo's Bird Rights, which will allow them to find the means to sign him again next offseason.

Oladipo averaged 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game in the 2020-21 NBA season having had a breakout 2017-18 with the Indiana Pacers, before a series of injuries slowed his progress.

The two-time All-Star played just four games with the Heat following his trade from the Rockets.

Kyle Lowry is set to leave the Toronto Raptors to join the Miami Heat after the 35-year-old point guard revealed the free agency move on social media.

The six-time NBA All-Star, who has been with the Raptors since 2012, will reportedly join the Heat on a three-year deal. The deal marks the start of the NBA free agency period.

Lowry announced the deal on Twitter, posting "Miami Heat x Kyle Lowry Let's goo!!"

ESPN claims the deal is worth approximately $90 million, completing via a sign-and-trade with the Raptors.

Lowry holds records for most assists, most three-point field goals and three-point attempts for Raptors and is widely viewed as the best player in franchise history. He was part of the Toronto side which won the 2019 NBA title.

The veteran played in 601 games after joining Toronto in July 2012, behind only DeMar DeRozan (675) on their all-time list. 

Lowry averaged 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the 2020-21 NBA season.

The Heat reached the NBA postseason in 2020-21 but fell in the first round 4-0 to eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.

Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard are expected to decline player options for next season ahead of the NBA free agency period opening on Monday, but the veteran stars may stay with their teams.

After leading the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals, Paul will not exercise his $44million option for the 2021-22 season, The Athletic reported. ESPN added that the Suns are optimistic they will be able to re-sign the 36-year-old. 

Yahoo Sports first reported Leonard would decline his $36m option with the Los Angeles Clippers and become an unrestricted free agent, but ESPN reports he is expected to remain with the Clippers on a new deal after suffering a season-ending knee injury during the playoffs. 

Even if they end up staying where they are, those two will be the two biggest names on the open market beginning on Monday, but others figure to be available in trades. 

Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors may top that list as he is expected to move on from Toronto. ESPN reported that the Miami Heat's move to pick up Goran Dragic's $19.4m team option might have been designed to facilitate a sign-and-trade deal for Lowry. 

Ben Simmons also could be on the move from the Philadelphia 76ers, but Bradley Beal now seems set to stay with the Washington Wizards after they sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers in a draft-night trade. 

The Miami Heat faced a huge challenge when trying to improve on a season that finished with an NBA Finals appearance inside the bubble.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Heat seemed right at home in Orlando. Having finished up as the fifth seed, Miami fought its way through the Eastern Conference to be the last team standing, setting up a clash with the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the end, a familiar face halted the unexpected but impressive title charge. LeBron James was a champion twice during his time with the franchise, but he helped mastermind their downfall in a series that went six games.

The next chapter saw several players on the Heat hampered by COVID-19 protocols and injury, yet Miami still finished up as the sixth seed at the end of the 2020-21 regular season. There was no extended playoff run this time, though, as they were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Now team president Pat Riley has some key decisions to make, despite the team not owning their first-round pick in the upcoming draft. So, does this roster need a complete overhaul, or just some minor tweaks to get back contending again?

The chosen two

Riley has never been afraid to push all his chips into the middle if he feels a player is worth the gamble. However, it appears he is ready to hold on when it comes to his two aces, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, describing them as a "great core" in his end-of-season media conference after losing to the Bucks.

Butler averaged 21.5 points per game in the regular season, a slight increase on his 2019-20 number (19.9). His three-point shot continues to be off (as in milk left in the fridge a week past its sell-by date off), but he feasts much closer to the basket. His average attempts in the restricted area finished up at 5.9, while he managed 3.9 in the paint (non-restricted area). It is surprising, then, to see his free throw attempts fall, though he set career-high marks for assists (7.1) and steals (2.08), showing his all-round value to Miami.

Adebayo too saw an increase in terms of his offensive production, going for 18.7 points per game in the regular season. The center's presence also helped Miami give up the fewest points in the paint (41.3 per game), while overall the team ranked fifth in terms of points against (108.0).

However, the Bucks stifled the duo on offense in the postseason, which has to be a cause for concern. Adebayo shot 45.6 per cent from the field while averaging just 3.3 free throw attempts, way down from the 6.1 from the previous playoffs.

Butler's struggles were even greater, as he shot 29.7 per cent from the field in four games, leading to an average of 14.5 points while playing 38.5 minutes. His plus/minus ended up at a ghastly -21 per game, the worst ranking of all 239 players to feature in the playoffs.

The 31-year-old is eligible for a contract extension during the offseason, which would be a maximum four-year deal potentially worth as much as $181million, and despite what happened against Milwaukee, the Heat seem ready to commit to the five-time All-Star. If Butler plays out the season under his current contract, he has a $37.6m player option for 2022-23.

With Adebayo locked in for the long term, Miami needs to identify exactly who can help them out, starting with those they already know...

 

Super Herro, or just an ordinary guy?

Tyler Herro was a playoff revelation in the bubble. Here was a young player ready to embrace the challenge, a shooter capable of knocking down big shots (he set a new record for 3-pointers by a rookie in the postseason), reaching double figures for points in all but one of his appearances.

His regular season numbers in 2020-21 improved (15.1 points compared to 13.5) despite a dip in production from beyond the arc – and amid ever-growing whispers about being traded. While the deadline passing silenced such speculation, it is likely to get louder again in the coming weeks.

"We'll figure it out with him, but what happened to him going down the stretch, I actually thought he got better as a player," Riley said, maintaining Herro is a "core player".

However, the former Kentucky Wildcat appears to be the major asset for any big deal, so the Heat must decide if what they saw in the past season – including in the playoffs, when the guard averaged just 9.3 points in four games – has made them consider selling on the 13th overall pick in 2019.

Decisions, decisions...

The Heat have an opportunity to create a major chunk of cap space by declining team options for two experienced veterans.

Goran Dragic can be retained at a cost of $19.44m, a number that feels high despite the significant contributions he has made in the past two seasons when playing big minutes, mostly when coming off the bench.

The 35-year-old saw a decrease in points and assists in the 2020-21 campaign (reverting toward the numbers he posted in 2018-19), while he was also restricted to 50 games during the regular season.

Likewise, Andre Iguodala’s declining impact may mean a cap number of $15 million is too much for the Heat to contemplate paying a 37-year-old who averaged 4.3 points per game in both the regular and postseason combined, despite whatever intangibles he may bring to the team.

Then there is the Victor Oladipo conundrum. Miami gave up Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a 2022 pick swap to get the two-time All-Star from Houston ahead of the deadline. The deadline acquisition played all of four games before suffering a right quadriceps injury that required season-ending surgery.

Now, Oladipo is a free agent with an uncertain future. It is not known when he will return to the court – there were initial reports he may not play at all next season – with the Heat left to make a judgment call based on all 111 minutes of action he played for them. Good luck with that, Pat. Since averaging 23.1 points in 2017-18 for the Pacers, Oladipo has played in 88 regular season games.

They do have far more information and experience when it comes to two other players who are set to hit the market in free agency, though.

 

Show them the money!

Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn are about to get paid – but will it be Miami who coughs up to keep them?

Both have excelled at times for the Heat after going undrafted out of college, with the team benefiting from signing the pair on cut-price terms. The low-risk moves paid off spectacularly, but now comes the financial backlash.

Nunn posted relatively similar numbers in his second season following an impressive rookie year, even improving slightly from 3-point range (38.1 per cent compared to 35.0 per cent) and in terms of steals (0.93 from 0.84).

Set to be a restricted free agent, the guard could be set to receive offers around $15m per season, according to reports. That number may well make the Heat decide to pass, considering the league-wide depth at the position.

Robinson's situation is the same in terms of his contract situation, but his outlook appears even rosier than Nunn’s. A career 42.3 per cent shooter from deep, he was the fastest player to 500 three-pointers in terms of games played, reaching the milestone in just 152 outings. To put that achievement into context, Stephen Curry did so in 221 games, while Damian Lillard achieved it in 199.

Evolution or Revolution? Verdict: Evolution

Riley has already made clear the focus in the offseason is adding the necessary parts to bring the best out of Butler and Adebayo, rather than looking to move either of them on in a blockbuster trade.

Miami finished with a 55.6 winning percentage despite the constant rotations forced on coach Erik Spoelstra due to a myriad of absences, plus the acquisition of Oladipo that was made with a focus on another deep playoff run failed to pan out through no fault of their own.

There were links with Kyle Lowry at the time of the deadline too, and the point guard could be a target again.

Miami could also explore sign-and-trade deals to make sure they get something in return for those they are willing to let move on. Whatever happens with those restricted free agents, it seems probable there will be a much-changed roster come the start of the next campaign.

A front-court partner for Adebayo who offers an outside shooting threat would be most helpful, as would a playmaking presence at point guard, particularly if both Nunn and Dragic are not to return.

Riley made clear he is ready to "roll forward" with the team himself, showing no signs of slowing down in his desire to reconstruct a roster at 76. No matter his age, it is all about a win-now mentality with him at the helm.

Joel Embiid's career night led the Philadelphia 76ers to a 132-103 rout of the Washington Wizards, pushing the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the brink of a series sweep. 

Embiid established a new playoff career high with 36 points in just 28 minutes, making 14 of 18 shots from the floor and adding eight rebounds. 

Embiid had 25 points and seven rebounds at the interval as Philadelphia built a comfortable lead before pulling away in the second half. 

Embiid's previous playoff career high was 34 against the Boston Celtics last season. 

Tobias Harris added 20 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, while Ben Simmons had 14 points and nine assists for the Sixers. 

Philadelphia made an impressive 58.6 per cent of their shots from the field (51 of 87) while limiting Washington to 38 of 96 shooting (39.6 per cent). 

Russell Westbrook led the Wizards with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while Bradley Beal scored 25. 

Game 4 is Monday in Washington. 

 

Giannis, Bucks sweep out Heat

The Milwaukee Bucks avenged last season's loss to Miami in the conference semi-finals by completing a four-game sweep of the Heat with a 120-103 victory. Milwaukee outscored Miami 64-39 in the second half to wrap up the series and will next face the winner of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics series. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his first playoff triple-double for the Bucks with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 15 assists, while Jimmy Butler turned in a quieter triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a losing effort. It was the first playoff series since 2014 in which Butler failed to reach 20 points in at least one game. 

Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley paced the top-seeded Utah Jazz to a 121-111 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, holding off a second-half surge from the underdogs. Mitchell scored 29 points and Conley had 27 points, six rebounds and eight assists for Utah as they took a 2-1 series lead. 

Norman Powell's 29 points led the Portland Trail Blazers past the Denver Nuggets 115-95 to level their series at 2-2. 

 

Nuggets' shooters nowhere to be found

The Nuggets had a rough shooting night all the way around in their loss to Portland. Denver made only 32 of 94 shots from the field (34 per cent), including just 13 of 44 (29.5 per cent) from three-point range, and Nikola Jokic led the scoring with just 16 points on seven of 18 shooting. 

 

Morant spins it in

Ja Morant put on a show in a losing effort for the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 28 points to give him 101 in the series. Morant is the fourth player in NBA history to score at least 100 points over his first three playoff appearances and the first since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1970. Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan are the other two. 

 

Saturday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 120-103 Miami Heat
Portland Trail Blazers 115-95 Denver Nuggets
Philadelphia 76ers 132-103 Washington Wizards
Utah Jazz 121-111 Memphis Grizzlies

 

Suns at Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers look for a commanding 3-1 lead in their series against the Phoenix Suns after winning the last two games. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo knows the Milwaukee Bucks can beat the teams a variety of ways, and they had to take the hard road Saturday. 

The Miami Heat held the Bucks' top two scorers without a field goal in the first quarter of Game 4, but Milwaukee pushed through that early adversity and prevailed 120-103 to sweep the first-round NBA playoff series. 

Khris Middleton finally got on the board early in the second quarter and the Greek star went without a basket from the field until a dunk with one minute to play in the second quarter, but Antetokounmpo said his team never lost patience even when their shots failed to fall. 

"At the end of the day, nothing's going to be easy. It's a game that's win or go home for them," he said.

"Obviously they're going to play extremely hard, they're going to try to be physical, they're going to try to get us out of our spots.

"But at the end of the day, as players you're going to have games that you're going to come, you're going to score the ball right off the bat. There's going to be days that you're not going to do that.

"Today was one of those days that we couldn't score the ball right off the bat but at the end of the day we keep finding one another, keep facilitating, keep playing the right way. For me and for Khris, that's what we both did.

"Obviously they did a great job guarding us and just making it tough for us, but it did not really test our patience, because what we do, we keep playing the right way, we keep finding one another."

Antetokounmpo turned in a career-best 15 assists on the way to his first playoff triple-double, adding 20 points and 12 rebounds as the Bucks out-scored the Heat 64-39 in the second half. 

But he left most of the scoring load to others this time, as Brook Lopez led the way with 25 points, Middleton had 20, and Bryn Forbes scored 22 off the bench. 

"I try to affect the game in any way I can," Antetokounmpo said.

"I'm blessed enough that I can affect the game defensively, I can pass the ball.

"There's days I'm going to be dominant, and I'm mature enough to understand that there's days I'm going to be able to do it and there's days I'm not going to be able to do it."

Thanks to their first-round sweep, Milwaukee will have a week off before the next round, where they were eliminated 4-1 by the Bucks last season. 

Antetokounmpo and his teammates want more this year, and they know this was just the start. 

"We've got to keep getting better. We have a week now to recover and rest our bodies and get better," he said.

Obviously we don't know who we're playing yet. We're going to try to focus on ourselves as much as possible. 

"Not trying to take anything away from this moment -- obviously it's a great moment for us, winning 4-0 and beating the team that beat us last year. It feels good. But at the end of the day, we've got a long way to go. Gotta stay humble."

Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo will miss the remainder of the NBA playoffs due to an ankle injury, the franchise announced on Friday.

In a blow for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the championship-chasing Bucks, DiVincenzo suffered a torn ligament in his left ankle.

DiVincenzo sustained the injury in the second quarter of Thursday's 113-84 rout of the Miami Heat as the Bucks claimed a commanding 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

"It's a tough blow, but you have to kind of process and understand it's an unfortunate thing, but we have to prepare and get ready," said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. "Other guys will have opportunities."

In three playoff games (all starts), DiVincenzo averaged 2.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.0 steal in 23.3 minutes per game.

In 66 regular-season games (all starts), the 24-year-old averaged 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 27.5 minutes per game – all career-high totals.

"On an individual, personal level for Donte, it's really, really tough," added Budenholzer.

"But his mentality, his approach, any time Donte is thrown some adversity or thrown something that's difficult for himself or for everybody, the way he handles it just continues to be impressive."

The Los Angeles Lakers issued a reminder of their quality as the reigning NBA champions outclassed the Phoenix Suns 109-95 to seize control in the Western Conference first-round series.

Injuries crippled the Lakers for most of the season as they slipped down to the play-in tournament and the seventh seed, but Anthony Davis and LeBron James starred at Staples Center on Thursday.

Davis posted a dominant double-double of 34 points and 11 rebounds and James put up 21 points as the Lakers claimed a 2-1 series lead following back-to-back victories against the second seeds in the playoffs.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are poised to sweep the Miami Heat after easing to a 113-84 win.

Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo posted 17 points and 17 rebounds to go with five assists, while Khris Middleton (team-high 22 points) and Jrue Holiday (19 points and 12 assists) contributed en route to a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The Bucks – who are eyeing their first championship since 1971 – can seal a sweep on Saturday.

 

Jokic inspires Nuggets

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic was at his brilliant best as the Denver Nuggets outlasted the Portland Trail Blazers 120-115 on the road. Jokic scored 36 points and collected 10 rebounds to guide the third-seeded Nuggets to a 2-1 series lead in the west. Damian Lillard's 37 points and Jusuf Nurkic's 13-point, 13-rebound double-double were not enough for the Trail Blazers.

Milwaukee's Holiday produced another impressive display against the Heat following his 15-assist performance in Game 2 as he became the first Bucks player with back-to-back 10-plus assist games in the playoffs since Sam Cassell in 2001. The 2013 All-Star was plus-37 in Game 2 and plus-42 in Game 3. According to Stats Perform, Holiday became the first NBA player to have a plus-minus of plus-37 or better in back-to-back games since Kobe Bryant in 2003.

 

Miami's shooting woes

The less said about the Heat's shooting on Thursday, the better. As a team, Miami were just 37.6 per cent from the field – making 32 of their 85 shots. From three-point range, the Heat were only 28.1 per cent (nine of 32). Goran Dragic (eight points) finished three-for-14 shooting in 29 minutes, while Duncan Robinson (two points) was one of six from the field, having missed all four three-pointers.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker were not at their usual high standards for the Suns. Paul, who hurt his shoulder in Game 2, was three-for-eight shooting for just seven points. All-Star team-mate Booker had 19 points, but it was on six-for-19 shooting from the field in 41 minutes. He only made one of four attempts from beyond the arc.

 

Rivers lights up fourth quarter

Denver's Austin Rivers was in red-hot form in the final period against the Blazers. Rivers scored 16 of his 21 points in the fourth to help the Nuggets to victory.

 

Thursday's results

Los Angeles Lakers 109-95 Phoenix Suns
Milwaukee Bucks 113-84 Miami Heat
Denver Nuggets 120-115 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Nets at Celtics

The star-studded Brooklyn Nets visit the Boston Celtics on Friday, leading the Eastern Conference first-round series 2-0.

The Milwaukee Bucks are on the cusp of advancing to the Eastern Conference semi-finals but Giannis Antetokounmpo warned "our job is not done" against the Miami Heat.

Milwaukee are one win away from sweeping reigning Eastern Conference champions Miami in the opening round of the NBA playoffs following Thursday's 113-84 rout in Game 3.

Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo posted 17 points and 17 rebounds to go with five assists, while Khris Middleton (team-high 22 points) and Jrue Holiday (19 points and 12 assists) contributed en route to a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The Bucks – who were eliminated by the Heat in last season's Conference semi-finals 4-1 – can seal a sweep on Saturday but two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo is taking nothing for granted.

"We are going to stay focused," Antetokounmpo told reporters as the Bucks attempt to win their first championship since 1971. "Our job is not done here."

"The last two games haven't been easy," Antetokounmpo said. "Obviously, we were up 30, but it's not easy.

"I'll say this: I'll say by us doing our job, I'm not surprised that we're able to win a game because once we focus on ourselves, play together, have fun and be tough, good things are going to happen. And in these three games, good things have happened for us."

Holiday – an All-Star in 2013 – was acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans in November as part of Milwaukee's title pursuit.

The 30-year-old produced another impressive display against the Heat following his 15-assist performance in Game 2 as he became the first Bucks player with back-to-back 10-plus assist games in the playoffs since Sam Cassell in 2001.

"We got better from last year," Antetokounmpo said. "We've had great additions to the team that help us do that."

PJ Tucker – another recruit after he was traded to the Bucks by the Houston Rockets in March – added: "We dogs. That's all we talk about. That's all I ever talk about.

"We gotta be dogs. People's perceptions of us and what people think in the past, we're erasing all of that."

Giannis Antetokounmpo revealed his love for football after leading the Milwaukee Bucks past the Miami Heat in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference matchup in the NBA playoffs.

Antetokounmpo led the way as the Bucks routed the Heat 132-98 on Monday for a commanding 2-0 lead in the first-round series.

Two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo posted 31 points in 31 minutes, while also tallying 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on home court in Milwaukee.

A superstar with the basketball, Antetokounmpo also demonstrated his football skills after juggling the ball during a break in play against the Heat.

Afterwards, Greece international Antetokounmpo told reporters: "I can do probably like 300 of those.

"I used to play soccer when I was young. My dad used to be a soccer player. I love soccer.

"I wanted to play soccer. I didn't want to play basketball growing up."

Milwaukee – seeded third in the east – used a 46-20 opening quarter to crush Miami in Game 2 of their NBA playoff clash.

Jrue Holiday (11 points and 15 assists) added a double-double of his own, while Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes made six three-pointers to contribute 22 points off the bench.

The Bucks set a franchise record for threes made in a playoff game after nailing 22 from beyond the arc.

Forbes, who joined the Bucks in November following four seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, said: "That was a huge part in me coming here. You know that there would be these opportunities and we would be in the playoffs. ... It's just great to be in this position, be in the playoffs again and have an opportunity and stage."

"It's just how the game goes," Forbes added. "It's ebbs and flows. Some games you're open a lot more. Some games you aren't. Tonight I think we moved the ball great and had a lot of open shots."

Bucks star Holiday hailed Forbes, saying: "If my man got the hot hand, I'm going to him. And he wasn't missing, so at that point we were running everything to him just to -- really just to see what happens."

It was an impressive shooting display from the Bucks as head coach Mike Budenholzer added: "Guys have got to shoot it with confidence. They've got to let it fly. They've got to know they’re going to get threes.

"I think the activity offensively, the attack, can create good looks for us. We've just got to continue to let it fly when you're open."

"Lots of times, there's just so much talent in the league and so many good teams, sometimes you get the early lead and things just happen and it becomes a close game," Budenholzer said. "Today we were able to keep the focus."

The Milwaukee Bucks earned a commanding 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series after Giannis Antetokounmpo and his team-mates blew away the Miami Heat 132-98.

Only two points separated the Bucks and Heat in overtime on Saturday as the third seeds edged Jimmy Butler's Miami 109-107.

But the Heat were no match for the Bucks on Monday after Milwaukee used a 46-20 opening quarter to rout Miami in Game 2 of their NBA playoff clash.

Antetokounmpo – the two-time reigning MVP – fuelled the Bucks with a game-high 31 points in 31 minutes, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on home court in Milwaukee.

Jrue Holiday added a double-double of his own, while Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes made six three-pointers to contribute 22 points off the bench.

The Bucks set a franchise record for threes made in a playoff game after nailing 22 from beyond the arc.

Entering the second matchup, the Bucks and Heat had the NBA's two best records when making more three-pointers than their opponents this season – Milwaukee were 25-3 (89.3 per cent) in those games and Miami were 18-3 (85.7 per cent). But the Bucks won Game 1 while making only five of 31 three-point attempts, 16.1 percent, a season low.

The Heat had no answer on the road, where reserve Dewayne Dedmon was Miami's best performer with a team-high 19 points as Butler (10 points on four-for-10 shooting), Bam Adebayo (16 points), Duncan Robinson (10 points) and Kendrick Nunn (nine points) struggled to get going, while Trevor Ariza (0-for-three shooting) was scoreless.

In the day's only other game, the Denver Nuggets levelled their Western Conference matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers thanks to a 128-109 victory.

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic inspired the third-seeded Nuggets in Game 2, scoring 38 points on 15-for-20 shooting, while also tallying eight rebounds and five assists in Denver.

Not even Damian Lillard's monster performance was enough for the sixth-ranked Trail Blazers to take down the Nuggets for back-to-back wins.

Lillard finished with 42 points and 10 assists – the All-Star made eight three-pointers by half-time, tying Vince Carter's all-time playoff record in a half.

The NBA playoffs got off to a thoroughly entertaining start over the weekend, with road wins for the lower seed in four of the eight series.

Game 1 followed hot on the heels of the similarly dramatic play-in tournament, in which Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors agonisingly lost twice to miss out on qualifying for the postseason.

Curry is a proven performer in both the regular season and the playoffs, but the same does not apply to every elite player.

Some stars seem to go missing when the season is on the line, while others thrive under pressure, as we discover in our latest NBA Heat Check – now comparing the performances of the past week to the entirety of the 2020-21 regular season.

RUNNING HOT...

Luka Doncic

For the second straight season, the Dallas Mavericks are playing the Los Angeles Clippers in round one. And for the second straight season, the series is providing Doncic with a platform to show off his extraordinary talents.

Dallas are too often a one-man show, but the Clippers struggled to contain Doncic last year as he averaged 31.0 points across a debut series that his Game 4 overtime buzzer-beating three-pointer memorably levelled.

The Mavs were beaten in Game 5 and Game 6 in 2020 to depart the tournament, yet this time they have a lead after Doncic's 31-point, triple-double effort on Saturday. Only Michael Jordan has played seven or more playoff games and averaged greater than his 31.0 points per game (33.4).

And it was again the Slovenian's accuracy from beyond the arc that hurt the Clippers, as he made five threes for the first time in the playoffs – up on his season average of 2.9.

Goran Dragic

The Miami Heat made the NBA Finals last season but were hamstrung by an injury to Dragic in Game 1 of the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

That proved a telling blow, but Dragic is back at the fore in this year's playoffs despite a middling regular season in which he averaged 13.4 points per game.

An opening effort of 25 points helped keep Miami in contention against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1. Duncan Robinson chipped in with 24, too, shooting 53.8 per cent from three.

Dragic ranked fourth in the league last week in terms of scoring improvement (up 11.6 points on the regular season), with Robinson fifth (up 10.9). Robinson topped the list when it came to an upturn in three-point shooting, while Dragic was just behind. The pair could not be blamed for the Bucks' win.

GOING COLD...

Bam Adebayo

Adebayo certainly could be held responsible for Miami's early deficit, contributing a measly nine points on four-for-15 shooting.

The fourth-year center contributed 17.8 points per game in last year's playoffs, including 17.2 in the Milwaukee series, but he never got going on Saturday.

The decrease from Adebayo's regular season 18.7 average was the sixth-worst in the NBA and, to make matters worse for the Heat, superstar team-mate Jimmy Butler also turned in a concerning performance.

Butler finished with 17 points, yet he made only four of 22 field goal attempts while using 30.0 per cent of Miami's plays.

Chris Paul

Paul's poor game this weekend was the most understandable but also the most concerning. The veteran point guard took a blow to his shoulder in the Phoenix Suns' win over the Lakers and clearly moved uneasily thereafter.

"I heard like a crack or whatever," said Paul, whose ball handling was uncharacteristically clumsy as he was limited to seven points, down from a season average of 16.4 per outing.

It did not cost the Suns, but they will surely need Paul back fit and firing to beat the defending champions over a seven-game series.

Julius Randle

The New York Knicks would not be back in the playoffs if not for Randle's outstanding season in which he played the most minutes in the entire league (2,667) and recorded 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

But his belated playoff debut at Madison Square Garden saw a significant step back as Randle's six-for-23 shooting from the field – or 26.1 per cent – allowed the Atlanta Hawks to steal a road game.

The Knicks are built on hard graft rather than superstar talent, but they cannot afford for their All-Star to misfire so drastically.

A strong second half sent the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers to a 123-109 victory over the third-seeded Denver Nuggets as the NBA playoffs began Saturday. 

Portland outscored Denver 65-48 after the break as Damian Lillard had 34 points and 13 assists for the visitors, who made 18 of 19 free throw attempts to just four of eight for the Nuggets. 

CJ McCollum added 21 points and Carmelo Anthony scored 18 in just 22 minutes off the bench for Portland, who beat the Los Angeles Lakers in their playoff opener last season only to lose the next four to the eventual champions. 

Their efforts overcame a 34-point, 15-rebound game from Nikola Jokic and 25 points from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter made all 11 of his two-point field goal attempts Saturday but was just one of 10 from three-point range. 

Game 2 is Monday in Denver. 

 

Brooklyn's big three carry Nets

Big games from the big three carried the Brooklyn Nets to a 104-93 series-opening win over the Boston Celtics. Kevin Durant had 32 points and 12 rebounds while Kyrie Irving added 29 points and James Harden 21 as the Nets stifled the Celtics, who got 22 points on just six of 20 shooting from Jayson Tatum in a losing effort. 

Luka Doncic had his third triple-double in seven career playoff games, scoring 31 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists as the Dallas Mavericks pulled out a 113-103 road win at the Los Angeles Clippers to open their series. Tim Hardaway Jr added 21 points on eight of 13 shooting for the fifth-seeded Mavericks, while Kawhi Leonard had 26 points and Paul George 23 to lead the Clippers. 

 

Butler cannot find the range

Jimmy Butler came close to recording a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the Miami Heat's 109-107 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, but the five-time All-Star made only four of 22 shots from the field. 

 

Middleton gives Bucks win

Khris Middleton's contested jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining in overtime gave the Bucks the Game 1 win at home. Middleton's 27 points led the Bucks, with Giannis Antetokounmpo adding 26 points and 18 rebounds. 

 

Saturday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 109-107 Miami Heat (OT)
Dallas Mavericks 113-103 Los Angeles Clippers
Brooklyn Nets 104-93 Boston Celtics
Portland Trail Blazers 123-109 Denver Nuggets

 

Lakers face Suns

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers got the win they needed in the play-in tournament and they will open the playoffs proper with Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against the second-seeded Suns in Phoenix. 

As enjoyable and memorable as the NBA postseason can be, it rarely produces significant surprises.

Sure, an occasional first-round upset stands out – like MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks falling to the Golden State Warriors in 2007 – but almost never does an underdog hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as season's end.

Of course, that depends on your definition of an underdog.

In each of the last 25 seasons – and in 49 of the last 51 – the team that won the NBA Finals was a top three seed in their conference. The only exception to that rule since 1970 is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who finished sixth in the Western Conference despite being the reigning NBA champions.

The 2020-21 NBA season has already been an unprecedented one, with games played in empty arenas and players being held out of games due to league virus safety protocols. And why should the oddities end when the playoffs begin?

From 2015-18, the Warriors played the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals four straight seasons, making everything beforehand feel like a waste of time. The pattern was broken in 2019 because LeBron James switched conferences, but the Warriors represented the west for the fifth straight season. Last season, James played in the Finals for the ninth time in 10 campaigns, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title.

This season, however, is suspiciously devoid of a juggernaut. The top regular season teams are unproven in the playoffs, and the typical postseason performers must answer serious questions and navigate a difficult road to the Finals.

The Utah Jazz had the league's best record this season at 52-20, a .722 win percentage. That is the fifth-worst record by a league-leading team since the NBA-ABA merger and the worst in 20 years.

 

Lowest Win Pct by Team With NBA's Best Record in Season, Since 1976-77

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

With just 10 wins separating the top-seeded Jazz and seventh-seeded Lakers, the west could deviate from seeding by quite a bit.

Even in the often-predictable east, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were considered preseason favorites in the conference, only to finish with the sixth and seventh seeds.

The fact is that whoever wins their conference to play in the NBA Finals – and ultimately raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy – will have a unique story about their road there. Whether it is a team who are a proven commodity that flipped the switch after a sub-par regular season or a high-seeded team that overcame past postseason failures, the 2021 NBA champions – like the 2020-21 regular season itself – will be unlike any other.

 

Honourable Mentions: West number one Dallas Mavericks, West number six Portland Trail Blazers

Both teams lack the depth to make a serious championship run but have enough star power in the backcourt to scare any opponent.

Dallas will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and took two of three games this season against Los Angeles. Luka Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in those games. In nine career games against the Clippers, Doncic is attempting 9.9 free throws per game, his most against any Western Conference opponent.

The Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard takes them. When Portland made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers were 7-0 when Lillard had a plus-minus above zero and were 1-8 when he had a negative plus-minus.

 

The 'Not Your Year' Tier: West number three Denver Nuggets

The season-ending knee injury to Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray was a devastating blow to Denver's title chances and takes some fun out of a special season by Nikola Jokic.

Although Murray's injury solidified Jokic as the MVP favourite – leading the Nuggets to a 13-5 record since the injury – it is hard to envision Denver making a deep run without their star guard.

The knock on Jokic has been that he would generally rather pass than score, and Denver are 5-8 in postseason games when Jokic attempts 20 or more shots.

With Jokic scoring a career-high 26.4 points per game this season and with the continued blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., however, the Nuggets remain dangerous in the playoffs.

 

The 'Prove It' Tier: West number four Los Angeles Clippers, East number one Philadelphia 76ers, West number one Utah Jazz, East number three Milwaukee Bucks, West number two Phoenix Suns

On paper, each of these teams appear to be solid championship contenders, complete with star power and coming off an impressive regular season.

But each of these teams need to prove they can take another step forward, either because of a limited postseason history or a checkered one.

At the start of last year's playoffs, the Clippers were considered by many to be the favourites but blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Nuggets was a humbling experience. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have quietly had fantastic seasons, each averaging at least 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers and Bucks have been mainstays in the east playoffs for the past few seasons and are hoping that this year's vintage has the answers to take the next step.

Philadelphia, under new leadership with Doc Rivers and buoyed by the shooting of Danny Green and Seth Curry, have a scoring differential of plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together, the best mark in the history of the much-maligned duo.

Milwaukee won 11 of their last 15 games, including two wins each against Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Nets – the two teams seeded higher in the east.

A machine over the last few regular seasons, the Bucks have faltered in past playoff series as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to score in the clutch and his team-mates shrank from the moment. The costly acquisition of Jrue Holiday should help take some of the pressure off, and Antetokounmpo is shooting 73.3 percent (11 of 15) this season in the last two minutes of a game within five points.

Utah and Phoenix are fascinating prospects after stellar regular seasons but the consensus regarding both teams is that they have already maxed out their talent before the postseason starts.

Rudy Gobert is an All-Defensive Team mainstay for good reason, but Utah have been forced to sit him in the playoffs against smaller teams or when his free-throw shooting becomes a problem.

The Jazz are expecting leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to return from a sprained right ankle, but Utah are better operating as a five-man offense than a one-man show. When Mitchell attempts 20 or fewer field goals this season, the Jazz are 27-2. When he shoots more than 20 times, the Jazz are 12-12.

The Suns are 59-21 over their last 80 games, including in last year's bubble, and have become one of the best stories in the league. Chris Paul turns every team he is on into a winner, and he has a case to receive MVP votes scoring a modest 16.4 points per game.

For all of his career accomplishments, however, Paul has famously only advanced past the second round once in his career, and he now leads a core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that lacks playoff experience.

 

The 'Sleeping Giant' Tier: East number six Miami Heat, West number seven Los Angeles Lakers

Last year's finalists have endured brutal regular seasons filled with disappointment, injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Only Duncan Robinson played all 72 games this season for Miami, and while the Heat are healthier now than during their nightmare 11-17 start, serious questions remain about the health of veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, who both missed at least 20 games this season.

The Lakers remain the betting favourites coming out of the west, despite needing a 103-100 play-in win over the Golden State Warriors to clinch a playoff berth. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games this season, and the duo only played together in 27 games.

While the health of the Lakers' superstars remains a concern, Los Angeles were 19-8 when both James and Davis played. The defending champions had a scoring differential of plus-11.4 points per 100 possession when the duo were on the court together. For as long as James and Davis are playing, the Lakers remain a juggernaut.

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets are the first team to ever have three players average at least 24 points (minimum 35 games). Durant, Harden and Irving are the highest-scoring trio since the early 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were producing some of the best seasons in league history.

What makes Brooklyn such a strong contender, however, is that the supporting cast around their dynamic trio is a real asset.

The Nets' reserves scored 35.9 points per game this season, better than the bench of fellow contenders like the Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.

First-year head coach Steve Nash has consistently been able to field a competitive squad during a tumultuous year. As evidence of the change and adversity the Nets faced this season, they have used 38 different starting line-ups – only the lowly Rockets used more.

With veteran big men like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Nets can counter size but are also versatile enough to play small, with Jeff Green defending opposing centers.

The high-profile names make Brooklyn feel like an inevitability, but there is still plenty of uncertainty with this newly constructed super-team.

Durant, Harden and Irving have only played 202 minutes together, less than six percent of Brooklyn's season. The trio appear to blend well, scoring a torrid 117.8 points per 100 possessions, but any group of stars will face challenges in their first playoff test.

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