LOS ANGELES: The Milwaukee Bucks became the first team to clinch an NBA playoff place on Tuesday after holding off a late rally from the Phoenix Suns to complete a 116-104 road victory in Arizona. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists as the Bucks brought up their 50th win of the regular season to cement their grip on first place at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Antetokounmpo was backed by 21 points from Brook Lopez while three other Milwaukee players finished in double figures. The Bucks now lead the Eastern Conference by three games from Boston with a 50-19 record as the regular season enters its final stretch.
But it needed a late burst of scoring by Milwaukee to make sure of victory, the Bucks stitching together a 24-9 run in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to pull clear after the Suns had edged into a 95-92 lead with 8min 47sec remaining. Devin Booker led the Suns scorers with 30 points while Deandre Ayton finished with 16 points for the hosts. At the top of the Western Conference, meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets slumped to a fourth straight defeat as Fred VanVleet kept the Toronto Raptors’ playoff hopes alive with a virtuoso display in a 125-110 victory.
Toronto point guard VanVleet finished with 36 points, including eight three-pointers, with seven assists and three steals to give Toronto a crucial win as they aim to remain in contention for a place in the postseason. The Raptors went on the front foot from the outset, pouring in a franchise record 49 points in a remarkable first quarter to leave conference leaders Denver shellshocked. Although a late rally saw Denver close to within six points in the fourth, Toronto went on a late run to pull away once more and complete a wire-to-wire victory at the Scotiabank Arena.
‘We’re in chill mode’
Denver coach Michael Malone had stern words for his team after the defeat. “I need to find some guys who are ready to fight with me, because right now we’re in chill mode,” Malone said. “And we can’t be in chill mode with 13 games to go in the season. We’ve got to find a way to get our swagger back and get back to playing Denver Nugget basketball.”
In other games Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers got back to winning ways after Sunday’s defeat to the New York Knicks with a comprehensive 123-108 road win over the New Orleans Pelicans in the Big Easy. With LeBron James sidelined, Anthony Davis once again stepped up for the Lakers with 35 points and 17 rebounds while Malik Beasley put on a three-point shooting clinic, making 7-of-12 attempts from beyond the arc in a 24-point haul. The win keeps the Lakers firmly in contention for a playoff place with just under four weeks of the regular season remaining.
“We’re just trying to stay alive,” Davis said afterwards. “We came out with a mindset of having this as a must-win game.” Davis had been determined to produce a big performance against his former club, after blaming himself for the Lakers’ 112-108 loss to the Knicks on Sunday. “Everybody did their job (on Sunday) except myself. That was on me,” Davis said. “I never want to have a performance like I did the other night and let my team down. I wanted to come out tonight and make a difference.”
In Portland, the in-form New York Knicks overcame a 38-point display from Damian Lillard which included eight three-pointers to overpower the Trail Blazers 123-107. Immanuel Quickley had 26 points, Julius Randle 24 and RJ Barrett 22 on a night when six Knicks players broke double figures. Cleveland meanwhile kept up their pursuit of Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference with a 120-104 win over the Charlotte Hornets in North Carolina. Evan Mobley led the Cavaliers scorers in the absence of Donovan Mitchell with 26 points as Cleveland improved to 44-27 to remain fourth in the East. – AFP