MIAMI: Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat caught fire down the stretch to beat the Chicago Bulls 102-91 and reach the NBA playoffs on Friday, as the Minnesota Timberwolves dominated the Oklahoma City Thunder to book their postseason berth. Miami, smarting from a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, clinched the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final seed to set up a meeting with the top seeded Milwaukee Bucks starting on Sunday. Minnesota meanwhile will face Western Conference top seeds Denver in the first round of the playoffs after a comprehensive 120-95 blowout of Oklahoma City.
While Minnesota romped into the postseason, Miami’s clash with Chicago went down to the wire before Butler, helped by the three-pointers of Max Strus, secured victory for Erik Spoelstra’s team. Butler put up 31 points, a tally matched by Strus who shot 7-12 on three pointers, including a crucial 26-foot jumper with 1:14 left that put Miami 96-91 up. For Strus, who grew up as a Bulls fan in the suburbs of Chicago and was released by them before joining Miami, it was a sweet night. “It’s huge. It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing – we had to win this one, no matter what. It was win or go home and we’re not done yet. “So we want to keep playing and it’s good to get that one.
But it does feel a little bit better against them, I’m not gonna lie,” he said. Strus secured the win with three free throws after he was fouled by Alex Caruso as he tried to make a throw from the corner. The Heat had been 14 points up in the first quarter but a 12-2 run from the Bulls in the third levelled the game up at 56-56. A Zach LaVine dunk then put Chicago up for the first time since the opening basket of the game and three three-pointers early in the fourth from Coby White ensured the Bulls were 90-87 with three minutes to go.
Wolves down Thunder But then Butler and Strus took control. Butler was fouled while making a lay-up and then Bam Adebayo, who grabbed 17 rebounds, sank two free throws after he was fouled by Nikola Vucevic to make it 93-90. Butler set up Strus for a three pointer before he then made sure of the victory from the free-throw line. The Heat had found themselves in the elimination game after losing their opening play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks and faced the prospect of being the first divisional winner not to make the playoffs. “I don’t think any of us felt any type of pressure. We went out, we competed, we played the right way, corrected some things, and did what we were supposed to do,” said Butler.
DeMar DeRozan top scored for the Bulls with 26 points and nine assists. There is little time for Miami to savor the victory however as their playoff series against the Bucks begins in Milwaukee on Sunday. “Man, it’s going to be tough,” said Butler, “But I think we got a shot. A really good shot at that. As long as we stick together. I’m telling you, we’re a really good team and we’re going to go out there and play,” he said. In Minneapolis, the Timberwolves put their team’s recent turbulence behind them to demolish Oklahoma City.
Minnesota finished the regular season in disarray, with team-mates Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson involved in a sideline punch-up in their final regular season game last Sunday. Gobert was subsequently suspended for Tuesday’s play-in defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers, but returned on Friday to contribute 21 points in a convincing victory. Minnesota led by as many as 29 points at one stage in the fourth quarter and were up by double digits for most of the second half. Karl-Anthony Towns led the Timberwolves scoring with 28 points while all five starters finished in double figures. – AFP