WASHINGTON: Nikola Jokic scored 37 points and the Denver Nuggets avoided being swept out of the NBA playoffs on Sunday, holding off the Golden State Warriors 126-121. The 27-year-old Serbian, last season’s NBA Most Valuable Player, also delivered eight rebounds and six assists as the Nuggets pulled within 3-1 in their best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series to force a fifth game on Wednesday at San Francisco.
The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and the Eastern Conference top-seeded Miami Heat pushed their series leads to 3-1 with lopsided victories. The Bucks routed the Chicago Bulls 119-95 and the Heat dominated the Atlanta Hawks 110-86. The upstart New Orleans Pelicans, last team to clinch their playoff spot, beat the West’s top-seeded Phoenix Suns 118-103 to knot their series two games apiece.
Jokic acknowledged that the Nuggets were determined to avoid a sweep on their home floor against the Warriors. “We put up the fight,” Jokic said. “We didn’t want to get swept. We have more pride in ourselves.” After Stephen Curry nailed a long jumper to give Golden State a 121-119 lead with 1:21 to play, Jokic made a layup, Monte Morris sank a go-ahead jumper with 33 seconds remaining and, after a steal by Austin Rivers, Jokic fired a pass to Will Barton for the deciding corner three-pointer with 8.3 seconds remaining.
No team in NBA history has overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, but Jokic says the Nuggets have the spirit to make history. “We’ve really got our second wind, so why not?” he said. In the 2020 playoffs played in the coronavirus bubble, the Nuggets became the first team to rally from 3-1 down in a series twice in the same post-season. “Can I say we have them right where we want them? No,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “But we’re alive.” Morris had 24 points and Aaron Gordon added 21 for Denver. Curry had 33 off the bench – 15 in the fourth quarter – to lead Golden State, while Klay Thompson had 32 in his first 30-point playoff game since the 2019 NBA Finals.
In Chicago, Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered game highs of 32 points and 17 rebounds to lead the Bucks. The Greek star also passed off seven assists and blocked two shots to put the Bucks in control as they head home for game five on Wednesday. Bucks reserve Grayson Allen scored a career-playoff-high 27 on 10-of-12 shooting, 6-of-7 from three-point range, while Jrue Holiday added 26 points and Bobby Portis had 14 for Milwaukee, who were again without injured forward Khris Middleton. The Bulls, who haven’t won a home playoff game since 2015, were led by Zach LaVine with 24 points and 13 assists while DeMar DeRozan added 23 points.
Heat scorch Hawks
Jimmy Butler led the Heat in Miami, scoring 36 points to put the team on the brink of advancing. Miami held Atlanta star Trae Young to just nine points on 3-of-11 shooting – all three of his baskets three-pointers. “They brought the pressure and we just couldn’t match it,” Young said. Butler added 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals for a Heat team that was without Kyle Lowry, who was sidelined with a hamstring strain but was a vocal presence on the bench.
Trailing by one after the first quarter, the Heat seized control with a 30-15 second quarter that featured a 15-0 scoring run and closed with an 11-0 surge. They’ll try to close it out on their home floor on Tuesday. Phoenix, who led the league with 64 regular-season wins, find themselves heading home for game five on tied 2-2 with a young Pelicans team that harried them throughout a sometimes tense battle in New Orleans.
Brandon Ingram scored 30 points and Jonas Valanciunas added a playoff-career-high 26 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Pelicans against a Suns team missing top scorer Devin Booker, sidelined the remainder of the series with a hamstring strain. Phoenix, led by 23 points from DeAndre Ayton, led 51-49 at halftime.
But New Orleans outscored Phoenix by 13 points in the third quarter to take a 10-point lead and put it away with a 12-0 scoring run that pushed their lead to 16 points midway through the final period. Suns star Chris Paul, harried all night by New Orleans’ Jose Alvarado, scored just four points with 11 assists and was whistled for one of three technical fouls meted out to the Suns. – AFP