Miami Heat's James tries to pass around Milwaukee Bucks' Jennings in the first half of their NBA basketball game in Miami, Florida

PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Miami: 66-16, best record in the league and number one seed in the East

Milwaukee: 38-44, eight seed in the East

SEASON SERIES

The Heat won three of the four matchups in the regular season, with one of the games in Miami going to overtime before the Heat secured one of those victories. But the close games were in November and December, and these two teams have been heading in opposite directions ever since.

KEY INJURIES

None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Heat: offense 110.3 (Best in NBA), defense 100.5 (7th in NBA)
Bucks: offense 100.9 (21st in NBA), defense 102.3 (12th in NBA)

Differential: Heat +9.9 (2nd in NBA), Bucks -1.4 (18th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR MILWAUKEE:

Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, at the same time: On paper, Milwaukee should have one of the league’s deadliest backcourt tandems in Ellis and Jennings. The problem has been that when one has a big game, the other shrinks in the moment. That can’t happen against the Heat — if the Bucks are to win even a single game in this series, it’ll have to come on a night when both of their scorers light it up simultaneously.

Larry Sanders, under control: Sanders is a leading candidate for Most Improved and is on the list of guys in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Unfortunately, he’s been out of control with the officials all season long until just recently, finishing the season tied for second in the league for the most technical fouls with 14. Sanders needs to focus on the task at hand instead of the officiating this series, especially considering the fact that the Heat were the source of one of his bigger frustrations with the referees this season.

Limit transition opportunities defensively: The Heat are devastating in a lot of ways, but the last thing you want to see while trying to defend them is LeBron James or Dwyane Wade running free on the fast break, while outnumbered in transition. Milwaukee has to get back defensively and make Miami work for its offense in its half-court sets.

THREE KEYS FOR MIAMI:

Don’t overlook the opponent: The last time Miami faced Milwaukee, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh both sat out, yet the Heat cruised to a double-digit victory anyway. That was only a little more than a week ago, and with Miami at full strength to open the postseason, it might be tempting to view this series as already being won. As long as the Heat bring playoff energy to their performance, they should be more than fine in this series.

Contain either Ellis or Jennings: It doesn’t matter which of the Bucks’ guards the Heat decide to shut down; either is capable of going for 30 on any given night, Miami simply can’t have them both get going at the same time.

Do what you do best: The Heat play dominant, championship-level team defense when they want to, and when they do, it leads to fast break opportunities that are impossible for the defense to stop. Let the defense lead to offense as it has all season long, and Milwaukee, like most teams, will be in deep trouble for the majority of this series.

OUTLOOK

While the Heat have peaked in the second half of the season by entering the playoffs on a ridiculous run of winning 37 of their last 39 games, it’s been the opposite for the Bucks, who have struggled as of late and closed the season by winning just four times in their last 16 games. This series will be a bloodbath pure and simple, unless the Heat take their foot off the gas and approach one of the games in the series as if it were a meaningless regular season game in November. Not likely.

PREDICTION

If the league allowed a series to end in three games, this would be the perfect candidate. Since that’s not an option, Heat will sweep in four.

Spurs fall to Bulls 95-91 after winning first 13 road games

Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade (3) is defended by San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Banks)
Associated Press
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CHICAGO (AP) — Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA’s best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn’t dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8. But after a big push down the stretch, they came up short in this one.

The Bulls led 65-47 midway through the third following a surge by Butler, who scored seven in a 54-second span after missing his first six shots. But the Spurs jumped back into it in the closing minutes of the quarter.

They went on an 11-2 run that Mills finished with a 3 to cut it to 72-66 just under a minute into the fourth.

Things got real tight when Gasol nailed a 3 to pull San Antonio to within 88-84 with 3:24 left. Doug McDermott then hit three free throws after being fouled by Tony Parker, and the teams basically exchanged baskets the rest of the way.

TIP-INS

Spurs: Parker had eight points and five assists after missing a game because of a bruised left knee. … For the second straight game, the Spurs set a season low for first-quarter scoring. They had 17 points after managing 19 at Minnesota on Tuesday night.

Bulls: F Doug McDermott scored eight points after being sidelined because of a concussion since Nov. 11. … Butler had scored 20 or more in 15 consecutive games, the longest streak by a Bulls player since Michael Jordan did it in 24 straight during the 1995-96 season.

 

Parker returns to Spurs’ lineup against Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker returned to the lineup Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls after missing a game because of a bruised left knee.

The seven-time All-Star did not play at Minnesota on Tuesday night after knocking knees with a Milwaukee Bucks defender the previous night. He started against the Bucks after missing two games with a thigh contusion.

Parker came into Thursday averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 assists.

Chicago’s Doug McDermott returned to the rotation after missing nearly a month because of a concussion.

Gasol, Douglas lead Grizzlies past Trail Blazers, 88-86

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Marc Gasol scored 36 points and Toney Douglas made two free throws with less than a second left to give the Memphis Grizzlies an 88-86 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Douglas finished with 11 points, scoring the game’s final six points to seal Memphis’ fifth straight victory.

Gasol was 13 of 24 from the field, including 4 of 6 from outside the arc. But Douglas, signed by Memphis this week because of injuries, took over down the stretch. The guard scored on a 19-footer with 34 seconds left, then converted two pairs of free throws in the last 20 seconds.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 24 points, and Damian Lillard had 19 on 6-of-18 shooting. Evan Turner had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Portland held a 79-68 lead after Al-Farouq Aminu scored inside with 5:28 left. But Memphis clicked off a 14-2 rally and it settled into a one-possession contest.

Tony Allen had 15 points and 10 rebounds for Memphis.

Shooting issues that plagued both teams in the first half, spread past intermission as each started 4 of 14 from the field. That helped Portland maintain its lead after carrying a 50-43 advantage into halftime.

Despite converting only 5 of 20 shots in the third, Portland actually extended its lead, entering the fourth with a 69-61 advantage.

The Portland lead would reach 13 again in the fourth and was still at 11 when Memphis started its rally behind Gasol, who had nine straight points for the Grizzlies.

Portland had a previous 13-point lead in the second quarter as every Grizzly but Gasol was suffering shooting woes.

Gasol managed 19 points in the half, while Portland got 15 points each from McCollum and Lillard.

TIP-INS

Blazers: F Evan Turner started his first game of the season due to an injury to Maurice Harkless. …McCollum entered the game averaging 24 points. … G Allen Crabbe finished with seven points after scoring at least 14 in four straight games. …C Mason Plumlee had four points, ending his streak of seven straight games in double figures.

Grizzlies: Memphis coach David Fizdale finally said enough about calls and no-calls late in the first half to earn a technical courtesy of official J. T. Orr. Lillard missed the free throw to open the third. …Gasol also got a tech in the third quarter for arguing a call. … F JaMychal Green had a career-high 18 rebounds. His previous best was 17 this week in a win at New Orleans.

EXTENSIONS

Earlier Thursday, the Grizzlies announced that they have agreed to multi-year extensions with general manager Chris Wallace, John Hollinger, executive vice president of basketball operations, and Ed Stefanski, vice president of player personnel. Terms were not disclosed.

HARKLESS HURT

Portland forward Maurice Harkless did not play because of a left ankle sprain suffered in the latter stages of the Portland’s 115-107 loss at Milwaukee on Wednesday night. “I remember him wincing. He was on the free throw line,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “It was late in the game, like the last 2 minutes.”

NOTHING FREE

Both teams struggled from the free throw line. Portland made 29 of 40 in the game while Memphis was 20 of 30.

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Portland hits the middle game of a five-game trip, landing in Indiana on Saturday to face the Pacers.

Grizzlies: Memphis continues its homestand Saturday against the Gold State Warriors.

Stephen Curry gets fouled, hits crazy rainbow circus shot vs. Jazz (VIDEO)

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is a wizard when it comes to shots you don’t think can ever reach the iron. Each time he does something like this, he surprises you even though you should be used to it by now.

But I’m not. The Utah Jazz aren’t. Heck, maybe even Steph isn’t used to it by now.

As Curry was driving down the left side of the floor on Thursday, Shelvin Mack got out of position and wound up trailing the Warriors star. With Curry rounding the pick, Mack reached and earned a foul.

Thinking quickly, Curry then hoisted up a rainbow of a shot that gently kissed the net on the way down.

Curry would go on to make the free throw for the 3-point play.