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Quick-healing Khris Middleton hopes to gives Bucks a boost

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) Khris Middleton has proven to be a quick healer.

One of Milwaukee’s top all-around players plans to make his season debut on Wednesday against the streaking Miami Heat, so long as his surgically-repaired left hamstring feels fine following shoot-around and pregame warmups.

The Bucks’ leading scorer last season, Middleton is about a month ahead of the six-month timeline that the Bucks initially thought would be needed for the torn hamstring to heal. He returns just as new acquisitions Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes join a team that is just 4-12 since Jan. 4.

Milwaukee said last week that Middleton was cleared to play. He will be limited initially to about 15-20 minutes a game, coach Jason Kidd said Tuesday.

At 22-28, the Bucks were 10th in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday’s action, one game back of Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot.

“We’re going to look at him to save the season,” forward Jabari Parker said after practice with a smile. “Put pressure on him.”

Middleton took the ribbing in stride.

“I wouldn’t say that at all,” he said with a laugh.

Middleton is a scoring threat in a 6-foot-8 frame and he can help defend on the perimeter. The Bucks are giving up 10.7 3-pointers on 29.7 attempts to opponents, among the highest averages in the league. Milwaukee hasn’t held an opponent to less than 100 points since a 98-94 win over Oklahoma City on Jan. 2.

“With the weeks practicing, playing 1-on-1s and lifting, I haven’t thought about my hamstring for one bit, which is good,” Middleton said. “The way I went down, it was a freak incident … just one of those things.”

Middleton scored a team-high 18.2 points per game last season. He hurt the hamstring while working out in late September, about a week before the start of training camp.

Middleton will rejoin a team in which Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into an All-Star. Parker is averaging a career-best 20.2 points per game. At his best last year, Middleton was the Bucks’ best offensive option in the closing minutes of tight games with his ability to hit from the perimeter or drive the lane.

It’s unclear how much playing time Hibbert and Hawes might each get after being acquired from Charlotte last week for backup center Miles Plumlee. The 7-foot-2 Hibbert, who has been bothered by knee issues this year, is known as a rim protector, while the 7-1 Hawes can stretch the floor with his outside shot.

The Bucks already rotate two experienced players in the middle in defensive-minded John Henson and Greg Monroe, whose strength is offense. Seven-foot-1 rookie Thon Maker is also starting to see more consistent minutes.

The Bucks did gain financial flexibility in unloading Plumlee, who was in the first year of a four-year contract worth about $52 million after returning to the Bucks in the offseason as a restricted free agent. Hibbert is a free agent after this season, while Hawes has a player option next season worth about $6 million.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.

Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, dies

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The Spurs may be in the playoffs, but all of that takes a backseat now for Gregg Popovich.

Spurs:

With deep regret the San Antonio Spurs announce that Erin Popovich, wife of Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich, passed away earlier today. Erin and Gregg were married for four decades and were blessed with two children and two grandchildren.

“We mourn the loss of Erin,” said Spurs General Manager RC Buford. “She was a strong, wonderful, kind, intelligent woman who provided love, support and humor to all of us.”

The organization asks media to respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

What devastating news. Hopefully, Popovich had time to make peace with this eventuality, but that doesn’t make it easy to handle.