Miami Heat race to 2-0 lead over Milwaukee Bucks

HOUSTON ROCKETS GUARD JAMES HARDEN (13) passes the ball over Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort (5) during the second half of game seven of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. — REUTERS

JAMES HARDEN capped a miserable shooting performance with a timely defensive play, and the Houston Rockets held on for a 104-102 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7 of this Western Conference first-round playoff series in AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando on Wednesday.

Harden closed out on Thunder guard Luguentz Dort and recorded a blocked shot with 4.8 seconds left and Houston clinging to a one-point lead. Following a Robert Covington free throw, the Rockets blew up an inbounds play from the Thunder with 1.1 seconds left to clinch the series and set a date opposite the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Game 1 of that series is set for Friday in the AdventHealth Arena.

Dort recorded a game-high 30 points on six-for-12 3-point shooting, the highest scoring total for an undrafted rookie in a Game 7. But the Rockets clamped down elsewhere defensively, forcing Thunder guard Chris Paul into six turnovers, while holding Dennis Schroder to five-of-17 shooting.

Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander matched Paul with 19 points and hit a corner 3-pointer that gave the Thunder a 102-101 lead with 1:42 remaining. But those were the final points of the game for the Thunder, who committed 22 turnovers that Houston converted into 28 points.

Harden shot just four of 15 and had a series-low 17 points. But he added nine assists and received help from his teammates, with Covington posting 21 points, 10 rebounds, three steals, and three blocks. Eric Gordon matched Covington with 21 points while Russell Westbrook chipped in 20 points and nine boards.

Paul added 11 rebounds and 12 assists to complete a triple-double. Neither team led by more than eight points in a contest that featured 13 ties and 15 lead changes.

With Harden off to a woeful shooting start, missing 5 of 6 shot attempts, Covington, Gordon, and Westbrook carried the Rockets offensively in the first quarter by recording six points apiece. But the Thunder led by just one point entering the second quarter, despite shooting 11 of 20 from the floor by virtue of seven first-period turnovers that the Rockets converted into 10 points.

Dort caught fire in the second, pouring in a dozen points during one stretch before the Rockets wrestled away control. Gordon and Covington combined for 30 points as Houston led 61-59 at the intermission.

Jimmy Butler made two free throws with no time remaining on the clock Wednesday night, capping a wild finish that featured two controversial calls by the referees and giving the fifth-seeded Miami Heat a second straight win over the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, 116-114 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Walt Disney World Complex near Orlando.

After posting a 115-104 win in Game 1, the Heat appeared to be in command Wednesday with a 113-107 advantage with less than 20 seconds to go.

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo then threw down a dunk, and Brook Lopez stole Butler’s inbounds pass, converting a layup that trimmed the gap to two with 8.5 seconds left.

After Butler made just one of two free throws for a 114-111 lead with 7.7 seconds left, Goran Dragic was called for a debated brush foul on a Khris Middleton 3-point attempt. When Middleton made all three of his foul shots, the game shockingly was tied with 4.3 seconds remaining.

That was enough time for Butler to benefit from a similar touch foul at the other end on a corner jumper he got off just before the horn. Antetokounmpo was whistled for putting a hand on Butler’s hip during the follow through, setting up the game-winning free throws.

On a night when Butler followed up a 40-point explosion with just 13, the Heat used a 51-21 scoring advantage on 3-pointers to put the Bucks in a big hole.

After trailing by as many as 13 in the first half and 10 in the final period, the Bucks got within 105-102 on a short shot by Antetokounmpo with 5:30 to play.

But Kelly Olynyk countered immediately with his third 3-pointer of the game to double the margin, and then the Heat defense took over.

The Bucks didn’t score again until Antetokounmpo sank two free throws with 1:45 to go, which cut the deficit to 111-104. The nearly four-minute drought featured five missed shots and three turnovers.

Dragic scored 23 points and Tyler Herro added 17 points for Miami. Jae Crowder had 16, Bam Adebayo had 15 to go with a team-high nine rebounds, Duncan Robinson had 13, and Olynyk had 11.

Butler also found time for a team-high six assists and team-high three steals as the Heat forced 14 turnovers while only committing 10.

Antetokounmpo finished with a game-high 29 points and a game-high 14 rebounds after having been held to 18 points and 10 rebounds in Game 1.

Middleton chipped in with 23 points and a game-high eight assists. Eric Bledsoe and Lopez added 16 points apiece and George Hill did 14 for the Bucks, who shot seven-for-25 on 3-point attempts (28%) as opposed to the Heat’s 17-for-45 (37.8%).

Riding the momentum of their Game 1 win, the Heat bombed in five 3-pointers, including two by Olynyk, in the first quarter, building as much as an 11-point advantage.

The margin reached 13 in the second period before the Bucks scratched back. — Reuters