In an elimination game, Max Strus had another 3-point attempt blocked. He and Jimmy Butler rendered it irrelevant.
The playoffs are almost around the corner.
Strus and Butler each scored 31 points as the Miami Heat upset the Chicago Bulls 102-91 in an Eastern Conference play-in game Friday night.
“Our team has obviously not been perfect this year,” admitted Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “But I do know one thing about the men in that locker room: Over the last 48 hours, I have witnessed how categorically, unequivocally, how badly and desperately our group wanted to get into this damn thing — and get into the playoffs to compete for a title.”
Their reward: the No. 8 seed in the East and a first-round game with the NBA’s top overall seed, the Milwaukee Bucks, beginning Sunday.
The Bulls were led by DeMar DeRozan, who had 26 points and nine assists. Alex Caruso had 16 points, Zach Lavine had 15 but only shot 6 for 20, and Coby White had 14 points. Chicago extended its season with a road win against Toronto on Wednesday, but it fell short of the second road win required to enter the playoffs.
“They’re disappointed,” stated Bulls head coach Billy Donovan. “When you invest from September to the middle of April, that’s a long time.” You provide a brief reflection. I believe they are all disappointed. Since the All-Star break, I believe we’ve improved as a group. It would have been fantastic if we could have won today and advanced to the playoffs, but that did not happen.”
Miami, which trailed by six points halfway through the fourth quarter, got 12 points from Tyler Herro and 17 rebounds from Bam Adebayo.
Butler scored while being fouled with 2:17 remaining to put Miami up for good, then found Strus for a 3-pointer — his seventh of the night — a minute later to expand the advantage to five, and Strus clinched it with three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt with 40 seconds remaining.
“I don’t think any of us felt any type of pressure,” Butler said. “We went out, and we competed.”
The Heat led by 14 points in the first quarter, had a 10-point lead in the third quarter, and then trailed by six with 7:12 left.
A 9-3 run over the following two minutes — Butler had seven points and Strus had the other two — put the Heat in a tie and into all-too-familiar terrain. The NBA classifies clutch games as those that are decided by five points or fewer in the last five minutes, and the Heat played 54 of them during the regular season, a league best.
Perhaps it had prepared them for this time. With 3:47 remaining, White sank a 3-pointer to put the Bulls up 90-87. The remainder of the score is as follows: The Heat defeated the Bulls 15-1.
“Win or go home,” Strus, an Illinois native who began his career with the Bulls, said. “We’re not quite done yet.”
TIP-INS Bulls: This season, Chicago went 13-1 versus Miami, Detroit, Portland, Utah, and Dallas. … In any of the three regular-season meetings between the clubs, the Bulls never trailed Miami by more than nine points. … Nikola Vucevic led all scorers with 12 points.
Heat: Strus scored 14 points in the first quarter, tying his career high for a first-quarter scoring output. The Heat were 44-38 at the end of the regular season, making them the 21st club to do so. All 21 have advanced to the playoffs.
This season, the Heat and Bucks split four encounters, each going 2-0 at home. Butler led all players in the season series with 22 points per game. Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee both averaged 19.5, while Herro averaged 19.
UDONIS AND BILLY
It was the last time Donovan shared the floor with one of his former Florida teammates, Heat captain Udonis Haslem, who will retire at the conclusion of the season. Haslem’s NBA and college coaches were all there, with Erik Spoelstra on the Heat bench, Pat Riley in the Heat president’s box, Stan Van Gundy on TNT, and Donovan directing the Bulls.
“I’m not surprised about the impact he’s had on the community here, and I’m not surprised about the impact he’s had inside the organisation,” Donovan added. He also praised Haslem for prioritising success and refusing to leave the Heat despite receiving offers elsewhere “for a lot more money.”