The Milwaukee Bucks are staring at a second round playoff exit after a 116-114 defeat against the Miami Heat left the Eastern Conference’s top seed in a 0-2 hole.
After getting 40 points from Jimmy Butler in game one, the Heat were able to back up the win despite the former 76ers wing scoring just 12 this time out.
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But Butler’s last two points couldn’t have been more crucial as he hit the game-winning free throws after being fouled by Giannis Antetokounmpo while attempting a buzzer-beater after the siren.
In a dramatic finish, Bucks forward Khris Middleton was fouled with four seconds left on the clock as he attempted a game-tying three-pointer.
Middleton made all three free throws to tie it at 114-114, before Butler was fouled at the other end. His first foul shot rattled in before he nailed the second.
Earlier, it was the Heat’s vaunted outside shooting which crushed the Bucks. Miami hit 17 triples — 10 more than Milwaukee — as Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Jae Crowder connected early and often.
Antetokounmpo again led the Bucks with 29 points and 14 rebounds and was better at the free throw line than game one, hitting 9/13 attempts.
But Middleton (23 points, 6/15 field goals, 0/3 threes) and Eric Bledsoe (16 points, 6/14 field goals) weren’t the second or third option Milwaukee needed and a team that was far and away the best in the league in the regular season, winning 56 of 73 games with 10-point scoring margin, is now on the ropes.
They weren’t overly convincing when play resumed in the bubble but saw off the Orlando Magic 4-1 in the first round after losing game one.
But another early playoff exit promises to create shockwaves around the league if Antetokounmpo — fancied to win back-to-back MVPs this season — decides to look elsewhere to chase a title.
Miami won 12 games less than Milwaukee in the regular season but swept the Pacers in the first round as it emerges as a finals contender.
It comes after the third-seed Boston Celtics put the defending champion Toronto Raptors on the ropes by going ahead 2-0 in their series.
The Raptors backed up last year’s title campaign by finishing with the second best record in the East and sparkled early in the bubble.
But after getting blown out in game one they lost a close one in game two to the Celtics and face a tough challenge to get back in the series.
The Western Conference semis are yet to begin after Denver needed seven games to get past Utah in the first round and Houston and Oklahoma also go the distance.
HOUSTON HOLD ON AFTER HARDEN’S MIRACLE PLAY
With the series on the line, the Houston Rockets have secured a nailbiting 104-102 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7.
The game went right down to the wire, with Houston leading by one points with 4.8 seconds left on the clock.
Despite a late scramble from the Thunder, it was too little too late, and the Rockets will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semi-finals in two days.
Houston shooting guard James Harden had an underwhelming performance in offence — he finished with 17 points on 4-of-15 shooting from the field, including 1-of-9 from three-point range.
“Offensively, I played like s**t,” Harden admitted post-game.
“I couldn’t make a shot, turning the ball over, just doing everything that was not supposed to happen.
“But I just kept sticking with it. My teammates give me confidence throughout the course of games, and defensively I had to make a play, and I tried to close out to him.
“Dort had been knocking down some shots tonight, so I wanted to get out to him.”
However, a critical block on undrafted rookie Luguentz Dort in the closing seconds and an agile dodge ball leap from the 31-year-old ensured the Rockets were victors. Harden let out an almighty scream following the game-changing play as his teammates celebrated.
Sports Illustrated reporter Chris Mannix tweeted: “James Harden has had a brutal shooting night, but that was a hell of a defensive play and — at least while they review it — a leap to avoid Dort throwing the ball off him.”
Dort scored a game-high 30 points for the Thunder, connecting on 6-of-12 from three-point range, while teammate Chris Paul snared a triple double.
“Give Oklahoma City credit,” Harden said. “They play hard, scrappy … they just fought and gave us a 7-game series right down to the last possession.”