The Miami Heat punched their ticket to the NBA Eastern Conference finals Tuesday, beating top-seeded Milwaukee 103-94 as injured Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo watched from the bench.
Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic finished with 17 points apiece as six Heat players scored in double figures and Miami completed a 4-1 series victory in a bruising encounter against the league’s top defensive team.
Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 23 points.
Antetokounmpo — tipped to scoop a second straight NBA Most Valuable Player award this season — aggravated his sprained right ankle in the first half of the Bucks’ game-four overtime victory over the Heat.
The Bucks declared him inactive less than an hour before tipoff on Tuesday.
The loss of Antetokounmpo, who averaged career highs of 29.5 points and 13.6 rebounds per game this season, was a huge blow for the Bucks, as they tried to do what no NBA team has done before: come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a seven-game playoff series.
It’s the second straight campaign that the Bucks built the best regular-season record only to come up short in the playoffs.
In 2019 they fell to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.
The fifth-seeded Heat will face either the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors for a place in the NBA Finals.
The Celtics lead their series against the defending NBA champion Raptors three games to two.
Butler, who added 10 rebounds and six assists and was a perfect eight-for-eight from the foul line, said the Heat’s impressive 8-1 record so far in the playoffs means nothing now.
“All of that is behind us now,” he said. “We’ll wait and see who we get out of Toronto and Boston and then we’ll lock in on that.
“But it’s zero-zero now, we’ve got eight more to get.”
The Heat trailed 28-19 after a chaotic first quarter in which they committed six turnovers leading to nine Bucks points.
They trailed by as many as 13 in the first period, but settled down in the second, out-scoring the Bucks 33-18 to take a 52-46 lead into halftime.
But Milwaukee, with Middleton leading the way, refused to go away.
After going scoreless for more than six minutes in the third period the Bucks put together an 8-0 run to pull within five points.
Trailing 73-65 going into the final period, the Bucks trimmed the deficit to four multiple times, but the Heat’s depth finally proved too much.
“Obviously they missed their MVP,” Butler said. “But we knew we were going to have to get one out of the mud and I think this was the one.”
Antetokounmpo said he felt “lost” as he was unable to contribute.
“Mentally it was a battle, but at the end of the day you’ve got to trust your teammates and that’s what I decided to do,” he said after the Bucks medical staff persuaded him not to risk further injury by playing.
LeBron leads Lakers
In Western Conference action, LeBron James scored 36 points and Anthony Davis added 26 as the Los Angeles Lakers powered to the finish in a 112-102 victory over the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers grabbed a 2-1 series lead and James notched an NBA record 162nd career playoff win.
“It says that I’ve played with a lot of great teams,” said James, who won two NBA titles with the Miami Heat and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “It says that I’ve played with a lot of great teammates and some great coaches.”
James Harden scored 33 points with nine rebounds and nine assists and Russell Westbrook added 30 points for Houston in a back and forth battle that saw 16 lead changes.
The Lakers’ reserves scored 42 points, with Houston’s only points off the bench the 16 of Jeff Green.
Rajon Rondo, who scored 21 off the bench for Los Angeles, hit back-to-back three-pointers and came up with a steal and layup as the Lakers surged ahead with a 17-5 scoring run to start the fourth quarter.
After putting up 64 points in the first half Houston scored just 38 in the second and the Lakers posted their second straight win of the series.
There was a frightening moment in the fourth quarter, as Robert Covington and Davis collided as Davis rose for a rebound.
Davis’s elbow appeared to hit Covington in the head and he left the court holding a bloodied towel to his face, while Davis was hurting from Covington’s elbow in his side.