Bucks roll through NBA playoffs as other stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday step up

MIAMI — From the moment Khris Middleton stepped into a four-point play at the 10:10 mark of the first quarter to give the Milwaukee Bucks a 6-2 lead over the Miami Heat, he was there to kill the vibe of 17,000 fans at American Airlines Arena.

The largest crowd in an NBA arena in over a year saw Middleton time and again suppress any urge they had to get out of their seat and cheer as the Bucks took a commanding 3-0 series lead with a 113-84 victory Thursday night.

While the Bucks never trailed after Middleton’s early four-point play and actually led quite comfortably throughout, any feeling of momentum built by the Heat was quelled by the 29-year-old wing.

"We got off to a little slow start shooting the ball, but we were able to settle in," Middleton said. "It's harder on the road. I think this is our first road game — skip last year — in two years. Just being in a different environment and not really playing on the road this year with fans as much as this, it gets rowdy. It took a little bit or us to settle in and get what we need to get done."

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The metronomic way Middleton answered whatever the Heat managed offensively suits the soft-spoken two-time All-Star, though the timely buckets further illustrated the cold bloodedness he displayed in hitting his Game 1 winner. He led the Bucks with 22 points while adding eight rebounds and five assists.

"Big shots," Jrue Holiday said. "He does it all the time and he’s been doing it for his career. To be able to kind of cut that out of the game where they’re about to make their run or they made their run and try to cut their momentum, Khris has been doing that, so we know who to go to."

And if Middleton was the steady beats per minute, Holiday made sure the rest of the Bucks did not inadvertently speed up or slow down.

"I think he can play at any pace and the group, that’s what we’ve been working on," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Holiday. "We need to continue to get better at being able to play at different speeds, different paces."

Holiday dished out 12 assists and scored 19 points and kept the Bucks playing evenly on both ends of the court, even as the Heat dialed up the pressure (forcing 15 Bucks turnovers when the starters were in) and making life difficult for Giannis Antetokounmpo (17 points, 17 rebounds) and Brook Lopez (13 points) inside.

Difficult, yes, but the steady play of Middleton and Holiday set a baseline the Heat just could not crack. — Jim Owczarski

State of the series: Bucks lead 3-0. Game 4 is Saturday in Miami (1:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

Khris Middleton and the Bucks are one win away from eliminating the Heat.
Khris Middleton and the Bucks are one win away from eliminating the Heat.

Nuggets 120, Blazers 115

The stars showed out, but the Nuggets were able to hold on for the win with help from key contributions from one of their role players. Austin Rivers scored 21 points and hit four consecutive 3-pointers during a crucial fourth-quarter run for Denver. Nikola Jokic had 36 points and 11 rebounds and sealed the win with a putback off a missed free throw in the closing seconds after Portland had pulled within three. Damian Lillard scored 37 points for the Blazers, who got a boost from Carmelo Anthony's 17 off the bench. But the Blazers struggled from 3-point range and finished 14-of-45 (31.1%), while the Nuggets were 20-of-38 (52.6%).

State of the series: Nuggets lead 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday in Portland (4 p.m. ET, TNT).

Lakers 109, Suns 95

After dropping the series opener, the Lakers appear to have righted the ship and have things clicking after grabbing the 2-1 series lead. Anthony Davis played through a sore left knee and finished with a dominant 34 points, including 18 in the third quarter to help the Lakers take control of the game. LeBron James scored 21 points as the Lakers overcame an awful night from 3-point range (7-of-28, 25%). Their smothering defense made up for any shooting struggles. Chris Paul was limited again for the Suns and played just 27 minutes due to his bruised right shoulder.

State of the series: Lakers lead 2-1. Game 4 is Sunday in Los Angeles (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Here's where the rest of the first-round series stand entering Friday:

Knicks vs. Hawks

Setting aside fan behavior, this is already a fun, entertaining and competitive series. This matchup is a bit of a slog with the way both teams play defense. Trae Young is the focal point for Atlanta’s offense, and he has delivered. But the Hawks are shooting just 30.8% on 3-pointers, including 27.3% from Bogdan Bogdanovic, 28.6% from Kevin Huerter and 18.8% from Danilo Gallinari. Veteran Derrick Rose has come through for the Knicks. Now, they need Most Improved Player winner Julius Randle (15 points per game in the series) to shoot better than 28.2% from the field and 27.3% on 3-pointers. Same goes for RJ Barrett and his 37.9% from the field and 27.3% on 3s. It’s obvious that 3-point shooting will be a factor that decides this series.

State of the series: Tied at 1-1. Game 3 is Friday in Atlanta (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Nets vs. Celtics

Boston is in a deep hole, and it seems like it's only going to get deeper. The Celtics are having trouble scoring and defending in this series. Brooklyn’s Big 3 of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden present mismatch issues for most teams, it’s a big problem for the Celtics. And when the Nets get 25 points from Joe Harris, as they did in Game 2, they’re even more difficult to beat. The Celtics don’t have a reliable bench so they will have to lean on starters to win a game at home.

State of the series: Nets lead 2-0. Game 3 is Friday in Boston (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Clippers vs. Mavericks

This is not a good look for the Clippers so far. They scapegoated Doc Rivers after last season’s playoff loss and hired Ty Lue. It appears they tried to finagle how soon they would see the Lakers in a potential playoff series. Now, they’re down 2-0 to Dallas, losing at home to start the series. Perhaps Rivers wasn’t the problem. For a moment, forget Mavs stars Luka Doncic, who has been the best player on the court. It’s time for Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the rest of the Clippers to prove they are a championship-caliber team. Or maybe we find out they’re not.

State of the series: Mavericks lead 2-0. Game 3 is Friday in Dallas (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Sixers vs. Wizards

The top-seeded Sixers are sitting pretty after holding court at home to open the series. If they continue getting the aggressive Ben Simmons from Game 2, the Sixers should easily handle the Wizards and position themselves well for the deep playoff run they expect to make. Simmons had 22 points in Game 2 after scoring just six in Game 1 on 3-of-9 shooting. The fan who dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook was the dominant storyline from Game 2, but the incident overshadowed the ankle injury that forced the Wizards star to miss the fourth quarter. Westbrook's status for Game 3 is uncertain.

State of the series: Sixers lead 2-0. Game 3 is Saturday in Washington (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Jazz vs. Grizzlies

Ja Morant's historic performance through two games helped the eighth-seeded Grizzlies earn a split in Utah. After a franchise-record 47 points in Game 2, Morant has 73 points in the series, the second-most in NBA history in a player's first two playoff games. Utah welcomed top scorer Donovan Mitchell back to the lineup in Game 2, and he showed no ill effects from the right ankle sprain that kept him out for six weeks. The Jazz have relied heavily on 3-point shooting all season, and it's been a big indicator of success in the first two games of the series: they were 12-of-47 (25.5%) in their Game 1 loss and 19-of-39 (48.7%) in the Game 2 win.

State of the series: Tied at 1-1. Game 3 is Saturday in Memphis (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Milwaukee Bucks rolling through NBA playoffs as others stars step up