Nets 129, Heat 100
All the Brooklyn Nets needed, coach Jacque Vaughn insisted, was one win.
They got it, and made it look easy.
Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, and the Nets opened the third quarter on a 31-6 run on the way to rolling past Miami 129-100 on Saturday night and leapfrogging the Heat back into the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Cam Johnson added 23 points and Spencer Dinwiddie scored 15 for the Nets (40-34), who snapped a five-game slide. They’re only a half-game up on Miami (40-35) in the race for the sixth and final guaranteed playoff berth, but swept the Heat 3-0 this season and would also own a head-to-head tiebreaker.
“We had the mindset coming in that this was a playoff game,” Johnson said.
Max Strus scored 23 for the Heat, all of them in the first half. Tyler Herro scored 23, Jimmy Butler had 18 and Bam Adebayo finished with 16 for the Heat. Miami was outscored 64-31 after halftime.
“We have not been defending at a world-class level, the way we're capable of ... and the second half just became an avalanche,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Strus came off the bench and made his first nine shots, one of them putting Miami up 51-37 midway through the second quarter. Over the next 14 minutes, the Nets outscored Miami 54-24 — completely turning the game around, eventually leading by 32 and, for now, putting Brooklyn in position to escape the play-in tournament that’ll decide the final two East playoff berths.
“You see how this March Madness is and you’re one and you’re done,” Vaughn said. “And that’s part of it. I have not discussed any of the standings with this group. Really, we have gone day to day and tried to get a win."
The Heat would have moved 1 1/2 games up on Brooklyn for sixth with a win.
"There has been nothing easy about this season and that doesn't necessarily mean that has to be a negative thing," Spoelstra said. “You have to embrace the struggle. You have to figure out ways to stay together ... but we just got categorically outplayed tonight.”
It was Brooklyn’s second trip to Miami this season. The first was Jan. 8 — which ended up being the last time Kevin Durant played for the Nets, and the last time Durant and Kyrie Irving played together. Durant left that game with a knee injury, then got traded to Phoenix, and Irving has since been dealt to Dallas, as well.
The Nets were 27-13 after that night, second in the East, just a game behind Boston for the best record in the NBA. They’re 13-21 since, yet still have the Heat looking up at them in the standings — which Vaughn insists he hasn’t discussed with his team.
“You need the momentum, the confidence, the reassurance that you can get it done,” Vaughn said. “So, haven’t tried to complicate it more than that.”
Brooklyn’s win meant Cleveland will have to wait until at least Sunday to clinch its first playoff berth since 2018 — and its first without LeBron James on the roster since 1998.
Brooklyn is not expecting guard Ben Simmons to play again this season, though no final decision will be made until the three-time All-Star meets with a back specialist, Vaughn said Saturday.
Simmons is currently sidelined with what the Nets say is a nerve impingement — the condition where tissue or bone compresses nerve fibers — in his back.
Saturday’s game at Miami marked the 16th in a row that Simmons has missed, and his 32nd absence in 74 Nets games this season.
“For me as a coach, there’s some things that I can control, some things that I can’t control,” Vaughn said. “What I can’t control is the impingement. What I can control is getting this group ready to play. And then in all honesty, the realism that he’s probably not going to join us for the rest of the year ... certainty will come once he continues to be looked at by specialists.”
The Nets announced Friday that Simmons will continue being sidelined “while we determine the best long-term course of treatment.” What that means still isn't fully clear, and the Nets won't know until Simmons is further examined.
“We’re going to lean into the specialist and the consultation, and I think those answers will come from the specialists,” Vaughn said.
Simmons is a three-time All-Star who didn’t play at all last season, first citing mental health issues and then a back injury. He started last season with Philadelphia, then was sent to Brooklyn in the trade that brought James Harden to the 76ers.
He has missed games this season for a variety of reasons, including left knee soreness, a left calf strain and the back problem.
Simmons’ numbers this season are, by far, the worst of his career. He’s averaging only 6.9 points — he’s never been below 14.3 points per game in any of the other four seasons in which he played — and is shooting 44% from the foul line.
He last played Feb. 15, around the time he told reporters that he was uncertain about his role with the team and prompting Vaughn to say in response that the team also wasn't sure how it would be able to use Simmons with new lineups following the trades of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Simmons is making $35.4 million this season and is due $78.2 million more over the next two seasons.
Nuggets 129, Bucks 106
Nikola Jokic had 31 points and 11 assists, Jamal Murray finished with 26 points and nine assists, and Denver beat Milwaukee in a late-season showdown of the NBA’s conference leaders.
Michael Porter Jr. scored 19 points for West-leading Denver (50-24), which outscored East-leading Milwaukee 68-40 in the second half.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 31 points — just seven in the second half — and grabbed nine rebounds for the Bucks (53-20).
“It’s better to win games, but our goal is to do something in a playoffs,” Jokic said.
The battle of the top teams in each conference — and two strong MVP candidates — was more competitive than the teams’ first meeting, won by the Bucks 107-99. Then, the Nuggets held out four starters — Jokic, Murray, Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in the game in Milwaukee on Jan. 25. Denver had played the night before in New Orleans and opted to rest its stars.
The circumstances were reversed, with the Bucks having played in Utah on Friday night.
“We still play, still got to be better, there’s no excuses about that,” Khris Middleton said. “But I’m sure for a lot of fans, a lot of people out there, they’d love to see healthy teams, or not coming off back to backs.”
Antetokounmpo scored 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting in the first half, with all but one of those field goals coming at the rim. Murray (20 points) and Jokic (17 points) kept Denver within three at the break, and then the Nuggets outscored Milwaukee 34-19 in the third quarter to take a 97-85 lead.
Jeff Green dunked on Antetokounmpo to open the fourth as the Nuggets’ lead swelled to 15 points. Grayson Allen hit a 3-pointer to cut it to 103-91 with 9:54 left, but Milwaukee went scoreless for 4:10 while Denver built a 111-91 lead.
“It was an amazing dunk,” Jokic said of Green’s dunk. “I didn’t think he was going to do it. He almost fell down, so it was a really nice dunk.”
Antetokounmpo went to the bench with 5:54 left and didn’t return.
Middleton finished with 13 points and six rebounds after missing Friday’s game for injury management.
The Bucks lost some composure in the third quarter. Bobby Portis Jr. was called for a take foul on Jokic and, immediately after, a technical. Denver hit both free throws and Bruce Brown hit a 3-pointer for an 84-76 lead. Minutes later, Brook Lopez got a technical while sitting on the bench.
Antetokounmpo picked up Milwaukee’s third technical with 6:41 left in the game.
“It was a night where we were grumpy, and it happens,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Denver coach Michael Malone got a technical late in the first quarter and it was to prevent Jokic from getting one. Jokic was frustrated by the physical play, so during a timeout Malone told him he would get the technical.
“I can get kicked out, he can’t. I understand the pecking order here,” Malone said.
Suns 125, 76ers 105
Devin Booker scored 29 points, Bismack Biyombo added 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, and Phoenix snapped a three-game losing streak by beating Philadelphia.
It was a badly needed win for the Suns, who had lost six of seven coming into the game to slide down to No. 5 in the Western Conference playoff race. The Sixers have lost three of their past four.
The game was tight through most of the first three quarters, but the Suns used a 26-11 run to turn a tied game into a 15-point advantage early in the fourth quarter. Phoenix got good minutes from most of their bench players, particularly Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren.
Warren finished with 16 points, while Ross had 15. Booker shot 9 of 18 from the field and hit all nine of his free throws.
The Suns won despite a huge game from Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey, who finished with 37 points on 14-of-19 shooting, including 7 of 11 from 3-point range. Joel Embiid added 28 points and 10 rebounds.
Both teams were missing key pieces. The Suns were without Deandre Ayton (hip) and Kevin Durant (ankle), while the 76ers didn't have James Harden (Achilles).
Hawks 143, Pacers 130
John Collins led eight Atlanta scorers in double figures with 21 points and the Hawks overcame Jordan Nwora’s season-high 33 points and protected their shaky hold on the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings
Trae Young was ejected in the third quarter after firing an unusually hard pass to referee Scott Wall during a timeout. Wall caught the ball. Young was immediately called for a technical foul and ejected. Young had 14 points and five assists. Dejounte Murray had 20 points in his return after missing two games with a non-COVID illness. Saddiq Bey led Atlanta’s bench with 18 points.
Tyrese Haliburton scored 19 points and Buddy Hield had 16 for Indiana.
Kings 121, Jazz 113
Kevin Huerter scored 27 points, had seven rebounds and four assists and Sacramento beat Utah.
Domantas Sabonis finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for his NBA-leading 60th double-double of the season. Harrison Barnes added 18 points. Keegan Murray scored 14 of his 22 total points in the first quarter and knocked down six three-pointers for the Kings.
Jazz rookie Walker Kessler scored a career-high 31 points for the Jazz. Kessler added 11 rebounds and finished 14 of 16 from the floor. Kelly Olynyk finished with 17 points and 10 assists, Ochai Agbaji scored 20 and Jarrell Brantley added 13 off the bench for Utah.
Pelicans 131, Clippers 110
Trey Murphy III scored 32 points, Brandon Ingram had 32 points and 13 assists, and the New Orleans Pelicans never trailed against the Los Angeles Clippers.
C.J. McCollum had 21 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Pelicans, who have won four in a row.
Bones Hyland scored 18 points and Kawhi Leonard added 12 points and six rebounds for the Clippers, who have lost three of four.
At risk of falling out of the play-in tournament with a loss, the energized Pelicans started out hot, scoring the first eight points, and never let up.