PHOENIX – The Milwaukee Bucks became the first team to clinch a National Basketball Association (NBA) play-off place on Tuesday, after holding off a late rally from the Phoenix Suns to complete a 116-104 road victory in Arizona.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists, as the Bucks brought up their 50th win of the regular season to cement their grip on first place at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Coach Mike Budenholzer praised his team for their good work, but also insisted they must not get ahead of themselves.
“We just mentioned it in the locker room, to appreciate this. Making the play-offs in this league is hard. You should never take anything for granted. Sometimes I forget about celebrating,” he said.
“We have a special team... our focus, our effort and our desire to just keep getting better, and also I need to get better.”
Antetokounmpo was backed by 21 points from Brook Lopez, while three other Milwaukee players finished in double figures.
“We just have a good balance on our team. At any given moment, somebody can explode,” said Jrue Holiday, who had 12 points.
The Bucks now lead the Eastern Conference by three games from Boston with a 50-19 record, as the regular season enters its final stretch.
But it needed a late burst of scoring by Milwaukee to make sure of victory, the Bucks stitching together a 24-9 run in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to pull clear, after the Suns had edged into a 95-92 lead with 8min 47sec remaining.
Devin Booker led the Suns scorers with 30 points, while Deandre Ayton finished with 16 points for the hosts.
At the top of the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets slumped to a fourth straight defeat, as Fred VanVleet kept the Toronto Raptors’ play-off hopes alive with a virtuoso display in a 125-110 home victory.
Toronto point guard VanVleet finished with 36 points, including eight three-pointers, with seven assists and three steals to give the Raptors (33-36) a crucial win as they aim to remain in contention for a place in the play-offs.
They went on the front foot from the outset, pouring in a franchise-record 49 points in a remarkable first quarter to leave conference leaders Denver (46-23) shellshocked.
Although a late rally saw the Nuggets close to within six points in the fourth, Toronto went on a late run to pull away once more and complete a wire-to-wire victory at the Scotiabank Arena.
Denver coach Michael Malone had stern words for his team after the defeat.
“I need to find some guys who are ready to fight with me, because right now we’re in chill mode. And we can’t be in chill mode with 13 games to go in the season. We’ve got to find a way to get our swagger back and get back to playing Denver Nugget basketball,” he said.
In other games, the Los Angeles Lakers got back to winning ways after Sunday’s loss to the New York Knicks with a comprehensive 123-108 road win over the New Orleans Pelicans in the Big Easy.
With LeBron James sidelined with a foot injury, Anthony Davis once again stepped up for the Lakers with 35 points and 17 rebounds, while Malik Beasley put on a three-point shooting clinic, making seven of 12 attempts from beyond the arc in a 24-point haul.
The win keeps the Lakers (34-35) firmly in contention for a play-off place with just under four weeks of the regular season remaining.
“We’re just trying to stay alive,” Davis said afterwards. “We came out with a mindset of having this as a must-win game.”
He had been determined to produce a big performance against his former club, after blaming himself for the Lakers’ 112-108 defeat by the Knicks in which he scored 17 points.
“I never want to have a performance like I did the other night and let my team down. I wanted to come out tonight and make a difference,” he added. AFP