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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PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: First-round matchups, results, game times and TV info

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.

[email protected] joins @ZoraStephenson after the @Bucks’ Game 3 win: “Each game we gotta bring more pressure.” pic.twitter.com/NVhlwvJO2O

"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. (Photo: Michael Reaves, Getty Images)

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).

36 PTS, 11 REB and the GAME-SEALING putback for Nikola Jokic! #[email protected] up 2-1.. Game 4 is Sat. at 4pm/et on TNT pic.twitter.com/hCd4EVB1Wx

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).

✨ 34 PTS, 11 REB for @AntDavis23
✨ LAL takes a 2-1 lead

AD becomes the first @Lakers player since Shaq with back-to-back 30p/10r games in the #NBAPlayoffs! pic.twitter.com/UoNOFBh99K

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).

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