NBA play-in dispatches: Heat beat Bulls with old-school basketball, Wolves bully Thunder

FOX Sports writers are providing takeaways off games throughout the NBA playoffs. 

Here are their thoughts on Friday’s final play-in games, which finalized the playoff picture as the Heat will face the Bucks and the Timberwolves will meet the Nuggets.

Heat 102, Bulls 91: A ’90s throwback win for Miami

It’s only right that in an old-school battle of gritty defense, fighting over screens and scoring through contact, the team with the most old-school player prevailed.

That would be Jimmy Butler, who scored a game-high 31 points without making a single 3-pointer to snare the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot for the Miami Heat with a 102-91 win over the Chicago Bulls. The Heat now enters a best-of-seven-game series against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday and Butler extends his run of consecutive postseason appearances to seven, doing so for four different teams, the first being the 2016-17 Bulls.

Anyone nostalgic for how the NBA game was played when Blackberry was the phone, the Macarena was the dance and “Friends” was the TV show had to be downright misty-eyed.

Both teams took their share of 3-point shots, and the Heat’s Max Strus set a play-in record by making seven 3s to match Butler’s 31 points but, overall, both teams scored more from the paint than from beyond the arc. Charges were taken. Box-outs were prevalent. Second and third efforts on defense were made. Fouls were taken rather than layups conceded.

“This is good old-fashioned Eastern Conference basketball,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told the TV audience between the third and fourth quarter.

Butler’s multiple misses around the rim played a big part in the Heat’s play-in loss to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and after a strong first quarter against the Bulls — nine points on four shots, the longest a six-footer — he missed six of his next eight shots in the paint. Credit some of that to the Bulls’ throwback player, Alex Caruso, who had Butler as his defensive assignment for most of the night. But Butler made up for all that down the stretch, scoring or assisting on five of the Heat’s last six baskets and making five of six free throws. That resulted in a final score that didn’t reflect how closely fought the game actually was. 

The Bulls led 90-89 with less than 2 1/2 minutes to play but were outscored 13-1 from that point on. Butler’s load was made heavier by Kyle Lowry stretched out on the floor next to the Heat bench, unable to play the last 10 minutes because of a knee injury that has plagued him all season.

Zach LaVine had a big hand in getting the Bulls to Miami, but he also was equally responsible for their season ending there. His 39 points were vital in Chicago’s 109-105 win to eliminate the ninth-seeded Toronto Raptors Wednesday in their first play-in game. But against the Heat he had more field-goal attempts (21) than points made and his attempt to match Butler’s late-game heroics backfired. While Butler found his way into the paint and utilized footwork and patience to create good looks or draw fouls, LaVine went 0 for 5 with a couple of contested 3s, an off-balance mid-range jumper and two unsuccessful drives, one of which Bam Adebayo smothered at the rim. Butler outscored him 13-1 over the final 12 minutes.

Both teams entered the season with hopes much higher than making the play-in tournament and both have plenty of offseason decisions to make. The Bulls just have the dubious pleasure of being the first to begin that process.

– Ric Bucher

Timberwolves 120, Thunder 95: Minnesota pulls it together at the right time 

After a drama-filled week, the Minnesota Timberwolves persevered when it mattered most.

In a winner-takes-all game for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Timberwolves routed the Oklahoma City Thunder, 120-95, securing a first round playoff berth against the top-seeded Denver Nuggets.

Karl Anthony-Towns shined, leading all scorers with 28 points in 29 minutes on 11-for-16 shooting, while finishing with 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Meanwhile, the Thunder’s stars collapsed under the pressure, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finishing with 22 points on 5-for-19 shooting (22.6%) and Josh Giddey adding just six points on 2-for-13 shooting (15.4%).

It was an impressive win for the Timberwolves considering this is quick summary of their last five days:

In their regular-season finale against New Orleans on Sunday, Rudy Gobert threw a punch at teammate Kyle Anderson. And Jaden McDaniels threw a punch at a wall.

About 48 hours later, the eighth-seeded Timberwolves played the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in their first play-in game without Gobert (suspension) and McDaniels (fractured hand). They went on to blow a 15-point third quarter lead to fall to the Lakers on Tuesday in overtime, 108-102.

The Timberwolves could’ve fractured. They could’ve been demoralized. But instead, they pulled together with their season on the line.

Against the Thunder, the Timberwolves blew the game open in the second half, turning a 10-point halftime advantage (57-47) into a blowout in which they led by as much as 29 points in the fourth quarter.

The Timberwolves were too big and strong for the Thunder, overwhelming a team that’s known for its quickness. Three Timberwolves players finished with double-digit rebounds, while no one on the Thunder grabbed more than eight boards.

It was a complete effort for the Timberwolves, with six players also finishing with double-digit scoring, including big performances from Gobert (21 points and 10 rebounds) and Edwards (19 points, 10 rebounds and six assists).

The Timberwolves have overcome a lot to make the playoffs.

But they know the road only gets tougher ahead with them facing a Nuggets team that finished the regular season with a record of 53-29, while the Timberwolves eked their way into the postseason with a record of 42-40.

During his walk-off interview with ESPN, Towns didn’t downplay the challenge that lies ahead.

“We gotta be ready for wars,” he said.

– Melissa Rohlin

Saturday’s games:

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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