Chris Paul catches fire to help Thunder force Game 7 against Rockets

Chris Paul gave the Oklahoma City Thunder at least one more game in the bubble, scoring 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter for a 104-100 victory over the Houston Rockets on Monday night in Game 6 of a Western Conference first-round series.

Paul made two free throws with 13.1 seconds left and the game tied at 100, and Danilo Gallinari added two more after a turnover by Russell Westbrook to finish it off.

Game 7 will be Wednesday night, with the winner advancing to face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.

It gives the West two Game 7s, with Denver and Utah set to play theirs on Tuesday.

In a game that was close all the way — neither team led by double digits — the Thunder bounced back from a blowout in Game 5.

Gallinari added 25 points.

James Harden had 32 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for the Rockets, while Robert Covington had 18 and Westbrook 17 in his second game back from a right quadriceps strain.

Houston got its most dominant playoff victory in Game 5, winning 114-80 after holding Oklahoma City to 31.5 per cent shooting. But the Thunder shook that off, just as they did a 2-0 deficit in the series.

Most of the first half was played within a margin of just a few points either way. The Thunder continued to misfire, hitting just 41.7 per cent overall and going only 3 for 15 on 3-pointers.

But they defended well and the Rockets didn’t crack 30 points until more than 4 1/2 minutes into the second quarter. Harden scored six straight points late in the half and Eric Gordon hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 51-48 lead.

Westbrook scored five straight points to open the third and the Rockets would get the lead as high as nine in the period. But Gallinari kept it from getting any worse and then Dort had a layup and two 3s for an 8-0 run that ended the quarter and sent Oklahoma City to the fourth with a 77-75 lead.

Oklahoma City extended it to eight, but Houston wiped that out with an 18-4 run that provided a 98-92 lead. Paul answered with consecutive 3-pointers to knot it again, and he later unknotted it for good.

Butler’s playoff career high helps Heat down Bucks

Miami’s Jimmy Butler dunks the ball after getting past Milwaukee’s Donte DiVincenzo during the second half of the Heat’s 115-104 Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday. (Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press)

Jimmy Butler scored a playoff career-high 40 points, Goran Dragic added 27 and the Miami Heat clamped down defensively in the final three quarters to beat the Milwaukee Bucks 115-104 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Monday night.

Bam Adebayo had 12 points, 17 rebounds and six assists for the fifth-seeded Heat, who are 3-1 overall against the top-seeded Bucks this season. Tyler Herro added 11 points for Miami, which improved to 5-0 in the post-season.

Khris Middleton scored 28 points for Milwaukee, which also dropped Game 1 of its first-round series against Orlando. Brook Lopez had 24 points on 8 for 10 shooting, and Giannis Antetokounmpo had 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists for the Bucks.

But Antetokounmpo’s night will likely be best remembered by what he did at the foul line: The reigning MVP went 4 for 12 from the stripe, the worst performance by anyone with at least 12 free-throw attempts in a playoff game since Andre Roberson went 2 for 12 for Oklahoma City on April 23, 2017 against Houston.

Kyle Korver added 11 for the Bucks, who scored 40 points in the first quarter and managed 64 the rest of the way.

Miami led 92-86 after three quarters, after trailing for most of the game to that point — then managed only three points in the first 6:30 of the fourth quarter.

The Bucks didn’t exactly exploit that slump.

Marvin Williams’ three-point play with 7:40 left got Milwaukee within 95-93, and it stayed a one-possession game for nearly five minutes. Antetokounmpo scored for a 96-95 lead midway through the fourth, before Butler drove and got a baseline floater to fall on the next Miami possession to put Miami back on top.

Butler’s 3-pointer with 3:03 left pushed the lead to 102-96, and Herro — after Adebayo extended a possession with an offensive rebound — connected on a 3 with 1:34 left to make it 109-101.

Middleton had 21 at halftime, while Lopez added 19 by then for the Bucks and Dragic had 19 at the break for the Heat. Milwaukee led 40-29 after the opening quarter and 63-60 at the break.

Pelicans’ Ingram named most improved player

New Orleans Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram, seen above in a July game, was named NBA’s most improved player on Monday. (Ashley Landis/Pool/The Associated Press)

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram has been named the NBA’s most improved player in a season that saw him bounce back from a life-altering blood clot and a trade from the team that drafted him second-overall in 2016.

Ingram, who came to New Orleans as part of a block-buster trade that sent Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers, averaged a team-leading and career-best 23.8 points per game while hitting 46.3 per cent of his shots. He also became an NBA all-star for the first time.

“It goes back to last March, me getting injured, and not being able to be back on the court until September,” Ingram said on a Zoom call Monday with TNT after being informed he had won the award by his parents. “That’s very little time to start preseason and to start the regular season, but I was ready for it. Since Day 1 … I just wanted to put in my work every single day and just get the best out of it.”

Ingram credited former Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry for his success, saying the coach that was fired on Aug. 15 “gave me a great opportunity for me to go out there and do what i wanted to do.”

Ingram received 42 first-place votes from a global panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters and earned 326 total points. He edged Miami Heat centre-forward Bam Adebayo, who finished in second place with 295 points (38 first-place votes). Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic finished in third place with 101 points (12 first-place votes).

Toronto Raptors’ Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet finished seventh and 10th respectively, each earning one first-place vote.

Ingram, the former Duke standout who turns 23 on Wednesday, became a more dynamic scorer by significantly improving both his 3-point and free-throw shooting.

Ingram shot a career-best 39.1 per cent from 3-point range, up from 33 per cent from deep during his final season with the Lakers.

“First, it was me figuring out the mechanics and the right way to shoot the basketball … shooting from my legs and stuff instead of my arms, just the consistency and how to shoot,” Ingram said. “Then it was the amount of attempts that I took, having the confidence to take those shots and continue to take those shots. I think that helped me with my confidence and continuing to make them.”

Ingram’s free-throw percentage rose from 67.5 per cent last season to 85.1 per cent this season.

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