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Phoenix keep Portland waiting, Spurs punch NBA play-in ticket

Devin Booker drained two free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining to lift Phoenix to a 118-117 victory over Portland that kept the Suns in the hunt for the top seed in the NBA Western Conference playoffs.

The narrow victory in a tense duel that saw 25 lead changes along with 18 ties prevented the Trail Blazers from officially locking up their playoff spot.

Veteran point guard Chris Paul paced the Suns with 26 points, one of seven Phoenix players to score in double figures.

Forward Mikal Bridges and reserve Cameron Payne had 21 points apiece and Booker finished with 18 as the Suns withstood a 41-point performance from Blazers guard Damian Lillard that was supplemented by 27 from CJ McCollum.

Lillard’s driving layup with 34.7 seconds remaining put the Trail Blazers up 117-114, but Bridges narrowed the gap with two free throws.

After a Lillard miss from three-point range, Booker handed the Trail Blazers a lifeline as he was whistled for travelling as he tried to spin away from Carmelo Anthony, giving Portland the ball.

The Blazers couldn’t take advantage, however, Robert Covington missing two free throws. The Suns had a last inbounds chance after a timeout and after Portland’s Norman Powell was called for a foul Booker stepped up and made two free-throws to settle it.

“That’s a good team we played over there,” Paul said. “We knew Dame was going to get going late and we held them off.”

Lillard scored 24 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter, but his trademark “Dame Time” heroics weren’t enough for a Portland team that dropped to sixth in the West, a half a game behind Dallas with one game remaining against Denver on Sunday.

The Suns, meanwhile, are one game behind Utah for first in the West with two games to play.

Elsewhere, The Miami Heat dominated the Philadelphia 76ers 106-94, denying the Sixers a chance to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The defending Eastern Conference champion Heat notched a fourth straight victory with the post-season approaching, although they remained in fifth place in the East with two regular-season games remaining.

They are half a game behind the fourth-placed Atlanta Hawks, who beat the Orlando Magic 116-93 on Thursday.

The New York Knicks remained in sixth place after their 102-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

Despite falling in New York, the Spurs grabbed a spot in the play-in tournament, in which the seventh through 10th-placed teams in each conference will battle for the final two playoff spots.

Giannis statement

San Antonio advanced when the Sacramento Kings fell 116-110 to the Grizzlies in Memphis.

In Miami, the Heat were in control throughout, taking a 9-6 lead early in the first quarter that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 21 points, five rebounds and four assists.

“I think we’re getting to where we’re ready for the playoffs,” Butler said. “I like our chances against anybody, honestly. Nobody intimidates us.”

Tobias Harris paced the 76ers with 21 points while MVP candidate Joel Embiid managed just six points on three-of-nine shooting in the face of Miami’s suffocating defense.

Heat veteran Udonis Haslem, at almost 41 the oldest active player in the league, made a brief but memorable season debut, coming off the bench to play 2 minutes and 40 seconds before he was ejected in the second quarter after a tussle with Philadelphia’s Dwight Howard.

The 76ers lost their second straight but remained one game in front of the Brooklyn Nets atop the East.

The Milwaukee Bucks moved within one game of the idle Nets for the second seed with a 142-133 victory over the Indiana Pacers.

Two-time reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points, pulled down 15 rebounds and handed out six assists for the Bucks, riding roughshod over a Pacers team that had just 10 players in uniform because of injuries.

Antetokounmpo connected on 14 of 18 shots from the field, throwing down nine dunks.

“Honestly, I was like he could have laid it in but he was trying to make a statement,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “And I’m with that. Make a statement. I loved it.”

Khris Middleton scored 22 points and Brook Lopez added 21 for the Bucks, who pushed the lead to double digits in the third quarter when they out-scored the Pacers 40-30.

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