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NBA playoff dispatches: Grizzlies, Bucks thrive without stars in lineup

FOX Sports writers are providing takeaways from games throughout the NBA playoffs. Here are their thoughts from the first Wednesday of the postseason.

Grizzlies 103, Lakers 93: Tillman in the spotlight

Guess who got the esteemed walk-off interview tonight in Game 2 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies? 

Xavier Tillman.

Don’t be ashamed if you had to Google his name and do some research on his bona fides before continuing reading. Even he was surprised that he was in that position. 

When asked if entering Wednesday’s game he thought when he arrived at FedExForum he’d be getting the big TV interview, he didn’t hold back. 

“Hell … I mean, no,” he said. “Definitely not.”

But that’s what can happen when a role player scores a team-high 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting and 13 rebounds, leading his team to a 103-93 win and evening a series at 1-1. 

The Grizzlies were all but counted out about an hour before tip-off when it was announced that Ja Morant would miss Game 2. 

But it set up what many coaches around the league refer to as a “trick game” for the Lakers, meaning they’d be in danger of taking their foot off the gas knowing they were facing an opponent without its best player. 

The Lakers fell victim to that saying. In the first half, the Grizzlies led by as much as 16 points. They outscored the Lakers in points in the paint, 38-20. And Anthony Davis was held to just six points on 1-for-9 shooting. 

The Grizzlies went on to extend their lead to as much as 20 points in the third quarter before the Lakers finally rallied, cutting their deficit to as few as six points a few times in the second half. But they were unable to complete the comeback. 

Tillman was one of six Grizzlies players who scored in double-digits, with Jaren Jackson Jr. (18 points and nine rebounds) and Desmond Bane (17 points) also making significant contributions. 

Meanwhile, Davis finished with just 13 points on 4-for-12 shooting for the Lakers. (LeBron James led the Lakers with 28 points and 12 rebounds and Rui Hachimura added 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting.)

Now, the series will move back to Los Angeles. And if Morant is able to return, the Lakers could surely regret not playing with the requisite energy and effort in Game 2. 

As for Tillman, he got a much-deserved moment in the spotlight, one that surprised even him. 

— Melissa Rohlin

Bucks 138, Heat 122: Bucks bounce back

The Milwaukee Bucks apparently watched what the Memphis Grizzlies, without their biggest star, did to the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night and, faced with a similar predicament, said:

Hold our beer.

While the Grizzlies built themselves enough cushion and confidence to hold off the Lakers’ attempt at a fourth-quarter comeback, the Bucks started strong and then only got stronger, for a 138-122 win, the outcome decided by halftime. 

They did it without their MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was listed as questionable entering the day because of a contused back suffered in Game 1. That said, the Bucks weren’t facing quite the same challenge the Grizzlies were with without Ja Morant, who was deemed unavailable an hour before tip-off after testing his bruised right wrist.

While the Bucks would not have had the best record in the league and be considered the favorite to win this year’s title without Giannis, the composition of Milwaukee’s roster and their level of talent makes them fully capable of expanding certain roles to compensate for his absence and still be formidable.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer took an old-school approach: pound the ball inside to get the small-ball Heat scrambling to protect the rim and then unleash their array of three-point shooters to put the game out of reach. It worked to perfection. With 7-foot center Brook Lopez doing most of the damage, Milwaukee took a 35-28 first-quarter lead with 7 of their 11 field goals scored at the rim, five of the chippies by Lopez.

The Bucks only attempted six three-pointers in the first 12 minutes, making three of them. They launched 14 over the next 12 minutes and were even more accurate, nailing eight of them. Not that they abandoned scoring at the rim; they continued to do that, seemingly at will, as well. At one point, Lopez grabbed the rebound of his own miss at the rim and, with literally his head and shoulders above the Heat’s 6’5″ Max Strus and 6’7″ Jimmy Butler, scored on the putback. Strus fouled him — not that Lopez seemed to notice until the referee blew his whistle — and the old-fashioned three-point play pushed the Bucks’ lead to 59-41.

The beatdown, though, had just begun. The Heat had their vaunted mid-range shots falling, but they were no match for the parade to the rim and three-point bombs from outside by the Bucks. The Milwaukee lead grew to as many as 32 and they walked into the locker room at halftime with an 81 — yes, 81! — 55 lead.

That the Bucks functioned as well as they did without Antetokounmpo shouldn’t be all that surprising. They were 11-8 in games during the regular season without him. Lopez, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, anchored their defensive backline alongside Giannis all season. Bobby Portis took up the slack on the boards and mean mugging, grabbing 15 rebounds and glaring at every and any Heat player that crossed his path. Jrue Holiday took care of the playmaking with 11 assists and Pat Connaughton came off the bench to cover for the Antetokounmpo high-efficiency scoring void with 8 of 12 shooting for 22 points.

Game 3, in Miami, is a full three days away, making it almost certain that Antetokounmpo will be back for it. You know, just in case they need him.

— Ric Bucher

Nuggets 122, Timberwolves 113: Bubble Murray is back

He went through the 18-month road to recovery, working his way back from an ACL injury out of the spotlight to try to get back to the level that he was on as one of the stars of the NBA bubble back in 2020. 

After a furious comeback by the Timberwolves in game two on Wednesday night, inside two minutes left in Denver, Jamal Murray stepped back and buried a dagger triple to extend the Nuggets’ lead to nine in the eventual 122-113 victory to take a 2-0 series lead on Minnesota.

Murray capped off the triple and beckoned to his sellout crowd to get loud with a mean mug, completing a 40-point master class on his home floor and showing in the playoff spotlight that he’s not only back, but is one of the leaders on a championship contender.

The way Wednesday evening began in Denver, it looked as though it would be as anticlimactic as game one with the Nuggets shooting 60% from the floor and leading by 15 at the half — after leading by 21 with less than five minutes left in the second quarter.

But the Timberwolves put together their best quarter of the series and showed that they’ll have a chance to cut the deficit in halfback on their home floor in game 3. How so? Because they have Anthony Edwards, who put up one of the best halves of the entire postseason in the final 24 minutes, posting 27 points on 10-of-15 from the floor. Simply put: Ant Man was incredible on Wednesday, and it’s wild to think he’s 21 years young.

He and Murray went shot-for-shot in the fourth quarter, becoming the second duo to score at least 40 points while hitting at least six 3s in a playoff game in NBA history. The other? Back in the bubble in 2020, when Murray outdueled Donovan Mitchell in game 6 of the first round series between the Nuggets and Jazz.

It was an admirable effort by Minnesota, which trailed 70-55 two minutes into the third quarter and proceeded to go on a 14-0 run to get back in the game behind Edwards, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. An Edwards 14-footer actually gave the Timberwolves an 89-87 advantage heading into the fourth, as the combo of Gobert and Towns moving without the ball and opening up the lane for Edwards to attack Jokic made the Nuggets look as bad as they have defensively in the series. 

The initial spark in the fourth quarter came from the No. 3 man on the scoring chart: Michael Porter Jr. Whatever the message was to him on a quiet night to that point entering the fourth, it was received. The fourth-year pro drilled a 3 on the opening possession of the final frame, leading to a personal 8-0 run that re-established control in the 1-seed’s favor. With Murray and Jokic on the bench for the first three minutes of the quarter, MPJ’s spark after scoring just three points in the first 36 minutes proved to be invaluable, and he finished with 16 on the night.

Jokic and Gobert went at it in a whistle-filled fourth quarter that featured 20 fouls — frankly, the officials were too involved in the final 12 minutes — including a technical call on Gobert after he disagreed with a foul call on a play against Jokic with just over eight minutes remaining.

As great as the two-time reigning MVP is as a scorer playing bully ball near the rim, Jokic (27 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds) as a passer put the Timberwolves away. He had two finds on alley-oops for Aaron Gordon and hit Porter for a jumper, all of which occurred in the final five minutes. 

While Denver’s defensive issues entering this postseason came to light in the second half, along with a lack of depth that could come up as a concern deeper in the postseason, the Nuggets still found a way to handle business and did so behind a trio that’s playing at an extremely high level. 

But the story of the evening was Murray, who returned to the floor at the beginning of this season from his gruesome injury and took time to fully get his mojo back. It’s been a long process, but he reminded everybody on Wednesday that he lives for the big stage. It marked Murray’s fifth postseason 40-point performance. He has had four total games of 40-or-more points in the entirety of his career.

As great and dominant as Jokic has been over the last couple of years, Murray’s ability to initiate the offense and make things happen as the lead guard is imperative for the Nuggets to win their first championship in franchise history.

To start the postseason, Murray’s shown he will be a force to be reckoned with, and while Suns/Clippers and Grizzlies/Lakers are even at a game apiece and Kings/Warriors is far from over, Denver has its hands firmly on the steering wheel as this series heads back to Minnesota. Could the Nuggets end up having a rest advantage in this postseason? It’s a storyline to monitor.

— John Fanta

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.

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.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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