The playoffs await.
Strus and Butler — who was doubled over at times in the final moments, heaving for every breath — scored 31 points apiece, and the Miami Heat closed the game on a 15-1 run to beat the Chicago Bulls 102-91 in an Eastern Conference play-in game Friday night.
“Our team has obviously not been perfect this year,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But I do know one thing about the men in that locker room: The last 48 hours, I know how categorically, unequivocally, how badly and desperately our group wanted to get into this damn thing — and get into the playoffs to have an opportunity to compete for a title.”
Their reward: the No. 8 seed in the East and a first-round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA’s top overall seed, starting Sunday.
DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 26 points and nine assists. Alex Caruso added 16 points, Zach Lavine had 15 but shot just 6 for 20, and Coby White scored 14. Chicago got a road win at Toronto on Wednesday to extend its season, but couldn’t get the second road victory it needed to make the playoffs.
“They're disappointed,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “When you make that investment from September to the middle of April, that's a lot of time. You reflect back a little bit. I think they're all disappointed. We were getting better as a group, I think, since the All-Star break. It would have been nice if we found a way to win tonight and continue on to the playoffs, but it didn't happen.”
But Butler scored while getting fouled with 2:17 left to put Miami ahead for good, found Strus for a 3-pointer — his seventh of the night — a minute later to push the lead to five, and Strus sealed it with three free throws after getting fouled on a try from beyond the arc with 40 seconds remaining.
“I don't think any of us felt any type of pressure,” Butler said. “We went out, we competed.”
The Heat led by 14 in the first quarter, held as much as a 10-point lead in the third quarter, then found themselves down by six with 7:12 remaining.
A 9-3 spurt over the next 2 minutes — Butler had seven, Strus had the other two — pulled the Heat into a tie, and into all-too-familiar territory. The NBA defines clutch games as those that are within five points or less in the final 5 minutes, and the Heat played a league-high 54 of them during the regular season.
Maybe it prepared them for this moment. White made a 3-pointer with 3:47 left to put the Bulls up 90-87. The score the rest of the way: Heat 15, Bulls 1.
“Win or go home," said Strus, an Illinois native who started his career with the Bulls. "We're not done yet.”
Bulls: Chicago was a combined 13-1 this season against Miami, Detroit, Portland, Utah and Dallas. … The Bulls didn’t trail Miami by more than nine in any of the three regular-season matchups between the teams. ... Nikola Vucevic had 12 points.
Heat: Strus had 14 points in the first quarter, matching the seventh-best scoring effort in any quarter of his career. … This was the 21st Heat team to finish a regular season with a winning record; they were 44-38. All 21 have made the playoffs. ... Kyle Lowry was limited in the second half with a knee issue, but told Spoelstra postgame that he was fine.
The Heat and Bucks split four meetings this season, both going 2-0 at home. Butler averaged 22 points per game to lead all players in the season series. Adebayo and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo both averaged 19.5, and Herro averaged 19.
BILLY AND UDONIS
It was the final time Donovan will share a court with one of his college players at Florida, Heat captain Udonis Haslem, who will retire when this Miami season ends. All of Haslem’s NBA and college coaches were at the game, with Erik Spoelstra on the Heat sideline, Pat Riley in the Heat president’s box, Stan Van Gundy broadcasting for TNT and Donovan leading the Bulls.
“I’m not surprised about the impact he’s had on the community here and I’m not surprised about the impact he’s had inside the organization,” Donovan said. He also lauded Haslem for prioritizing winning and never leaving the Heat even though he had offers elsewhere “for a lot more money.”
Bulls: Season complete.
Heat: Visit Milwaukee in Game 1 on Sunday.
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