MIAMI: Victor Oladipo led the depleted Miami Heat to a series-clinching 97-94 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday as Ja Morant produced a dazzling late scoring spree to give Memphis a thrilling win over Minnesota in the NBA playoffs.
Miami, missing injured stars Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, produced a superb defensive performance to shut down Atlanta and advance to an Eastern Conference semifinal series against either Philadelphia or Toronto.
Oladipo, who only returned to action in March after an 11-month injury layoff, was handed his first start of the playoffs by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
The 29-year-old two-time All-Star repaid that faith with a 23-point display alongside Bam Adebayo, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
The win marked a fairytale return to center stage for Oladipo, whose career has been decimated by injuries and surgeries over the past three years.
Oladipo was sidelined for nearly a year after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured quadriceps tendon in May last year. He had undergone surgery to treat the same problem in January 2019.
“There’s nothing I can’t handle,” Oladipo said after Tuesday’s win.
“There’s nothing I haven’t gone through. At the end of the day I feel like I can come back and get through anything.
“So when they told me I needed to start tonight, I just stepped up to the plate and did everything I could to help my team win… this is only the beginning.”
Adebayo took pride with a Miami defensive performance that restricted Hawks star Trae Young to just 11 points. De’Andre Hunter led the Atlanta scoring with 35 points.
“We knew it was going to be a fight to the end, we just had to finish it with our defense,” Adebayo said. “Defense wins championships.”
In the Western Conference playoffs Morant scored a gravity-defying last-gasp layup as the Grizzlies conjured an epic late fightback to stun the Minnesota Timberwolves 111-109.
Morant’s wizardry with one second remaining sealed an enthralling battle which leaves Memphis 3-2 ahead in the best-of-seven series with game six in Minnesota on Friday.
Minnesota had led by 13 points early in the fourth quarter after big performances from Karl Anthony-Towns, who finished with 28 points and Anthony Edwards (22 points).
But Morant, who bagged 30 points, suddenly found his scoring touch to haul Memphis back into contention.
The 22-year-old rising star of the NBA erupted for 18 points in the fourth quarter as Memphis outscored Minnesota 37-24 in the final period.
The catalyst for Morant’s masterpiece appeared to be a jaw-dropping dunk over Wolves guard Malik Beasley at the end of the third quarter that brought the Memphis crowd to their feet.
Morant later said he was “not that excited” by the dunk, but added: “It definitely ignited the crowd and that gave us some energy.”
The Grizzlies’ come-from-behind win was too close for comfort for Morant though.
“Me personally, I’m tired of it, tired of playing from behind,” he said. “Last three games we haven’t played our basketball.”
Morant, who also had 13 rebounds and nine assists, was backed with a 25-point display from Desmond Bane while Brandon Clarke added 21 points with 15 rebounds.
In Tuesday’s other game, Western Conference top seeds Phoenix returned to winning ways with an emphatic 112-97 win over New Orleans in Arizona to take a 3-2 series lead.
Mikal Bridges led the way for Phoenix with 31 points and five rebounds while Chris Paul added 22 points with 11 assists.
“Hell of a win tonight,” Bridges said. “We stayed together to get the win, now we’ve got to go and get another one.”
The win marked a return to form for Phoenix, who had been erratic over the opening four games of the series against the eighth-seeded Pelicans.
“They’ve been playing harder than us so we knew we’d have to come out tonight and play harder than them,” Bridges said.
Game 6 in the series takes place in New Orleans on Thursday.