By Brian Mahoney
The road back to the NBA Finals has gotten bumpy for the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks.
Devin Booker strained his right hamstring on Tuesday in Phoenix and Khris Middleton sprained his left knee a night later in Milwaukeeleaving both teams without one of their All-Stars.
That’s not all they lost. Both teams continued to fall in those 2 games and found themselves tied as their series switched venues on Friday night.
The Suns will be in New Orleans, while the Bucks will make the short trip to Chicago.
Miami takes a 2-0 lead against Atlanta in Friday’s other game.
Milwaukee had to overcome the loss of Giannis Antetokounmpo to a knee injury last season in the Eastern Conference Finals, winning the last two games against Atlanta in part because of Middleton’s quality of play.
Now the Bucks will have to find a way without Middleton, who underwent tests Thursday that confirmed the diagnosis of a left MCL sprain. The Bucks said he will be processed daily and his status will be updated in about two weeks, meaning he will miss the rest of the first round at least.
“Obviously it’s a challenge. We kind of know the deal now,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to go get one on the road. It’s going to be hard. Nobody says it’s going to be easy. But we know what it is. Khris is down. But we have a great team, a talented team, a tough team. Hopefully we can get out here and compete to the best of our abilities.
“Do we thrive in adversity? We’ll see. We can’t predict the future, but hopefully we can be ready for Game 3.”
Middleton and teammate Jrue Holiday flew with Booker to Tokyo last summer for the Olympics, just after the Bucks erased a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals to deny Phoenix their first NBA championship. .
The Suns came back this season and had the best regular season in franchise history, reaching an NBA-best 64-18 record. But they got just one win to open the playoffs before Booker was injured after scoring 31 points in the first half of Game 2.
Then the Pelicans, who had to win two playoff games just to make the playoffs, rallied for a 125-114 win behind Brandon Ingram’s 37 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.
The Suns played during Booker’s absence with hamstring issues earlier in the season and a stretch without Chris Paul after the All-Star break due to a hand injury, so they also the experience of having to make do without a star.
“We’re going to need everyone through this long playoff streak that we hope to have,” Paul said. “So it’s been a season like that for us. The next man. Guys, stay ready.
HEAT IN THE HAWKS
Miami leads 2-0. Game 3, 7 p.m. EDT, ESPN
– NEED TO KNOW: Trae Young matched his career-worst shooting 1 of 12 in Game 1, then set a career high – of the wrong kind – by committing 10 turnovers in Game 2. Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler has been at his best for Miami and is coming off a career-best 45 playoff points in Game 2.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Miami is up 2-0 in the series without Adebayo and Herro doing much in the scoring columns yet. If the Heat bring them forward, Atlanta is in even more trouble.
– INJURY WATCH: Clint Capela (knee) is definitely out for Game 3 and looks unlikely to play in this series no matter how long it lasts. His absence was huge in the first two games of the series. John Collins (finger) has filled in and played admirably, considering he can’t bend one of his fingers and the injury is so painful he’s visibly winced several times so far in the series. But without Capela and with Collins far from 100 percent, the Hawks aren’t themselves. “I don’t really have as much touch as I would like with my finger,” Collins said. “I do the best I can.”
— THE PRESSURE IS ON: Young needs to step up his game for the Hawks to have a chance against the top-seeded Heat. “I have to be better,” said Young, who became only the second player in NBA history after Nate Archibald to lead the league in points and assists. Young sees it as a personal duel against Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who threw in all sorts of defensive wrinkles to slow down the Atlanta star. “Spoelstra is one of the 15 greatest coaches of all time for a reason,” Young said. “He’s not going to let me just outclass them. He will make it difficult. It’s my job to try to outdo it in some way.
BUCKS AT BULLS
Series tied 1-1. Game 3, 8:30 p.m. EDT, ABC
— NEED TO KNOW: Chicago’s 114-110 victory in Game 2 was only its second win in the Bucks’ last 19 meetings. The Milwaukee defense needs to regain control of DeMar DeRozan, who scored 41 points, and Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, who both scored at least 20. All three shot terribly in Game 1.
– KEEP AN EYE ON: Bulls guard Alex Caruso. He missed nearly two months of the regular season after breaking his right wrist on a flagrant foul by Bucks guard Grayson Allen that resulted in a ejection and a one-game suspension. In the first two games of this series, Caruso revealed what the Bulls lacked during his absence. Caruso’s defensive tenacity has bothered the Bucks, who have 36 turnovers in this series. Caruso had nine points and 10 assists in Game 2. The Bulls edged the Bucks by 16 points in 38 minutes while he was on the floor.
– INJURY WATCH: Bucks forward Bobby Portis left Game 2 with an abrasion to his right eye after taking a blow to the face from Chicago’s Tristan Thompson as the two players battled for a rebound late in the first quarter. Bucks reserve guard George Hill missed the first two games of the series with abdominal strain and isn’t expected to return any time soon.
— THE PRESSURE IS ON: Holiday: Middleton’s absence gives more responsibility to Antetokounmpo and Holiday to carry the load. Antetokounmpo has been as bright as usual so far with 30 points, 17 rebounds and 6 assists per game, but the Bucks need Holiday to take better care of the ball. Holiday had 12 assists and 10 turnovers in the first two games.
SUNS AMONG PELICANS
Series tied 1-1. Thu 3, 9:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN
— NEED TO KNOW: Losing Booker might be a problem, but losing home-court advantage shouldn’t be the case for the Suns. They were an NBA record 32-9 on the road — just four wins short of the Pelicans’ total.
— KEEP AN EYE: The Suns transition defense. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said it was about as bad as it looked in Game 2, when the Suns had 16 quick break points while shooting nearly 55 percent from the field.
– INJURY WATCH: Pelicans coach Willie Green said Ingram was fine in practice Thursday after rolling his ankle in Game 2.
— THE PRESSURE IS ON: Mikal Bridges. Without Booker, the Suns will need more offense and are hoping the Defensive Player of the Year finalist is one of the players who can provide it, while also expecting him to lead a defensive effort. stronger against Ingram.
AP basketball writer Tim Reynolds in Miami and AP sportswriters Paul Newberry in Atlanta and Steve Megargee in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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