LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The red-hot Los Angeles Clippers clinched an NBA playoff berth on Tuesday with their sixth win in a row, Danilo Gallinari scoring 25 points in a 122-111 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Clippers are back in the post-season after missing out last year, becoming the fifth Western Conference team to punch their ticket.
In the East the Boston Celtics’ playoff spot was confirmed with a 116-106 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, coupled with the Detroit Pistons’ 95-92 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Al Horford and Marcus Smart came up big for the Celtics in the fourth quarter in Cleveland.
Boston were clinging to a 96-94 lead at the 6:26 mark of the final period when the veteran Celtics duo exploded, combining to out-score the Cavaliers 15-6 over the next 4min 20sec and putting the visitors up 111-100.
Smart delivered a dagger with 2:19 remaining, connecting on a layup and converting a free throw to put the Celtics up by nine.
Lower in the table the battle continued to rage for the last remaining berths, the Orlando Magic leapfrogging the Miami Heat for the eighth and final spot with a 104-99 victory at Miami.
The Heat squandered an early 17-point lead and lost for the third time in four games this season against Orlando — which gives the Magic the playoff tiebreaker.
The defeat spoiled Miami’s celebrations honoring former Heat star Chris Bosh, whose jersey No. 1 was retired at an emotional halftime ceremony.
But more importantly it dropped the Heat out of playoff position in ninth place in the East, just one game ahead of the 10th-placed Charlotte Hornets — who downed the San Antonio Spurs 125-116 in overtime.
Kemba Walker scored 11 of his 38 points in the extra session as the Hornets notched a fourth straight win.
They had lost all four of their previous overtime games this season.
Charlotte withstood a 30-point game from Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge’s 20 points and 15 rebounds.
“This was an unbelievable team effort,” Walker said. “We executed our game plan, especially defensively, just to make it tough on DeMar and LaMarcus as much as possible.”
With the regular season winding down, he called the win “super-important.”
“We’ve still trying to accomplish a goal here,” he said of keeping the Hornets’ playoff hopes alive. “Anything is possible.”
The Clippers’ win cemented a spot that was clearly on the cards.
Lou Williams added 20 points off the bench for the Clippers, whose reserves out-scored Minnesota’s bench 53-25.
The playoff-bound Rockets dropped to fourth in the West with a 108-94 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in a game billed as a clash between Most Valuable Player candidates James harden and Giannis Anteokounmpo.
That showdown fizzled as Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe imposed himself, leading the Bucks with 23 points.
Antetokounmpo added 19 points and 14 rebounds for the Bucks, but didn’t score as Milwaukee seized control in the third quarter.
He didn’t need to as Bledsoe erupted on an 11-0 run of his own early in the third on the way to 16 points in the period.
Harden led the Rockets with 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Clint Capela added a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double, and Chris Paul added 19 points and nine assists.
Although the Rockets led by 11 in the first half, once Milwaukee took the lead they wouldn’t relinquish it, out-scoring the Rockets 28-2 on fast-break points and 46-36 in the paint and making the most of 13 Rockets turnovers.
“We got open shots, we couldn’t knock them down,” Harden said. “We competed. They went on a run in that third quarter and that was it.”
Harden wasn’t discouraged, noting that with seven games left in the regular season the Rockets, after a stuttering start to the season, can still snatch the second seed in the West.
“Who would have known after being in the 14th spot,” he said.