Middleton lifts Bucks past Hawks, into NBA Finals

ATLANTA — The Milwaukee Bucks are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974 — and they secured the final wins of the series without star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee won behind 32 points from Khris Middleton. Jrue Holoiday added 27 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.

As the final buzzer sounded and Bucks players swarmed the center of the court, putting on hats and T-shirts that announced them as Eastern Conference champions, players hugged each other and laughed. Coaches embraced. Antetokounmpo, who has been out since injuring his knee in the third quarter of Game 4 when he landed awkwardly after contesting an alley-oop, was in the middle of it all — a triumphant fist raised in the air.

Thursday marked the end of a slew of Milwaukee playoff runs that were cut short or went awry. In the 2019 postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Detroit Pistons, defeated the Celtics in five games and built a 2-0 lead against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Then, after only losing back-to-back games once the entire regular season, the Bucks lost four straight games to the Raptors and were eliminated.

Last season in the NBA’s bubble, the Bucks fizzled to a disappointing end in the playoffs. Milwaukee had earned the No. 1 seed and beat the Orlando Magic in five games. But Antetokounmpo sprained his ankle in Game 3 of the team’s series against the Miami Heat.

He gave it a go in Game 4, but re-sprained his ankle in that game and was unable to play in Game 5, when Milwaukee was eliminated. Back then, Antetokounmpo said that “nobody was going to be happy” with the outcome of Milwaukee’s 2019-20 playoff run. He said he hoped they could learn from that loss.

It appears they did.

The Bucks avenged last season’s loss and rolled the Heat in four games in the first round. Midway through that series, starting guard Donte DiVincenzo injured his ankle. He had season-ending surgery on a ligament in his left ankle in June and PJ Tucker slid into a starting role.

Still, Milwaukee kept rolling. After falling down 3-2 in a wild series against the betting title favorite Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks outlasted them in a seven game series. And after losing at home for the first time in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Bucks battled back — including winning two games without Antetokounmpo.

In Game 6, the Bucks jumped out to an early 15-4 lead behind before the Hawks roared back to make it a one-possession game. The Bucks weathered that storm, too, once again pushing their advantage to ten. The score yo-yoed from Bucks’ double-digit leads to one bucket advantages, but Milwaukee never trailed.

When the Hawks crept closer, Milwaukee had answers. Middleton rattled off 16-straight third quarter points to extend the Bucks’ advantage on his way to scoring 23 third quarter points. It was his third 20-point third quarter of his playoff career, according to ESPN’s Stats and Information. No other Bucks player has done that even once over the last 25 postseasons.

Atlanta kept clawing, shrinking the Bucks’ once 22-point lead back down to six in the fourth quarter. But ultimately, it proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for the Hawks. A dagger corner 3 from Tucker secured the win for Milwaukee.

All the while, Antetokounmpo stood — almost never sitting down — on the sidelines in black shorts and a Bucks warm up shirt. A protective sleeve swaddled his hyperextended left knee. But even injured and unable to play, Antetokounmpo was in the middle of the celebration on Saturday night. His longest hug was reserved for his brother and teammate, Thanasis.

And while there has been no public decision on whether or not Antetokounmpo will be available to play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, one thing is certain: The Bucks are sitting atop a hill that Antetokounmpo has envisioned summiting for years.

Now, they have just one more leg to complete.

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