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 beat the Atlanta Hawks 118-107 in Game 6 on Saturday behind 32 points from Khris Middleton. Jrue Holiday added 27 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists.
After the final buzzer sounded and the Bucks swarmed the center of the court, putting on caps and T-shirts that announced them as Eastern Conference champions, players hugged each other and laughed. Coaches embraced.
“It feels awesome,” Holiday said. “I’m still kind of on this high, but I’m going to the Finals. It’s cool to think as a little kid, this is what you watch the playoffs for. This is all the moments that I felt as a little kid watching TV. I lived them and went through them and now I get to go to the Finals and see what this is about.”
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 Bucks swept the Detroit Pistons, defeated the Boston Celtics in five games and built a 2-0 lead against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Then, after losing back-to-back games only once during the entire regular season, the Bucks lost four straight games to the Raptors and were eliminated.
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 the Bucks could learn from that loss.
It appears they did — and those losses, Middleton said, made their success this season that much better.
“It’s been a long journey,” Middleton said. “But it’s been a great journey. It’s been worth it. After winning 15 games in our first year here and seven years not making the playoffs, to the last two years thinking we had a chance and just didn’t do enough and now we’re here. This is what we’ve worked for.”
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 P.J. 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.
“What a roller coaster of emotions, especially this series,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Just impressed with the resilience of the group, the character of the group.”
In Game 6, the Bucks jumped out to an early 15-4 lead before the Hawks roared back to make it a one-possession game. The Bucks weathered that storm, too, once again pushing their advantage to 10. 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 Stats & Information research. No Bucks player has done that once over the past 25 postseasons.
Atlanta kept clawing back, 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.
“He’s the type of player that, again, he puts the weight on his shoulders and doesn’t care,” Holiday said of Middleton after the game. “Khris is the heart of this team. I feel like Giannis is the soul of this team, and without them, man, we really wouldn’t be here.”
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. His longest hug was reserved for his brother and teammate, Thanasis.
“There’s a bittersweetness to him not being able to play these last two games,” Budenholzer said. “Khris and Giannis are the key to this team, to this organization. To have the opportunity to coach them and come here three years ago and try to build something special, those two guys are special, and it starts with them.”
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.
“We ain’t did nothing yet,” Tucker said.