Back in 2013, the first year Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were in Milwaukee, the Bucks won 15 games. Eight years later the team is headed to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974 after beating Atlanta 118-107 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals Saturday night.
“Honestly, it’s been a long journey but it’s been a great journey,” Middleton said. “It’s been worth it. We put ourselves in position to be in the NBA Finals. 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 work for.”
Playing without Antetokounmpo for a second straight game due to a hyperextended knee, the other members of the team’s big three — Middleton and guard Jrue Holiday — delivered when necessary. Middleton scored 23 points in the third quarter, including 16 straight at one point, to help the Bucks take a 19-point lead into the final period. It was tied for the third-most points in a single quarter of a playoff game in the last 25 years.
“Khris carried us there for a lot of it, just leaving his heart out there,” Holiday said. “Just kind of like if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down on his shoulders. I’m riding with him, riding right into the Finals.”
The Hawks didn’t go away, though, eventually chipping the lead down to six before Holiday hit an acrobatic layup and later delivered an alley-oop to Brook Lopez to push the lead back to 10.
Middleton finished with 32 points, four rebounds and seven assists, while Holiday put up just as impressive of a final stat line with 27 points, nine assists, nine rebounds and four steals. Both are now headed to the finals for the first time in their careers.
“It’s cool to think that as a little kid, this is what you watch the playoffs for,” Holiday said. “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.
“Again, man I’m just — I’m ecstatic.”
Brook Lopez didn’t have a huge night scoring — 13 points compared to the 33 he put up in Game 5 — but he had six rebounds and three blocks. The team was 25 points better than Atlanta with him on the court. PJ Tucker delivered a late 3-pointer that proved to be the dagger and Bobby Portis had 12 points and nine rebounds in his second start for Antetokounmpo.
The bench once again gave Milwaukee a lift, as Pat Connaughton had 13 points and Jeff Teague had 11. Teague had scored a total of seven points in the first five games of the series and had just 12 points the entire playoffs before Saturday night.
“In my opinion one of the biggest things that we did the last two games was play for him,” Connaughton said about Antetokounmpo.
“We know all that he gives, his body, time, energy, effort, blood, sweat, tears. So to be out there to kind of have his back and hold down the fort while he’s coming back from injury, I think shows the character of the team, the character of the organization and that we do have a true team.”
The Hawks got Trae Young back after he had missed the last two games with a foot injury, but he wasn’t the same player he had been early in the series. He scored 14 points and had nine assists but was 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. Cam Reddish led Atlanta in scoring with 21 points off the bench. Bogdan Bogdanovic added 20 for the Hawks.
Milwaukee now advances to the finals to face Phoenix, which won both regular season games between the two teams.
The Suns, led by Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, dispatched the Los Angeles Clippers in six games to win the Western Conference.
“Nope,” Tucker replied when asked if there was any kind of champagne celebration in the locker room. “We ain’t did nothing yet.”