Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton led the way as the Phoenix Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Bucks welcomed back superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo from a knee injury after the two-time MVP had been sidelined since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, missing the final two contests of that series.

However, Antetokounmpo's presence on the floor and double-double was not enough as the Suns – eyeing a first championship – drew first blood in the Finals opener on Tuesday.

Paul – making the first Finals appearance of his stellar career – posted 32 points, nine assists and four three-pointers, while Booker added 27 points of his own as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds at home.

Veteran Paul became the third player ever aged 36 or older to score 30-plus points in a Finals game, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.

It was Ayton's 12th double-double in his first playoff series, second most in the franchise's postseason history – only Charles Barkley has more (22 in four playoffs).

Meanwhile, the Suns – who used a 35-27 third quarter to move clear – were almost impeccable from the free-throw line, missing just one of their 26 attempts.

The Bucks had been outscoring teams by 12.1 points per game in the paint this postseason, but they only edged the Suns 44-42 in Tuesday's encounter.

Antetokounmpo had 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and two blocks for the Bucks, who are eyeing their first championship since 1971, while Khris Middleton registered a team-high 29 points.

 

Bucks at Suns

The Bucks and Suns will do it all again in Thursday's Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena.

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has been cleared to return and will start Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns after overcoming a knee injury.

Antetokounmpo was initially doubtful for the series opener due to a hyperextended knee, which the two-time NBA MVP suffered during the third quarter of Game 4 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks.

But after watching back-to-back games from the sidelines, Antetokounmpo has proven his fitness as the Bucks face the second-seeded Suns on the road on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo averaged 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and a joint career-high 5.9 assists in the regular season, while he has been averaging a career-best 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in the playoffs.

The third-seeded Bucks – eyeing their first championship since 1971 – are featuring in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.

Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are on pace to be the first trio of team-mates in NBA history to each average 15.0-plus points, 5.0-plus rebounds and 5.0-plus assists per game in the same postseason.

The Bucks are outscoring their opponents by 12.1 points per game in the paint this postseason, on pace to be the best differential by any team in a single playoff campaign (minimum 10 games) since the Los Angeles Lakers were plus-12.6 on their way to the title in 2001.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's left knee is the major talking point as the Milwaukee Bucks prepare to potentially play Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns without the two-time MVP.

Antetokounmpo was hurt after attempting to make a block during the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, a contest his team lost to leave the series level at 2-2.

The diagnosis was confirmed as a hyperextended knee, forcing the Greek to watch on from the sidelines. Such a blow could easily have derailed Milwaukee at a key time in the postseason, but instead they shared the burden of covering for their superstar, finding a way to win two games on the spin and emerge from the East.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer declared Antetokounmpo to be making "good progress" on Monday, though he is listed as doubtful for the series opener in Phoenix.

Without him this season, the Bucks have shot 40.3 per cent from deep, compared to 37.0 per cent when he has played. They also saw a rise in steals (9.4 compared to 7.8 with him), albeit in a small sample size. And while the numbers may suggest his absence is not a huge issue, the presence of the 26-year-old undoubtedly makes them a tougher proposition for the Suns to deal with.

The last time Milwaukee made it this far in the playoffs, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on the roster. Back in 1974 they lost in seven to the Boston Celtics, though they had at least been crowned champions three years earlier.

In contrast, the Suns have never won a title. Their most recent of two finals appearances came in 1993, when Michael Jordan scuppered the hopes of Charles Barkley and the rest of the Phoenix roster.

They had not even made it to the playoffs since 2009-10 before this season, yet have beaten both teams from Los Angeles – in the process ending the Lakers' hopes of repeating – and also swept aside the Denver Nuggets.

While their opponents were fighting hard to overcome the Hawks, Phoenix were able to rest up. They have not played since clinching the Western Conference crown on June 30, a welcome break during an arduous season that, despite the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic, is heading towards a thrilling conclusion.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks - Khris Middleton

With Giannis ruled out, Middleton stepped up for Milwaukee. The two-time All-Star had 58 combined points as the Bucks won back-to-back games against Atlanta.

His Game 6 performance included 23 points in the third quarter alone, helping make sure Milwaukee made it through to the finals for the first time in 47 years, Middleton has been inconsistent at times with his shooting, though he also come up big to help his team rally from the brink to oust the Brooklyn Nets.

Phoenix Suns - Chris Paul

Paul finally gets his long-awaited chance to appear in an NBA Finals, 16 years into his outstanding career. His signing by the Suns was a masterstroke in roster management, providing the old head to help guide young talents like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

The veteran point guard has averaged 18.1 points per game in this postseason and is shooting 40.5 per cent on three-point attempts, his highest success rate from beyond the arc since the 2015 playoffs, back when he was a member of the Clippers. Phoenix is his third team since then, but can they help him secure that elusive ring at last?

The Milwaukee Bucks have had better regular seasons recently.

This season's .639 winning percentage (46-26) pales in comparison to last year's .767 (56-17) or even the .732 (60-22) from 2018-19.

Yet it is this vintage of the Bucks that will be playing in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. While some will dismiss this year's champions as a beneficiary of a strange season and a postseason full of devastating injuries, the Bucks and Phoenix Suns will not be apologising for having beaten every team in front them so far.

It is also quite possible that, despite having a less accomplished regular season, this Bucks squad is better equipped to win in the playoffs, using the first 72 games on the schedule to learn how to best focus its strengths.

Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has developed a reputation as a stubborn tactician, clinging to his preferred strategy regardless of the opponent, especially on the defensive end.

Budenholzer has traditionally asked his players to guard their position and to fight through screens without switching assignments. This structure has allowed Milwaukee to utilise its size and has been formidable in the regular season with the Bucks allowing 101.9 points per 100 possessions across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, best in the NBA.

But Milwaukee's defense faltered in decisive playoff series in each of the previous two seasons, with a defensive rating that rose to 106.9 in 2019 against the Toronto Raptors and ballooned to 112.1 last year against the Miami Heat.

Budenholzer responded by using the 2020-21 regular season to experiment with a more varied defensive approach. The results were not always the best, allowing opponents to score 109.1 points per 100 possessions.

That experience, however, has given Milwaukee the tools to employ a more diverse defense in the playoffs, with the Bucks boasting a 103.5 defensive rating this postseason.

Milwaukee still holds on to its big lineups and objects to switching all five defenders like some teams do while playing trendy small ball, but the growing pains have added another tool to the toolbox. Even if the switching itself proves not to be a strategic advantage, the Bucks are at least better prepared to throw different looks at Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the rest of the Suns.

Of course, scheme alone can only take a team so far, but this year's Bucks team appears to have improved personnel, as well.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-way monster who obviously takes top billing, but perhaps this postseason has shown that the Bucks are at their best when the two-time MVP takes a slightly reduced role on offense.

Antetokounmpo is averaging a playoff career-high 28.2 points this postseason, but the Bucks have lost three of his five highest-scoring games. When he has five or more assists, however, Milwaukee are 6-1.

His team has also fared much better when Antetokounmpo aggressively attacks the basket, going 6-0 this postseason when he attempts nine or more free throws, even though he is shooting just 53.7 percent from the line.

Perhaps the biggest question facing Antetokounmpo, however, is his health. After leaving Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals with a hyper-extended left knee, he was held out of the next two games of the series, both Milwaukee victories.

Although imaging has revealed no significant structural damage to his knee, Antetokounmpo is listed as doubtful to play in Tuesday’s NBA Finals opener. And while the Bucks were able to close out an Atlanta Hawks team that was missing Trae Young, they will likely need an impactful contribution from Antetokounmpo to beat a healthy and confident Suns team.

The Bucks and their supporters can take heart, however, in the supporting cast appearing to be much better than in previous playoff runs.

Last offseason, Milwaukee paid a heavy price to replace Eric Bledsoe with Jrue Holiday, trading away three first-round draft picks in a blockbuster four-team deal. And while the upgrade could appear trivial on paper – going from Bledsoe’s 14.9 points per game last season to Holiday's 17.7 this season – this postseason has revealed why Holiday was such a coveted piece on the trade market.

In the 2019 and 2020 playoffs, Bledsoe averaged 12.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists for the Bucks while shooting 40.3 percent from the field and 24.0 percent from 3-point range.

During Milwaukee's run to the Finals, Holiday has averaged 17.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 8.4 assists, all while playing two of his best career playoff games to close out the Hawks while Antetokounmpo was sidelined.

Holiday leads the Bucks this postseason in plus-minus per game at +7.2, and the team is 4-1 when he attempts at least 20 shots.

Perhaps the key to the 2021 Finals is the performance of unsung star Khris Middleton, who will be the crunch-time focal point for the Bucks.

With Antetokounmpo's struggles from the free throw line, Milwaukee is forced to look elsewhere to create offense in the waning minutes of close games. Middleton has attempted a team-high 14 shots in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter during this playoff run and is 10 for 10 from the free throw line in clutch situations. Antetokounmpo is just 7 for 15.

Middleton has also shown the ability to carry the team when Antetokounmpo is off the floor, a valuable stopgap if the Bucks are forced to play a game or more without Antetokounmpo.

He has averaged 29.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists in the final two games of the East finals, all while shooting above his playoff career average from the floor.

Middleton has done some of his best work this postseason while Antetokounmpo has been on the bench, either due to injury or routine substitution. Not only has Middleton scored more when Milwaukee’s Greek superstar is off the floor – 37.9 points per 100 possessions compared to 25.1 with Antetokounmpo on the floor – his efficiency also improves when he is the primary option.

With Middleton shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from 3-point range when Antetokounmpo is off the court this postseason, that compares to 41.1 percent overall and 33.3 percent from deep when he plays alongside the two-time MVP.

The Suns will undoubtedly present an enormous challenge for the Bucks in an NBA Finals between two teams desperate for a championship parade. And the Bucks, just like the Suns, have benefitted from some measure of good luck this postseason, facing an injury-riddled Brooklyn squad and avoiding East top seed Philadelphia.

But this Milwaukee team is also better equipped to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy than in the previous two seasons, despite a less impressive regular season.

With some added schematic versatility and a better supporting cast, the Bucks might only need a bit of healing in Antetokounmpo's left knee to be crowned NBA champions for the first time since 1971.

Two years ago, the Phoenix Suns compiled the second-worst record in franchise history behind only the 1968-69 expansion team.

A year later, they were the darling of the NBA's restart – going a perfect 8-0 at the Walt Disney Complex in Florida amid the coronavirus pandemic, yet still missing out on the playoffs.

And now, a mere 11 months later, they are just four wins away from capturing the franchise's first NBA title.

Led by a future Hall of Famer running the point, a dynamic scorer and one of the most explosive young bigs in the league, Phoenix have the chance to join the 2007-08 Boston Celtics and last season's Los Angeles Lakers as the only teams in the last 40 years to win the NBA title after missing the playoffs in the previous season.

The last stage of their incredible turnaround begins at home to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday.

The Suns reached their first NBA Finals since losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1993 after dispatching defending champions the Lakers in five games in the first round, sweeping the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals and ousting the Los Angeles Clippers in six in the Conference Finals.

All of those teams were a bit banged-up – the Lakers without Anthony Davis, the Nuggets minus Jamal Murray and a Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers squad – but the Suns themselves had to overcome their own setbacks. Chris Paul injured his shoulder against the Lakers and then missed two games following a positive COVID-19 test, Devin Booker played through a broken nose and Cameron Johnson was sidelined with an illness.

Despite their issues, Phoenix have taken care of business against the league's best just like it did all season – their .711 winning percentage (27-11) against teams .500 or better in the regular season ranked first in the NBA – with an offense running through Paul and Booker.

In the Finals for the first time in his 16-year-career, the 36-year-old Paul is one of the most captivating storylines of this series and with good reason – he is playing with a rejuvenated fervour and is the engine that runs Phoenix's high-powered offense.

Paul has tallied at least 15 points and five assists in each of his last eight games – the longest streak by any player 36 years or older in postseason history – and he punctuated the Suns' Finals berth with a playoff career-high-tying 41 points on seven-of-eight shooting on three-pointers and eight assists in last Wednesday's 130-103 Game 6 win over the Clippers. It marked just the fourth time in playoff history a player had 40 or more points with at least seven three-pointers while shooting 80 per cent or better from three-point range. (Booker had one in Phoenix's ouster against the Lakers on June 3 and Paul had another one for the Houston Rockets in 2018.)

Although he got hot from three-point range the last time the Suns took the court, inside the perimeter has been Paul, as well as Booker's, calling card this season.

Paul and Booker were first and second in mid-range field goals made in the regular season with 211 and 188, respectively, as Phoenix shot a league-leading 47.2 per cent from mid-range.

Including the postseason, Paul is shooting 50.4 per cent on baseline jumpers (60 of 119) and 52.2 per cent on shots from the elbow (194 of 372), while Booker is shooting 47.6 per cent (81 of 170) and 47.5 per cent (154 of 324) on such shots. Paul's 163 made hoops from the elbow in the regular season were the most in the NBA, while Booker ranked third with 119.

The mid-range game has somewhat fallen by the wayside as teams focus more on the increased weight of the three-pointer, and although Phoenix is finding success from mid-range, they have not forgotten about the importance of the three.

While 19.1 per cent of the Suns' shots in the regular season were from mid-range compared to the league average of 13.6 per cent, Phoenix's 39.2 per cent of shots from three-point range was the exact league average. The Suns attempted fewer shots in the paint – 41.7 per cent compared to the NBA average of 47.2 per cent – but when they do feed the ball down low, they are converting baskets at a higher rate than anyone.

Including the postseason, Phoenix are shooting 60.3 per cent in the paint and 65.9 per cent in the restricted area – both ranking first in the league.

Deandre Ayton has been the driving force behind the Suns' proficiency in the paint and has upped his game in the playoffs.

After shooting 75.2 per cent from the restricted area in the regular season to rank sixth in the league (min. 150 FGA) and 68.3 per cent in the paint to rank ninth (200 FGA), the 22-year-old is shooting 79.4 per cent in the restricted area (85 of 107) and 74.7 per cent in the paint (112 of 150) in the playoffs.

The top pick of the 2018 draft put together a phenomenal series against the Clippers, highlighted by an alley-oop dunk at the buzzer in an exhilarating 114-113 win in Game 2. Ayton averaged 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds while shooting 69.3 per cent to become just the fourth player since 1983-84 to average at least 17 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 65 per cent or better in a single postseason series.

Johnson was also instrumental to Phoenix's success against the Clippers and is fit to play in the Finals after missing Wednesday's closeout win with a non-COVID illness.

After averaging 6.7 points on 37.8 per cent shooting and 41.2 per cent from beyond the arc (14 of 34) in the first two rounds, Johnson averaged 10.8 points on 70.0 per cent shooting and 52.9 per cent on three-pointers (9 of 17) in the Clippers series.

While Johnson finally found his shooting touch in the last round to help the Suns advance, much of their success this postseason hinges on shoulders of veteran three-point specialist Jae Crowder.

Phoenix are 7-0 in the playoffs when Crowder scores at least 10 points and 5-4 when he fails to reach double figures. His scoring success boils down to how well he is shooting from deep, as he is knocking down 51.9 per cent of his three-pointers (27 of 52) in those seven double-digit scoring games compared to just 21.6 per cent (11 of 51) in those other nine contests.

He has been a bit more effective from the corner in the playoffs, shooting 48.1 per cent from there (13 of 27) after making 38.8 per cent of his corner threes in the regular season (40 of 103). Booker, meanwhile, has been steady from the corner all season, connecting on 51.2 per cent of his 41 attempts from there.

Cameron Payne was one of the league's most effective shooters on wing three-pointers during the regular season, connecting on 46.2 per cent of his 119 shots – the third-highest field goal percentage in the NBA among those with at least 100 attempts. He has not been quite as deadly in the postseason, shooting 38.1 per cent on his 42 shots from the wing, but Paul has been more accurate from there since the playoffs began, shooting 51.9 per cent (14 of 27) after shooting 37.4 per cent from the wing in the regular season (58 of 155).

Although Phoenix's strength all season has been their high-powered offense – their 114.9 offensive rating in the regular season was tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for fourth – the Suns are proving they are able to grind out wins in the playoffs even when their offense is not firing on all cylinders. Phoenix are averaging 108.9 points in the playoffs – down 6.4 points from their regular-season average – but are 4-4 when scoring 105 or fewer after going 3-9 in such games in the regular season.

Behind Paul, Booker and company, the Suns have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, joining the 2007-08 Celtics as the only teams in the last 40 seasons to go from having one of the NBA's two worst records to one of its two best in a two-year span. In fact, over the past five seasons from 2015-16 to 2019-20, Phoenix's .302 winning percentage was the worst in the NBA.

Their run to the playoffs was unprecedented – their 51-21 regular-season record was the best in NBA history among teams that entered a season with a postseason drought of at least 10 seasons – and after all the years of disappointment in the desert, a championship is now within reach.

Both the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks have had to wait a while to get back to the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee have not made it this far since 1974, when a team containing Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lost out to the Boston Celtics in Game 7.

The Bucks had been champions three years earlier, but Phoenix have never been crowned. The franchise fell at the last hurdle in both 1976 and 1993, when their campaign ended in a 4-2 series defeat to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

So, will it be third time lucky for the Suns, or can the Bucks reign once again?

Ahead of the best-of-seven battle getting underway, Stats Perform looks at the players who have risen to the occasion during the playoffs this year for both franchises, as well as a candidate from each who could make a greater impact.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Khris Middleton

Milwaukee made it out of the Eastern Conference despite being without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the end of the series against the Atlanta Hawks. His hyperextended knee remains the biggest talking point ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday, but at least his colleagues have demonstrated they can prosper without him.

Middleton certainly stepped up. After 26 points in Game 5 at home, he followed up with 32 on the road in Atlanta to help his team seal a 4-2 series triumph. The two-time All-Star lifted his playoff average to 23.4 points per game, in comparison to 20.4 during the regular season. He has also upped his rebounds (8.0 from 6.0) and is landing 2.6 three-pointers per outing.

Brook Lopez

While not perhaps too surprising for a center, Lopez came up big for the Bucks in Game 5 last week. His 33-point haul saw him successful with 77.8 per cent of his shots, as well as deliver four blocks and two steals. He is the only NBA player to reach all of those numbers in a playoff game since blocks and steals became official stats in 1973-74 (Milwaukee's last trip to the NBA Finals, of course).

Lopez's extended minutes helped the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft rise to 13.5 points per game in these playoffs (he finished at 12.3 in the regular season), as well as seeing him claim a greater number of rebounds (6.0 per game). His upcoming battle with Deandre Ayton should be fascinating, too, as they both aim to make a sizeable impact.

Bryn Forbes

A useful contributor on the roster, Forbes averaged 10.0 points while shooting 45.2 per cent from deep during a regular season that saw the Bucks finish as the third seeds in the East, behind the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets, who they then knocked out in the second round of the playoffs.

However, the guard – who previously played for the San Antonio Spurs after going undrafted – has not had the same impact in limited opportunities of late, landing 30 of his 80 attempts from deep for a shooting percentage of 37.5 from beyond the arc. Forbes twice had 22-point outings during the first-round series against the Miami Heat, but he has reached double figures in just two outings since.

PHOENIX SUNS

Deandre Ayton

It has been quite the first playoff experience for Deandre Ayton, the center selected by the Suns with the top pick in 2018. His dramatic dunk in the last second to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 will be replayed for years to come, as he slammed the ball in from an inbound pass right at the death to clinch victory.

Ayton heads into the Milwaukee series on a 10-game streak of reaching double figures for points, while he had double-double outings in four of the six games against the Clippers. He averaged 10.5 rebounds in the regular season but has raised the bar in the postseason, going up to 11.8 per outing.

Chris Paul

Devin Booker leads the way in terms of scoring for the Suns – he is averaging 27.0 points a game in the postseason – but Paul is unquestionably the leader of this Phoenix team. The veteran point guard finally gets to play in an NBA Finals at the age of 36. Father Time is not slowing him down, though health and safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic did briefly pause his efforts.

However, the 11-time All-Star made up for lost time after missing the opening two games of the Clippers series, scoring a combined total of 96 points in the next four outings, including 41 in Game 6 as Phoenix were crowned in the West.

Dario Saric

Saric played a part in helping the Suns rise to the top of the conference in the regular season, finishing it with an average of 8.7 points per game. The Croatian's impact on the offensive end has been reduced since, as have his minutes. Having attempted 342 shots prior to the playoffs, he has managed just 44 in his past 13 outings, while he did not feature at all in three games.

Yet the need to give valuable rest to Ayton – and the possibility of Giannis returning at some stage during the series – could increase the need to play Saric, who is averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in the postseason so far.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was as active as he could be during the Milwaukee Bucks' decisive Game 6 win over the Atlanta Hawks. 

Missing a second consecutive game after hyperextending his left knee, the Greek star paced the sidelines throughout the game, exhorting his team-mates on while wearing a mask on his face and a sleeve on his knee. 

Now that the Bucks have advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974, the key question will be whether Antetokounmpo will be in the lineup for Tuesday's series opener at the Phoenix Suns. 

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer had no interest in exploring that topic following the win, saying only that it would be an ongoing conversation with the team's medical staff over the next few days. 

"You have to listen to the player and then you have to listen to the sports performance group, and at some point [general manager] Jon Horst and myself are part of the conversations, but it's just a day-to-day thing," Budenholzer told reporters. 

"We'll update it when appropriate. The conversations between he and myself and he and the sports performance group, it's kind of private and we'll see where he is each day."

Despite the ongoing questions about Antetokounmpo's availability in the Finals, Budenholzer took time to appreciate his star's enthusiasm even when he is unable to take the court. 

"He's coming off the bench, he's halfway on the court, talking to Bobby [Portis], talking to Brook [Lopez], talking to different players; to see that kind of leadership, that kind of connection, that kind of commitment from a player you know would be dying to be out there and playing," Budenholzer said.

"I just loved his energy on the bench. I loved his just togetherness that he brings to our group.

"And there's a bittersweetness to him not being able to play these last two games, but I think he understands that there's a way we want to play basketball and there's a kind of team and organisation that we want to be able to play and just play ball, and he's a big part of that.

"But if he were to miss a game or if he's on the bench for whatever reason, we need to be able to play and we need to have guys that have confidence and we need to be able to get stops and do all the things that go into winning.

"While he's incredibly important to us, I think he appreciates what his teammates can do. And we certainly do as an organisation appreciate what he did, and then what everybody else was able to do tonight and the other night without him."

Saturday night, it was Khris Middleton's 32 points and Jrue Holiday's 27 that ensured Antetokounmpo would at least have a chance to return. 

Even if Antetokounmpo is not ready to open the series against the Suns, his team-mates appreciated the effort he gave on the sidelines tin Game 6.

"This is probably the most I've seen Giannis talk, like the whole game," Holiday said. "I know usually when he's on the court and he's running, racing through five people and blocking shots, you're tired. He's tired and he's playing.

"But man, he's motivating everybody, he's motivating me, telling me to push the pace, telling me to keep being aggressive and telling me to lock people up.

"I feel what he brought to the game today and how he led us - again, he is pretty quiet, but how talkative he's been has been awesome for us and very, very encouraging."

Trae Young knew he had to at least try and play in the game that could - and would - end the Atlanta Hawks' season. 

After missing the previous two games with a bone bruise on his right heel, the Hawks' star returned for Game 6 but was not his usual self in a 118-107 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Though the 22-year-old star obviously was not at full strength, he knew there was no way he could stomach sitting out again. 

"I didn't want to have any regrets after tonight," Young told reporters. "I didn't want to go not play and think to myself all offseason if I could have been out there and played if I could have helped my team at all in any way, it would have hurt me.

"So just go out and just play and at least leave it all out there on the floor. That's all I could do."

Young managed to play 35 minutes but made just four of 17 shots from the field and finished with 14 points - less than half his 29.8 playoff average entering the game. 

Despite his physical limitations, he had to at least try to play, but he acknowledged after the game that the injury affected his form. 

"You know me, I don't use injury as an excuse," Young said. "For me, my bruise is on my heel, so like all my pushing off my right foot, there's not anything that could really damage it worse, but it was more pain tolerance and just fighting through the pain.

"When I was running, I knew it wasn't going to get worse, but I could feel -- you know what I'm saying? You could feel pain in it. That's all it was."

To Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan, the fact that Young insisted on playing in Game 6 despite having no practice time since his injury said it all about his young star's mind-set. 

"The message was no regrets," McMillan said. "We don't want no regrets after this game tonight, and we leave everything we have out on the floor, and that's what I saw from Trae.

"The fact that he hasn't done anything on the floor since the injury, this was the first time that he has done anything live on the floor, so he was gassed."

That was evident as the game wore on, but Young has no doubt the unexpected run the Hawks made through the playoffs will serve them well in the future. 

"We've got the talent, and we've got guys that you see we can do it, and you see the flashes that we can do it," Young said. "It's just, it's hard. This s*** is hard. It's not easy.

"They've been here multiple times before and haven't been able to take that next step, and I think for us being able to go through this for a first time early, I mean, it's really good for us. I think it will only help us."

The Milwaukee Bucks led by only four points at half-time of Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, but Khris Middleton removed any questions about the final result with his memorable third quarter in a 118-107 win. 

After scoring just five points in the first half, Middleton out-scored the entire Hawks team 13-0 over a two-minute span early in the second half on the way to a 23-point third period and 32 points in the game. 

With Giannis Antetokounmpo missing another game thanks to a hyperextended left knee, it was Middleton who stepped up and led Milwaukee to their first NBA Finals since 1974. 

"Khris caught a streak there in the third quarter, and particularly coming out to start it," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters. "So I think that was the turning point in the game."

Though Middleton had a couple of poor shooting games in the Hawks series and was not in the offensive flow in the first half Saturday, his coach had no doubt he would come through eventually. 

"You know, he's a bucket-getter," Budenholzer said. "He's just got such a great overall package, and I think he's just an underrated playmaker. He's an underrated passer.

"But it's all built off him just being a great, great shooter. So any time he can shoot, I think he's got the ultimate green light. He can pass it, he can shoot it, he can do a little bit of everything.

"I love the way he competes and he's there. You know, he's been special. We'll need more of that going forward."

Regardless of Antetokounmpo's status going forward, Middleton will be a key factor in the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns. 

For a player who has experienced one disappointment after another in his first few seasons with the team, getting over the hump on Saturday was something special. 

"It's been a long journey but it's been a great journey - it's been worth it," Middleton said. "We put ourselves in position to win the NBA Finals after winning 15 games in our first year here. 

"Several years not making the playoffs to the last two years thinking we had a chance and we just didn't do enough, and now we're here. 

"It's what we worked for, and I'm extremely happy that we're still playing."

Though the Bucks had some margin for error with a 3-2 series lead entering Saturday's game, it was Middleton who took the lead in ensuring they did not need to use that cushion, and his team-mates were grateful. 

"At the end of the day, Khris carried us," Jrue Holiday told reporters. "He put us on his shoulders. I'm riding with him right to the Finals.

“Khris is the heart of this team and Giannis is the soul of this team and without them, we really wouldn’t be here." 

Fifty years after winning their first and only NBA title, the Milwaukee Bucks will play for the crown again. 

With their injured star Giannis Antetokounmpo watching from the sidelines, the Bucks held on for a 118-107 victory over the Atlanta Hawks to claim their Eastern Conference Finals series 4-2. 

The Bucks move on to face the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. 

After leading by four at the half, Milwaukee blew the game open in the third quarter, outscoring Atlanta 44-29.

Khris Middleton had 23 points in the quarter after scoring just five in the first half. He would finish with 32 points and seven assists. 

The Bucks knew they would need Middleton and Jrue Holiday (27 points, nine rebounds and nine assists) to carry the load as Antetokounmpo missed a second straight game after hyperextending his left knee in Game 4. 

The Hawks got their star Trae Young back after he sat out the previous two games with a bone bruise in his foot, but he was nowhere near his usual self. 

Young entered the game averaging 29.8 points in the playoffs but managed only 14 on Saturday on four-of-17 shooting from the field, missing all six of his three-point attempts.

Cam Reddish emerged as the offensive star for the Hawks, coming off the bench to score 21 points on six-of-seven from three-point range and help Atlanta claw back into the game after trailing by as many as 22 in the fourth quarter. 

The Hawks got the margin down to six with less than four minutes remaining but ran out of gas in the end. The defeat represents yet another playoff disappointment for Atlanta sports teams. 

The Hawks' lone NBA title came in 1958, when they were still based in St Louis, while the NFL's Falcons have never won it all and MLB's Braves have just one World Series title, in 1995. 

Only MLS newcomers Atlanta United have cracked the code in the last quarter century with their 2018 crown. 

While the Hawks are left to wait for next year, Milwaukee are eyeing their first championship since 1971 in their first NBA Finals appearance since 1974.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been ruled out of Game 6 as the Milwaukee Bucks try to clinch an NBA Finals berth on Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.

The Bucks moved 3-2 clear in the Eastern Conference Finals after beating the Hawks 123-112 in Game 5 on Thursday, with Antetokounmpo and Atlanta's Trae Young both watching from the sidelines.

Milwaukee confirmed on Saturday several hours ahead of tip-off that the superstar will miss again for Game 6 after he hyperextended his left knee in the Game 4 loss away to the Hawks.

Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo landed awkwardly on his left leg with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter in Atlanta, where he jumped up to contest an alley-oop from Lou Williams to Clint Capela, but his knee buckled before he hobbled to the locker room.

The 'Greek Freak' has averaged a career-high 29.2 points in the playoffs, along with 13 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

Antetokounmpo had averaged 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and a career best-tying 5.9 assists per game in the regular season.

The Hawks have announced that Young is a game-time decision having missed the past two games with a bone bruise in his right foot.

Young has averaged 29.8 points, 9.5 assists and 2.7 rebounds in his first postseason, having averaged 25.3 points, a career-high 9.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds in the regular season.

Milwaukee are eyeing their first championship since 1971, while they last reached the NBA Finals more than 45 years ago in 1973-74.

The Hawks have not featured in the Finals since their triumphant season 63 years ago when they were still based in St Louis.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful as the Milwaukee Bucks try to clinch an NBA Finals berth, while Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young is questionable for Saturday's clash.

The Bucks moved 3-2 clear in the Eastern Conference Finals after beating the Hawks 123-112 in Game 5 on Thursday, with Antetokounmpo and Young both watching from the sidelines.

Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo is likely to miss Game 6 after sitting out the previous contest due to a hyperextended left knee suffered in the Game 4 loss away to the Hawks.

Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo landed awkwardly on his left leg with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter in Atlanta, where he jumped up to contest an alley-oop from Lou Williams to Clint Capela, but his knee buckled before he hobbled to the locker room.

Young has missed back-to-back games with a bone bruise in his right foot following a freak injury in Game 3, which saw the Hawks guard step on the referee's foot at State Farm Arena.

Antetokounmpo has been averaging a career-high 29.2 points in the playoffs, along with 13.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

The 'Greek Freak' had averaged 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and a career best-tying 5.9 assists per game in the regular season.

Young has been averaging 29.8 points, 9.5 assists and 2.7 rebounds in his first playoff campaign, having averaged 25.3 points, a career-high 9.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds in the regular season.

Milwaukee are eyeing their first championship since 1971, while they last reached the NBA Finals in 1973-74.

Champions in 1958, the Hawks have not featured in the Finals since their triumphant season 63 years ago when they were still based in St Louis.

Bobby Portis revelled in his hero status with the Milwaukee Bucks fans after helping the franchise to the brink of the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee made light of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo's absence with a hyperextended knee by beating the Atlanta Hawks 123-112 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It gives the Bucks a 3-2 lead and leaves them one victory away from a shot at their first championship since 1971.

Portis joined Milwaukee last offseason and has quickly established an affinity with a fanbase who chanted his name raucously as he racked up 22 points in 36 minutes on Thursday.

"Milwaukee's a tough city. We were meeting with some people at the start of the season in January and February," Portis told reporters afterwards. "They were telling us about the city, how tough it is to live here and things like that.

"The city goes through a lot. When they see someone who works hard and gives his all… it's a blue-collar city and I'm a blue-collar player.

"When I'm making shots, whether they're going in or not, I still give my all to the team, give 100 per cent for the name on the front of the jersey.

"They love players like that and it's just fun to go out and play this game with home court advantage and get them involved.

"Giannis went down and we had to step up. I didn't play the last couple of games. I kept working and knew my time was going to come. If you do things the right way, things always come around."

There were no shortage of players stepping up in the required fashion.

Brook Lopez amassed a playoff career-high 33 points for the third-seeded Bucks, while Khris Middleton weighed in with 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

Jrue Holiday also managed a double-double of 25 points and 13 rebounds, and former Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards forward Portis is delighted to be in such company after being released by the New York Knicks.

"Coming here was the best decision of my career," he said. "Having good veterans like Giannis and Brook to coach me up on how to be a two-way player.

"Guys like Khris and Jrue, who are unselfish and put the ball in hole for me to shoot my shots. And having coaches like coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] and all the coaching staff who believe in me."

Portis added: "I've finally found peace. I'm at peace with my life, at peace with myself and everything around me.

"The pandemic helped me find out more about myself. Being at home for nine or 10 months straight, watching guys on TV play in the bubble and not being able to go there really hurt. But I got a chance to really work on my game and that helped me prepare for the moment."

Bobby Portis revelled in his hero status with the Milwaukee Bucks fans after helping the franchise to the brink of the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee made light of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo's absence with a hyperextended knee by beating the Atlanta Hawks 123-112 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It gives the Bucks a 3-2 lead and leaves them one victory away from a shot at their first championship since 1971.

Portis joined Milwaukee last offseason and has quickly established an affinity with a fanbase who chanted his name raucously as he racked up 22 points in 36 minutes on Thursday.

"Milwaukee's a tough city. We were meeting with some people at the start of the season in January and February," Portis told reporters afterwards. "They were telling us about the city, how tough it is to live here and things like that.

"The city goes through a lot. When they see someone who works hard and gives his all… it's a blue-collar city and I'm a blue-collar player.

"When I'm making shots, whether they're going in or not, I still give my all to the team, give 100 per cent for the name on the front of the jersey.

"They love players like that and it's just fun to go out and play this game with home court advantage and get them involved.

"Giannis went down and we had to step up. I didn't play the last couple of games. I kept working and knew my time was going to come. If you do things the right way, things always come around."

There were no shortage of players stepping up in the required fashion.

Brook Lopez amassed a playoff career-high 33 points for the third-seeded Bucks, while Khris Middleton weighed in with 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

Jrue Holiday also managed a double-double of 25 points and 13 rebounds, and former Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards forward Portis is delighted to be in such company after being released by the New York Knicks.

"Coming here was the best decision of my career," he said. "Having good veterans like Giannis and Brook to coach me up on how to be a two-way player.

"Guys like Khris and Jrue, who are unselfish and put the ball in hole for me to shoot my shots. And having coaches like coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] and all the coaching staff who believe in me."

Portis added: "I've finally found peace. I'm at peace with my life, at peace with myself and everything around me.

"The pandemic helped me find out more about myself. Being at home for nine or 10 months straight, watching guys on TV play in the bubble and not being able to go there really hurt. But I got a chance to really work on my game and that helped me prepare for the moment."

The Milwaukee Bucks are on the cusp of the NBA Finals after Brook Lopez spearheaded a 123-112 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Milwaukee – eyeing their first championship since 1971 – were without superstar and two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo due to a hyperextended knee on Thursday.

But Lopez helped pick up the slack, stepping up with a playoff career-high 33 points as the third-seeded Bucks claimed a 3-2 series lead to move within one win of the NBA Finals.

Entering the contest, the Bucks were 1-8 in Game 5 when a series was tied 2-2 since 2000, according to Stats Perform. Their lone win over that time came against Atlanta in 2010, but the Hawks came back to win the series in seven.

But Milwaukee's starters flexed their muscles in the absence of Antetokounmpo at home to the fifth-seeded Hawks.

The Bucks were 9-0 this postseason when Khris Middleton shot at least 40 percent from the floor, compared to 1-5 when he does not, prior to Game 5.

Bucks star Middleton posted 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists to help Milwaukee move a step closer to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1973-74.

Jrue Holiday also had a double-double of 25 points and 13 rebounds as Bobby Portis contributed 22 points of his own for the Bucks, who used a 36-22 opening quarter to surge clear and never look back.

The Hawks were without star guard Trae Young (foot) once again and they were unable to see off the Bucks.

Bogdan Bogdanovic led the Hawks with 28 points, while John Collins (19), Daniel Gallinari (19) and Lou Williams (17) were the only other players to reach double-digit points.

 

Bucks at Hawks

The Bucks can close out the series away to the Hawks on Saturday as the Phoenix Suns await in the NBA Finals.

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