The Milwaukee Bucks are heading to the NBA Finals after holding on for a 118-107 win over the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined yet again, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday put the Bucks on their backs and combined for 59 points to carry Milwaukee to an opportunity to compete against the Phoenix Suns for a championship on the game's biggest stage. While he attempted to play through a bone bruise that had sidelined him earlier in the series, Trae Young just did not have enough in the tank to help Atlanta extend this series, and their season, as the All-Star finished the loss with 14 points and nine assists.
Now, the Bucks and Suns will square off in the NBA Finals with Game 1 scheduled for Tuesday night in Phoenix. Here are three key takeaways from Milwaukee's win.
1. The Bucks finally break through
Ever since Giannis Antetokounmpo took his game to new heights and established himself as a two-time MVP, the Bucks have been one of the best teams in the league. Or, at least they were in the regular season. Twice they finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference, and this season they earned the No. 3 seed.
When it came to the playoffs, however, things tended to fall apart. In 2019, the lost four straight games to the Toronto Raptors to crash out of the Eastern Conference finals, and down in the bubble in 2020 they were embarrassed by the Miami Heat in the second round. After the loss to the Heat, there were real questions about the future of this Bucks team. They didn't appear to be legitimate title contenders, and Giannis' free agency was looming.
Fast forward a year later, and not only has Giannis committed to the team and the city for the long haul, but the Bucks are in the Finals for the first time since 1974. They got revenge over the Heat in the first round, outlasted Kevin Durant and the shorthanded Brooklyn Nets in the second round and took out the surprising Hawks in the conference finals despite Giannis hyperextending his knee in Game 4.
There were shaky moments at times during this run, and no one would have predicted the path. But the Finals are the Finals. It doesn't matter how you got there, just that you did.
2. Middleton and Holiday deliver without Giannis
By some miracle, Giannis Antetokounmpo did not suffer a serious long-term injury when he violently hyperextended his knee in Game 4. But while he avoided the worst, he was in no position to play in the rest of this series, which put all sorts of pressure on Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.
Everyone had to step up, but those two, in particular, needed to lead the way to make sure the Bucks didn't go home early again. You could not have asked for a better response, as they each delivered brilliant back-to-back performances in the biggest games of their careers.
Middleton has been with the Bucks and has seen it all with this franchise, from a 15-win season to playoff failures. He made sure there wouldn't be another of the latter on his watch. After a near triple-double in Game 5, he got off to a rough start in Game 6. At halftime he had more turnovers (6) than points (5). That wasn't going to cut it, so Middleton came out of the halftime break and turned in one of the best quarters of his career.
Going 8-for-12 from the field, he scored 23 points in the third quarter alone, nearly outscoring the entire Hawks team in the process. With Middleton leading the way, the Bucks surged in front and built what proved to be an insurmountable 22-point lead. At the final buzzer, Middleton had a game-high 32 points, four rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
During the offseason, the Bucks gave up multiple players and first-round picks to acquire Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans because they thought he could help lead them to a title. But while he was great in the regular season, his inconsistent performances early in the playoffs raised some questions about whether he was a true difference maker. Those have now been put to rest.
He fell just short of a triple-double in both Games 5 and 6, while also providing excellent defense across multiple positions. Considering the stakes and the circumstances, there's an argument that he played the finest game of his career on Saturday night. He finished with 27 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, four steals and two blocks to come within striking distance of a vaunted 5x5 game. If that wasn't enough, he also led the Bucks in scoring in the fourth quarter, and made an incredible driving layup with just over three minutes left that stopped the Hawks' big run and essentially sealed the win.
With Giannis' status still up in the air for the Finals, the Bucks are going to need Middleton and Holiday to continue playing like this if they want to lift the trophy for the first time since 1971.
3. Hawks' impressive run comes to an end
After a three-year playoff drought, the Hawks' front office and ownership decided they were tired of being stuck in the lottery. With cap space to burn, they went out and made a number of big moves, such as signing Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, with one goal in mind: make the playoffs.
Early on, it didn't look like they were going to get there. They were beset by injuries and locker room drama. A midseason coaching change to bring in Nate McMillan helped fix some of those problems, and as they got healthy in the second half of the season they looked like a completely different team. Surging down the stretch, they earned the No. 5 seed in the East, and their first playoff appearance since 2017.
In truth, they could have stopped there and it would have been a successful season. Instead, they went all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. Trae Young emerged as a bonafide star, they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history by taking down the Philadelphia 76ers and won their first conference finals games since moving to Atlanta in 1968.
Ultimately they fell short, due in large part to injuries biting them again. De'Andre Hunter suffered a torn meniscus, Bogdan Bogdanovic was hobbled due to a knee injury and Trae Young suffered a bone bruise in his foot that kept him out of Games 4 and 5, and limited him in Game 6.
No one wants to hear this kind of talk right after getting knocked out of the playoffs, but the Hawks should be extremely proud of the run they went on over the past few weeks. A lot of people didn't even expect them to get out of the first round, and they ended up two games short of the Finals. The future is bright for Trae and Co.