Giannis Antetokounmpo has backed team-mate Jrue Holiday to step up when his side needs it after a sub-par performance in the Milwaukee Bucks' NBA Finals Game 2 loss on Thursday.

Holiday has been a key part of the Bucks' success this season but shot 17 points at 33.3 per cent from the field, making only one from three beyond the arc in the 118-108 loss to the Phoenix Suns.

Khris Middleton also battled, making 11 points at 31.3 per cent from the field, while he only hit one from six three-point attempts.

The Bucks are now facing a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals, with only four sides in league history lifting the title from that position.

"[I'll] keep talking to him, keep telling him to be aggressive," Antetokounmpo said at the post-game news conference. "It's not about me, it's not about him, it's not about Khris [Middleton], it's not about coach, it's about all of us.

"If there's a game where you're three from 12 or whatever, if you can rebound, or get a steal or do something to help the team win, that's what it's all about.

"I don’t worry at all about him. He's going to be there when we need him the most.

"He's a great basketball player. He's played great all year and he's going to continue to play great for this team."

Holiday has averaged 17.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game this playoffs but his shooting let him down in Game 2 under pressure from the Suns defense.

Antetokounmpo stepped up, scoring 42 points for Milwaukee, along with 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks.

The Greek forward's 20-point third-quarter effort was the best in the NBA Finals since Michael Jordan scored 22 against the Suns in 1993.

Antetokounmpo's output was also the first 40-plus point and 10-plus rebound game in Bucks' NBA Finals history.

The 26-year-old, who hyper-extended his left knee in the Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, went down late in the match, limping to the bench. He returned to the court and insisted it was nothing to worry about ahead of Game 3 in Milwaukee on Saturday.

"It's just cramp," he said. "I didn’t think it was connected to my knee."

Antetokounmpo also insisted the knee injury was not concerning him during games, after missing the final two games of the Hawks series.

"When I'm not out there, it's not about testing it more, if I'm out there, I'm trying to play and help my team win in any way possible," he said.

"When you start thinking about your knee, or toe or pinky, or whatever, you're making excuses in your mind. You're out there, just play the game, do whatever you can, leave it on the floor."

An uncharacteristically speedy Phoenix Suns performance left a half-fit Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks chasing shadows in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Suns, who had 98 possessions per game in the regular season (ranking 24th), had 102 possessions on Tuesday as the usually more methodical Chris Paul picked up the pace.

Point guard Paul, 36, was the standout star as he belatedly made his Finals debut, finishing with 32 points and nine rebounds in a 118-105 Phoenix win.

Only Michael Jordan in 1991 had previously tallied 30 or more points and eight or more assists in a first career Finals game.

Even as the Suns attacked apace, Paul's steady hand limited the Western Conference outfit to nine turnovers – of which just two were his – to Milwaukee's 13.

The series is far from over ahead of Thursday's Game 2, but the Bucks need a response and will hope Antetokounmpo, their own elite performer, can provide it.

The 'Greek Freak' recovered from a hyperextended left knee sustained in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals to start the opener in Phoenix and initially impressed.

Antetokounmpo had eight points, five rebounds and two assists in a first quarter in which he played just over eight minutes, but he had only improved to 13 points by the end of the third.

"I wasn't nervous about my knee, I wasn't thinking about my knee," Antetokounmpo said on Wednesday.

"But hopefully, going into Game 2, I can feel more comfortable, more confident of going downhill, making more plays. We'll see. We'll see how it's going to be. Hopefully I can be in a position where I can make more plays."

Although the two-time MVP just about finished with a positive plus/minus, Milwaukee require more from their talisman – especially if the supporting cast continue to fluff their lines.

Khris Middleton had 29 points but five turnovers and just four assists; Jrue Holiday (10 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) was close to one of the most underwhelming triple-doubles in Finals history; Brook Lopez was a defensive liability, his -17 plus/minus a miserable game low.

Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday are on course to become the first trio of team-mates to each average at least 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the same postseason, but none of them reached that mark in Game 1.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday

The Bucks gave up two first-round draft picks and two potential pick swaps to get Holiday. With limited assets left, they need this to work. In Game 1, it did not. The All-Defensive First Team selection has been frustratingly inconsistent and his four steals in Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks were followed by none against the Suns.

As Milwaukee switched on defense, Paul – Holiday's direct opponent at point guard – found joy with 27 points across the second and third quarters combined before the former New Orleans Pelican took matters into his own hands. "I really just saw him being aggressive, so at that point I felt like I wanted to just annoy him, get him off rhythm, make him pass the ball and take tough shots," Holiday said. "That's something we're going to have to make an adjustment to in Game 2."

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

The Suns have a significant drop-off at center, with Dario Saric tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 1, meaning Frank Kaminsky may now have to be trusted with playoff minutes. Fortunately, starter Deandre Ayton has shown himself capable of more than making up the deficit during his time on the floor.

A breakout postseason continued against the Bucks as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds for a fourth consecutive double-double. It is tough to see how Milwaukee can live with the Phoenix big man, who shot eight-for-10 from the field and made all of his free throws – indeed, the Suns only missed once from the foul line.

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.

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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo insisted "a win is a win" after the Milwaukee Bucks escaped with an 86-83 victory against the Brooklyn Nets, despite blowing a big advantage in Game 3.

The Bucks had their backs against the wall after falling into a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Nets in the Eastern Conference semi-finals but responded on home court in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee surrendered a 21-point lead at home to the Nets before Jrue Holiday put the Bucks ahead for good with 11.4 seconds remaining on Thursday.

The Bucks were forced to dig deep during the closing stages, however two-time MVP Antetokounmpo did not dwell on the manner of the win as Milwaukee cut Brooklyn's lead to 2-1 in the NBA playoffs.

"At the end of the day, a win is a win," said Antetokounmpo, who posted 33 points and 14 rebounds.

"It doesn't matter if you win by 30. It doesn't matter if you win by one.

"You can go back home and celebrate the ‘W.' "

Khris Middleton top-scored with 35 points and 15 rebounds as Kevin Durant's buzzer-beating three-point attempt for the Nets bounced off the rim.

The Bucks are the only NBA team in the last 15 years to have two players (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) score 15-plus points in a quarter with no other team-mates posting a point (regular season or postseason), according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton combined for 68 points and 29 rebounds. Per Stats Perform, they are the first duo to combine for those numbers in a playoff game since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2001.

"We ran a lot of pick-and-roll, the first two games, in Brooklyn. I was able to get my spots, just wasn't making the shot, making the right pass or the right read," Middleton said.

"Tonight, I just tried to make the right read and make those shots. I can see what they are giving, just trying to take advantage of that."

On Milwaukee's defense, Holiday added: "I think part of it is playing desperate, knowing the situation, knowing what this game means to us and what it means to be home.

"And then the other part of it is the performance we had the first two games, showing that's not the type of defense we play. That was really out of character."

The Los Angeles Lakers issued a reminder of their quality as the reigning NBA champions outclassed the Phoenix Suns 109-95 to seize control in the Western Conference first-round series.

Injuries crippled the Lakers for most of the season as they slipped down to the play-in tournament and the seventh seed, but Anthony Davis and LeBron James starred at Staples Center on Thursday.

Davis posted a dominant double-double of 34 points and 11 rebounds and James put up 21 points as the Lakers claimed a 2-1 series lead following back-to-back victories against the second seeds in the playoffs.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are poised to sweep the Miami Heat after easing to a 113-84 win.

Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo posted 17 points and 17 rebounds to go with five assists, while Khris Middleton (team-high 22 points) and Jrue Holiday (19 points and 12 assists) contributed en route to a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The Bucks – who are eyeing their first championship since 1971 – can seal a sweep on Saturday.

 

Jokic inspires Nuggets

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic was at his brilliant best as the Denver Nuggets outlasted the Portland Trail Blazers 120-115 on the road. Jokic scored 36 points and collected 10 rebounds to guide the third-seeded Nuggets to a 2-1 series lead in the west. Damian Lillard's 37 points and Jusuf Nurkic's 13-point, 13-rebound double-double were not enough for the Trail Blazers.

Milwaukee's Holiday produced another impressive display against the Heat following his 15-assist performance in Game 2 as he became the first Bucks player with back-to-back 10-plus assist games in the playoffs since Sam Cassell in 2001. The 2013 All-Star was plus-37 in Game 2 and plus-42 in Game 3. According to Stats Perform, Holiday became the first NBA player to have a plus-minus of plus-37 or better in back-to-back games since Kobe Bryant in 2003.

 

Miami's shooting woes

The less said about the Heat's shooting on Thursday, the better. As a team, Miami were just 37.6 per cent from the field – making 32 of their 85 shots. From three-point range, the Heat were only 28.1 per cent (nine of 32). Goran Dragic (eight points) finished three-for-14 shooting in 29 minutes, while Duncan Robinson (two points) was one of six from the field, having missed all four three-pointers.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker were not at their usual high standards for the Suns. Paul, who hurt his shoulder in Game 2, was three-for-eight shooting for just seven points. All-Star team-mate Booker had 19 points, but it was on six-for-19 shooting from the field in 41 minutes. He only made one of four attempts from beyond the arc.

 

Rivers lights up fourth quarter

Denver's Austin Rivers was in red-hot form in the final period against the Blazers. Rivers scored 16 of his 21 points in the fourth to help the Nuggets to victory.

 

Thursday's results

Los Angeles Lakers 109-95 Phoenix Suns
Milwaukee Bucks 113-84 Miami Heat
Denver Nuggets 120-115 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Nets at Celtics

The star-studded Brooklyn Nets visit the Boston Celtics on Friday, leading the Eastern Conference first-round series 2-0.

The Milwaukee Bucks are on the cusp of advancing to the Eastern Conference semi-finals but Giannis Antetokounmpo warned "our job is not done" against the Miami Heat.

Milwaukee are one win away from sweeping reigning Eastern Conference champions Miami in the opening round of the NBA playoffs following Thursday's 113-84 rout in Game 3.

Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo posted 17 points and 17 rebounds to go with five assists, while Khris Middleton (team-high 22 points) and Jrue Holiday (19 points and 12 assists) contributed en route to a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The Bucks – who were eliminated by the Heat in last season's Conference semi-finals 4-1 – can seal a sweep on Saturday but two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo is taking nothing for granted.

"We are going to stay focused," Antetokounmpo told reporters as the Bucks attempt to win their first championship since 1971. "Our job is not done here."

"The last two games haven't been easy," Antetokounmpo said. "Obviously, we were up 30, but it's not easy.

"I'll say this: I'll say by us doing our job, I'm not surprised that we're able to win a game because once we focus on ourselves, play together, have fun and be tough, good things are going to happen. And in these three games, good things have happened for us."

Holiday – an All-Star in 2013 – was acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans in November as part of Milwaukee's title pursuit.

The 30-year-old produced another impressive display against the Heat following his 15-assist performance in Game 2 as he became the first Bucks player with back-to-back 10-plus assist games in the playoffs since Sam Cassell in 2001.

"We got better from last year," Antetokounmpo said. "We've had great additions to the team that help us do that."

PJ Tucker – another recruit after he was traded to the Bucks by the Houston Rockets in March – added: "We dogs. That's all we talk about. That's all I ever talk about.

"We gotta be dogs. People's perceptions of us and what people think in the past, we're erasing all of that."

Giannis Antetokounmpo revealed his love for football after leading the Milwaukee Bucks past the Miami Heat in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference matchup in the NBA playoffs.

Antetokounmpo led the way as the Bucks routed the Heat 132-98 on Monday for a commanding 2-0 lead in the first-round series.

Two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo posted 31 points in 31 minutes, while also tallying 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on home court in Milwaukee.

A superstar with the basketball, Antetokounmpo also demonstrated his football skills after juggling the ball during a break in play against the Heat.

Afterwards, Greece international Antetokounmpo told reporters: "I can do probably like 300 of those.

"I used to play soccer when I was young. My dad used to be a soccer player. I love soccer.

"I wanted to play soccer. I didn't want to play basketball growing up."

Milwaukee – seeded third in the east – used a 46-20 opening quarter to crush Miami in Game 2 of their NBA playoff clash.

Jrue Holiday (11 points and 15 assists) added a double-double of his own, while Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes made six three-pointers to contribute 22 points off the bench.

The Bucks set a franchise record for threes made in a playoff game after nailing 22 from beyond the arc.

Forbes, who joined the Bucks in November following four seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, said: "That was a huge part in me coming here. You know that there would be these opportunities and we would be in the playoffs. ... It's just great to be in this position, be in the playoffs again and have an opportunity and stage."

"It's just how the game goes," Forbes added. "It's ebbs and flows. Some games you're open a lot more. Some games you aren't. Tonight I think we moved the ball great and had a lot of open shots."

Bucks star Holiday hailed Forbes, saying: "If my man got the hot hand, I'm going to him. And he wasn't missing, so at that point we were running everything to him just to -- really just to see what happens."

It was an impressive shooting display from the Bucks as head coach Mike Budenholzer added: "Guys have got to shoot it with confidence. They've got to let it fly. They've got to know they’re going to get threes.

"I think the activity offensively, the attack, can create good looks for us. We've just got to continue to let it fly when you're open."

"Lots of times, there's just so much talent in the league and so many good teams, sometimes you get the early lead and things just happen and it becomes a close game," Budenholzer said. "Today we were able to keep the focus."

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer praised his star trio Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday after their 124-118 win over the star-studded Brooklyn Nets.

Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday all made key contributions in Milwaukee's second victory against Brooklyn in three days – a result which clinched an NBA playoff spot and kept the Bucks in the hunt for a position among the Eastern Conference's top two.

Two-time reigning MVP and Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo led the way with 36 points and 12 rebounds but Middleton and Holiday played important roles in the 32-24 final quarter as Milwaukee rallied from six points down to prevail.

Middleton starred in the fourth quarter both offensively, to finish with 23 points and seven rebounds for the game, and defensively to limit Kevin Durant's impact.

Holiday, who joined the Bucks from the New Orleans Pelicans in November, had 23 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists, along with a key stop at the end.

"We're still trying to catch the right rhythm and find where all three of those guys are playing," Budenholzer said post-game.

"Maybe it's a stretch of one of them. The familiarity and comfort with each other is growing. It's a good thing for us."

Budenholzer was happy to have an NBA playoff spot secured, but more delighted that his side are playing well down the stretch, having now claimed back-to-back wins over a Nets team widely regarded as title favourites.

He also had special praise for Middleton's job on Durant, who still finished with 32 points.

"I thought he was good," Budenholzer said as the Bucks eye their first championship since 1971. "You've got to just keep coming.

"Great, great scorer, so you've got to make everything hard for him. we threw a lot of bodies at Durant tonight.

"Khris being able to finish a lot of those minutes in the fourth quarter was great work by him.

"What you need in the fourth quarter, is great defense and he stepped up down the other end too.

"But the team around him, it always takes the whole group."

Milwaukee Bucks star Jrue Holiday labelled Stephen Curry an "alien" as the Golden State Warriors superstar continues to dazzle in the NBA.

Curry had scored at least 30 points in his previous 11 outings – the longest run by any player aged 33 or over in NBA history – before the two-time MVP's streak came to an end against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday.

Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant previously held the record for successive games with at least 30 points by a player 33 or older, managing 10 in a row in 2012.

Curry's streak started with 32 points against the Chicago Bulls on March 30. Across the 11 games the three-time champion hit 78 three-pointers, also an NBA record.

"He's an alien. I don't understand. I don't understand," 2013 All-Star Holiday said on "The Old Man and the Three" podcast before Friday's clash between the Warriors and Denver Nuggets.

"I fouled him on a half-court shot when we played them [on April 6].

"I'm pretty sure he didn't even look at the rim, and he still almost made it. And they didn't call the foul.

"I'm like what is wrong with you? What do you take [laughter]? Can I get some of it please because you're insane dude."

"He's putting this in the little kids' heads, like this is OK to try," continued Holiday. "No, it's not OK to try. Only he can do this."

Dallas Mavericks veteran JJ Redick, who hosts the podcast, added: "He's on a different planet right now."

"He's tapped into something -- some transcendent level of consciousness or something," he said.

The Milwaukee Bucks have been the regular season pacesetters in the NBA's Eastern Conference in recent seasons, but they sit third heading into the closing stages of the 2020-21 campaign.

It is the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets who instead lead the way, tied with 39-20 records - 2.5 games clear of Milwaukee.

Yet the Sixers had first place outright prior to Thursday's game against the Bucks in which they failed to recover from a tough first quarter.

Philly do not have to wait long for revenge, though, with the two teams meeting once more at Fiserv Forum on Saturday.

MVP challenges are on the line as well as seedings in the East as two potential title contenders get prepared to go again.

TOP PERFORMERS

Joel Embiid - Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid was the MVP favourite until a knee injury at the start of March that forced him to miss almost a month of action.

He was averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and the 76ers had a 24-7 record with him on the floor. They were 2-5 in the seven games Embiid missed prior to his extended lay-off.

The center returned earlier this month, seemingly with enough time to wrestle the top individual award back from Nikola Jokic, and he has since averaged 30.1 points, missing only a single game.

But the Sixers have now lost three in a row and Embiid's hopes appear to be fading after he was outshone by the reigning MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo - Milwaukee Bucks

It does not appear there will be a third MVP win in a row for Antetokounmpo after his momentum was checked by sitting six straight games.

But the 'Greek Freak' was back to his best against the 76ers, scoring a game-high 27 points, and can focus instead on a first title triumph in the postseason.

And Antetokounmpo feels playing a fellow challenger again on Saturday "prepares you for the playoffs".

"Playing teams back to back is awesome," he said.

"On Saturday, they're going to come out and they're going to play harder, they're going to try to execute. We've got to do the same. We've got to do exactly the same."

KEY BATTLE - SLOW START CAN SINK SIXERS

For the 76ers, "playing harder" will have to start from the tip-off. Their 14-point first-quarter deficit proved too significant against such a talented team.

As the Sixers missed one of the best defensive players in the league in Ben Simmons due to illness, Milwaukee firmly had the upper hand early on.

Philadelphia had no answer as they allowed 40 points, their second-worst mark in a first quarter this year. This came as the Bucks shot at 73.7 per cent from the field through 12 minutes, the best rate among the Sixers' 2020-21 opponents.

Jrue Holiday, a star on both ends, had seven of his 12 points in the first three minutes alone.

"That first quarter, they get every shot they wanted," Doc Rivers said. "We didn't offer any resistance."

HEAD TO HEAD

Thursday's game was the teams' second this season and the second Milwaukee victory after they won in overtime in March, again led by Antetokounmpo (32 points, 15 rebounds).

Antetokounmpo has averaged 20.8 points for his career but 22.6 against the 76ers, against whom he boasts a 19-5 record and posted a career-high 52 in 2019.

The Bucks have a 113-102 lead over Philadelphia all-time in the regular season.

The Milwaukee Bucks lost again without Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday, but coach Mike Budenholzer believes the two-time MVP's absence can benefit his team.

The Bucks completed a six-game road trip against the Dallas Mavericks, going down 116-101 at American Airlines Center.

Antetokounmpo featured in the first three of those games, yet he missed the next three after scoring a season-high 47 points against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The 'Greek Freak' leads Milwaukee in points (28.8), assists (6.2) and rebounds (11.4) per game, while also contributing 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals.

Knee soreness is impacting Antetokounmpo's bid for a third straight MVP triumph, but it is also hindering the Bucks. The team are 29-16 when their superstar plays but just 3-3 without him.

Milwaukee were not helped against the Mavs by poor shooting displays from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, their second and third men.

Middleton was an alarming 6-for-27 from the field for 14 points – 22.2 per cent, his second-worst outing of the year – as Holiday, who signed a lucrative contract extension last week, was 6-for-16 for 13 points.

Budenholzer acknowledged both players must perform better as he suggested the Bucks needed to adapt to playing when Antetokounmpo is not on the floor.

The 26-year-old forward played just 30.4 minutes per game last season when Milwaukee led the East, but he has been relied on for 34.0 minutes in 2020-21.

"The guys are getting more opportunities," Budenholzer said. "There's a little bit more of a load on both Jrue and Khris. I think they're learning to take that.

"We didn't make enough shots tonight; Khris, Jrue didn't make enough shots. We're getting better. We'll learn from these things.

"Playing without Giannis, he can't play 48 minutes, so I think there's going to be good stretches for us when Giannis doesn't play and we'll grow from these experiences playing without him."

While the Bucks struggled without their big name, Dallas got 27 points, nine assists and nine rebounds from Luka Doncic.

But the Slovenian also earned his 12th technical foul of the season. That tally has steadily increased over his NBA career – five in his rookie year, nine last year – and he is now just four shy of a one-game suspension.

"He's aware," coach Rick Carlisle said. "My level of concern is there. But look, he's an emotional competitor. It all comes from the right place.

"He's smart, he knows where the count is. If he's going to get his 16th, he'll get it in a situation where it's time for a day of rest anyway. I'm not really that worried about it."

It was a big win for the Mavs, who returned to winning ways after a shock defeat to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday ended a run of five successive victories since Doncic returned from a short lay-off due to illness.

"This was a playoff-type game [against the Bucks], playoff-calibre in terms of intensity and competitiveness and the talent on the floor," Carlisle said. "We did a much, much better job, top to bottom, than we did last night."

Dallas also got 26 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks out of Kristaps Porzingis. Eleven of his points came in the fourth quarter on 4-for-4 shooting after failing to attempt a single field goal in the final 12 minutes against the Rockets.

Porzingis said of his relationship with Doncic: "We're trying to play together and help each other. We want to win – at the end, we all want to win here.

"We have to keep playing, keep playing together, playing well and helping each other."

It is safe to say Jrue Holiday enjoyed himself in the NBA last week.

The former All-Star sparkled for the Milwaukee Bucks before the weekend brought news of a four-year, $160million extension.

On the evidence of his performances since last Monday, it was a well-earned reward.

Holiday leads this week's NBA Heat Check, powered by Stats Perform data, alongside a man he might have counted as a team-mate this season.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Jrue Holiday

The Bucks paid a big price to get Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans in a bid to persuade Giannis Antetokounmpo to stay. It was a move that worked in that sense and is increasingly showing its merit on the floor, too.

Milwaukee may have tumbled to third in the East this season, but they are showing signs they might finally provide a threat in the playoffs.

Holiday will be key to that, as he was during a three-game winning run last week. After starting their road trip with defeat at the Los Angeles Clippers, in which Holiday scored 24 points, the point guard tallied 28, 22 and 33 respectively in victories over the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings.

An average of 26.8 over those seven days lifted Holiday's seasonal mark from 15.9 to 17.0.

Bogdan Bogdanovic

As the Bucks desperately sought reinforcements to prove their ambition to Antetokounmpo, a deal for Bogdanovic from the Kings was reportedly struck. Instead, however, he signed for the Atlanta Hawks.

Milwaukee are certainly a more serious prospect than Atlanta, but the Hawks are belatedly finding some form with the help of Bogdanovic.

The forward had just two starts for the season until late March but has since been in the lineup for six successive games, including a run of three wins last week that started with his 28-point display against the San Antonio Spurs in which he shot 70.6 per cent from the field.

Gary Trent Jr.

Last week allowed teams around the NBA to get a good look at the players they traded for before the deadline, and the Toronto Raptors could only be pleased with Trent's output.

He averaged 23.3 for the week, albeit the Raptors only won once. Trent had a staggering plus/minus of 54 in that demolition of the Golden State Warriors.

Norm Powell, the man Trent was traded for, tallied 13.7 points across three Portland games, although the Blazers won two of them.
 

GOING COLD...

Victor Oladipo

While Trent has had an instant impact, the same certainly cannot be said for Oladipo.

The two-time All-Star was the Miami Heat's most notable signing as a move for Trent's new Toronto team-mate Kyle Lowry did not materialise, while LaMarcus Aldridge headed for the Brooklyn Nets after agreeing a buy out with the Spurs.

On his third team of 2021, Oladipo was averaging 20.8 points for the season prior to his Heat debut but then tallied a measly total of 14 points across his first two games as a Miami player.

Zach LaVine

Oladipo's is not the only switch yet to prove profitable, with the Chicago Bulls making a big move to bring in Nikola Vucevic to pair fellow All-Star LaVine.

But LaVine, previously scoring 27.9 points in 2020-21, averaged an underwhelming 20.0 last week.

No player in the NBA saw a greater decrease in their made shots from three-point range - 3.5 previously but just 1.3 last week - and LaVine was among three Bulls in the top five in that unwanted table (also Vucevic and Lauri Markkanen).

DeAndre Jordan

Like LaVine, Jordan was not on the move ahead of the deadline. But he was still negatively impacted.

When Aldridge chose Brooklyn over Miami, the Nets center - already struggling to hold off surprise star Nicolas Claxton - saw his opportunities decrease further.

Jordan played in only two of his team's four games last week, appearing for less than 12 minutes in each and averaging 1.5 rebounds down from 7.5 for the season.

Milwaukee Bucks star Jrue Holiday has signed a lucrative four-year contract extension worth up to $160million with the NBA franchise.

The Bucks confirmed the deal on Sunday, with All-Star Holiday declining his player option for the 2021-22 season as part of the agreement.

Holiday's agent Jason Glushon told ESPN that the deal includes a player option for the fourth year in 2024-25 as the Bucks – chasing their first championship since 1971 – solidify their core of two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the former.

The Bucks acquired guard Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans via a four-team trade in November.

"I'm a Buck for life," Holiday said in a video via Milwaukee's Twitter account. "Just know that I'm glad to be a part of Bucks Nation. Let's do some big things, man. I'm really excited."

Holiday is averaging 17.0 points, 5.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.82 steals (second in the NBA) in 31.7 minutes per game this season.

In Holiday's 35 starts, the Bucks have tallied a 25-10 record. He is shooting a career-high 50.9 per cent from the field to go with 39.0 per cent from three-point range.

Holiday is one of four players in the NBA (Jimmy Butler, Nikola Jokic, Fred VanVleet) to be averaging at least 16.0 points, 5.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game in 2020-21.

"We are grateful for the time we've been able to spend learning about the Bucks organisation, our team and the greater Milwaukee community," said Jrue and Lauren Holiday.

"We appreciate how Jon [Horst], Coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] and the entire staff, along with our team-mates and fans, have supported us since the trade to Milwaukee. We have a special group that wants to put in the work and compete for a championship every year.
 
"We look forward to working closely with our fans and the community, as well as continue to provide more opportunities and resources with our JLH Fund throughout Milwaukee. We're incredibly blessed to stay here, and we believe Milwaukee will be home for our family for many years to come."

Holiday holds career averages of 15.9 points, 6.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 751 career games (675 starts).

"Jrue is one of the top guards in the NBA and we are thrilled to sign him to this extension," said Bucks general manager Jon Horst. "Adding him to our team has made us better on both ends of the floor.

"He's an elite defender and an impactful offensive player with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. Beyond basketball, Jrue and his wife Lauren have already demonstrated the real impact they're willing to make in our community through the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Fund."

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