Stephen Curry scored 45 points including two clutch three-pointers down the stretch as the Golden State Warriors won 115-113 over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday.

Curry, who hit an equal career-high 25 points in the first quarter, was central to the Warriors win, which follows their opening night victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

After a wayward shooting display against Lakers that Curry described as "trash", the point guard nailed his first 10 field goal attempts for the game, finishing 16-from-25 including eight-from-13 from beyond the arc.

Curry also had 10 rebounds for the game, supported well by Andrew Wiggins with 17 points and six rebounds. Draymond Green battled throughout but had 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists.

The Warriors led by as much as 19 points but the Clippers clawed it back to a one-point game by half-time with Paul George excelling with 29 points along with 11 rebounds and six assists.

The game came down to the final minutes, with the Clippers leading by two points with less than two-and-a-half minutes to go after Marcus Morris Sr's three-pointer before Curry responded with two of his own.

 

Heat blow away Bucks

Reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks were humbled 137-95 by the Miami Heat in Kyle Lowry's debut for his new team, although he only managed five points and six assists as he laboured with an ankle issue.

The Heat blew the Bucks apart early, opening up a 22-3 lead, with Tyler Herro top scoring with 27 points including a first-quarter buzzer beater from range after Max Strus' block.

Giannis Antetokounmpo top scored for the Bucks, who were without Jrue Holiday, with 15 points and 10 rebounds, shooting at 36.4 per cent from the field. Bucks forward Khris Middleton shot only four-from-14 from the field.

 

Young leads Hawks over Doncic's Mavs

Trae Young got the better of Luka Doncic as the Atlanta Hawks won 113-87 over the Dallas Mavericks.

Young finished the game with 19 points and 14 assists, which was the most by a Hawks player in a season opener since Mookie Blaylock in 1993. Clint Capela was excellent in the paint with 12 points and 13 rebounds, while Cam Reddish top scored off the bench with 20 points.

Doncic had his radar off, shooting six-from-17 for 18 points, along with 11 rebounds and seven assists. The Slovenian also gave up five turnovers.

After waiting half a century for a title, Milwaukee Bucks fans turned out by the thousands on Thursday to celebrate their team's NBA championship. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the rest of Milwaukee's players and staff received a hero's welcome as they paraded through the city atop busses and trucks.

Two days after closing out the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals for their first championship since 1971, the Bucks and their fans did not appear to have returned to earth. 

"Milwaukee, we did it, baby! We did it!" Antetokounmpo told the adoring crowd. "This is our city, man. We did it. It's unbelievable." 

Earlier, Antetokounmpo looked overwhelmed as thousands chanted "MVP!" while his bus rolled down the parade route.

"I'm proud of my team-mates, proud of the whole organisation for everything we did all year," Antetokounmpo said.

"We put in extremely unbelievable work, we believed in ourselves, we went out there ready to compete, and right now I'm extremely happy. I still can't believe this is happening, but I'm trying to be in the moment, trying to enjoy it as much as possible with you guys, with my team-mates, and with everybody." 

While Milwaukee's fans had waited a lifetime for a title, the players realised lifelong dreams as well.

None of them had previously won an NBA championship, and some, like Middleton, had lived the other end of the spectrum. 

His first season with the Bucks was 2013-14, when they went a league-worst 15-67. 

"It's just been a long time coming," Middleton said. "I've been here eight years, struggled, been through a lot of ups and downs, but we finally got the job done, for sure." 

That they did, despite losing the first two games of the Finals to the Suns - just as they had to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semi-finals before rallying to win in seven games. 

"Each time we were down 0-2, all we did was get closer," Middleton said. "Some teams separate, some teams point fingers. We never pointed fingers, we never quit on each other. All we did was come closer and find a way to try and figure it out." 

Giannis Antetokounmpo says it means everything to him to win the NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks who drafted him in 2013.

Antetokounmpo starred with 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as the Bucks won the NBA Finals in six with a 105-98 Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

The Bucks' triumph ends their half-century wait for an NBA title and comes after losing in the Conference semi-finals in 2020 and the Conference finals in 2019 when Antetokounmpo was MVP on both occasions.

"It means a lot," Antetokounmpo, who was pick 15 in the 2013 NBA Draft, said post-game about winning the title with the Bucks.

"I want to thank Milwaukee for believing in me. I want to thank my team-mates, they played hard every single game.

"I wanted to do it in this city, I wanted to do it with these guys. I'm so happy we were able to get it done."

Antetokounmpo was full of praise for team-mate Khris Middleton who came up with some key late shots to finish with 17 points and get the Bucks home.

The pair have been team-mates at Milwaukee since Antetokounmpo was drafted by the Bucks and Middleton was traded from the Detroit Pistons in 2013.

"This guy doesn’t really know how much he pushes me," 26-year-old Antetokounmpo said about Middleton. "He pushes me every day to be great.

"I'm happy that I can step on the floor with this guy. We've been together for eight years.

"I'm happy I was able to do it with him, with these guys and as coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] says, we've got to do it again."

Veteran guard Jrue Holiday arrived from the New Orleans Pelicans ahead of this season, seen as one of the missing pieces in the Bucks' jigsaw.

Holiday only contributed 12 points and 11 assists offensively, but he played a key role defensively, blanketed Devin Booker, who finished with 19 points.

"They embraced me," Holiday said post-game about the Bucks after being traded from the Pelicans.

"They told me what to do from the beginning. I've seen all the work they've been doing and how close they've gotten. They believed in me.

"Coming here was obviously the greatest thing in my career."

The Milwaukee Bucks withstood a scorching start by the Phoenix Suns before their three stars carried them to a 123-119 road victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, putting them one win away from their first championship in 50 years.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 32 points, Khris Middleton had 29 and Jrue Holiday 27 in an entertaining to overcome a 40-point effort by Suns star Devin Booker and quiet the raucous Phoenix crowd. 

Like their fans, the Suns came out hot. Booker attempted Phoenix's first two shots of the game and missed both, but the Suns made 11 in a row from the field after that and held a 16-point lead after the first quarter. 

Their hot hand was short-lived, though, as the Bucks exploded for a 25-6 run and outscored the Suns 43-24 in the second quarter to take a 64-61 lead at the break. 

Milwaukee appeared on the verge of running away with the game, extending the lead to as many as 14 early in the fourth quarter before the Suns staged a late rally. 

Phoenix trimmed the deficit to three on a Booker three-pointer with 1:24 to play and Chris Paul fouled Antetokounmpo the next time down the court, forcing him to his least comfortable spot on the court: the free-throw line, where he would make just four of 11 Saturday.

The Greek star missed both free throws and Paul answered with a driving layup to bring the Suns within one with 56.6 seconds remaining. 

Antetokounmpo redeemed himself moments later, running the floor after Holiday stole the ball from Booker to finish an alley-oop dunk that put Milwaukee's lead back at three. 

After missing yet another free throw, Antetokounmpo tipped the rebound back out to Middleton, who was fouled and broke the Bucks' free-throw drought for a four-point advantage with 9.8 seconds remaining. 

That proved to be enough as Booker missed a jumper with five seconds to play and Phoenix could not get off another shot. 

According to Stats Perform, the Bucks are just the fourth team in NBA history to win Games 3 through 5 after dropping the first two games of the NBA Finals.

The 2006 Miami Heat were the last to do it and ended up closing out the series against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6.

Suns at Bucks

The Bucks can claim their first NBA title since 1971 with a win in Game 6 Tuesday in Milwaukee. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he "thought he was going to get dunked on" for his remarkable last-quarter block to deny Deandre Ayton in Wednesday's Game 4 win for the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks got home 109-103 over the Phoenix Suns, storming home down the stretch with a 33-21 final quarter after trailing by six points at three-quarter time.

Antetokounmpo, who had 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists, came up with a huge play with the Bucks 101-99 up with 1:15 to play, as Devin Booker tried to alley-oop Ayton, with the Greek forward recovering to leap up to block the center's attempt.

"Just hustle play. I thought I was going to get dunked on," Antetokounmpo said at the post-game news conference.

"Going down the stretch do whatever takes to win the game."

Antetokounmpo said he saw the play coming as Booker put the ball in his right hand, with Ayton looming in the paint behind him.

"I saw the play coming, so I was just going to jump vertical towards the rim and I was able to get a good block and get two points [down the other end]," he said.

"It doesn’t surprise me. I saw it coming. Once I saw him put it on his one hand, he was too far for a lay-up.

"You can feel it, I felt him rolling towards the rim behind me. I knew the only chance to get a stop was to jump towards the rim and cover that angle.

"I was late. If I was on the opposite side, it's a dunk."

Antetokounmpo's defensive contribution was significant but Khris Middleton finished with 40 points for the game, including 14 in the final quarter.

The 26-year-old Greek said he was "proud" of his team-mate for his ability to close the game out.

"We've done this a lot of times," Antetokounmpo said. "There's times going down the stretch, I've got to trust him and he's got to trust me.

"We've closed so many games. We've lost a lot of games but closing a game like this in the NBA Finals means a lot but we cannot be satisfied."

The series moves back to Arizona for Game 5 on Friday locked at 2-2, with both sides winning their games on their home courts.

Middleton added: "Whatever we're doing here, we've got to find a way to do it there. The only way we can win this series is to get one on the road. It'd be nice to get this next one but first we need to get some rest."

The Milwaukee Bucks have squared up the NBA Finals at 2-2 after a thrilling 109-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns despite Devin Booker's 42-point haul on Wednesday.

The Suns led by six points at the final change but the Bucks, who trailed 2-0 in the series, stormed home led by Khris Middleton's 14 fourth-quarter points, finishing with 40 for the game.

Middleton starred with strong support from Giannis Antetokounmpo (26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists) and Jrue Holiday (13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists).

After scores were level at half-time, Booker had piled on 18 points in the third quarter but Milwaukee made the key plays count in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo made a crucial late block to deny Deandre Ayton from Booker's alley-oop lob, while Pat Connaughton came up with a key three-pointer.

Chris Paul had five turnovers for the game, including a late costly error which allowed Holiday to assist Middleton for two which put the Bucks four up with 27.2 seconds to play.

Phoenix shot better from the field, going at 51.3 per cent compared to Milwaukee's 40.2 per cent although they lost their radar late, but the Suns had 17-5 turnovers, with the Bucks scoring 24-5 points on turnover.

Middleton was a key influence for the Bucks, shooting 15 from 33 from the field along with three three-pointers, with six rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Middleton's 40-point haul was his postseason career high, while he outscored the Suns in the final two-minute stretch with 10-4 points.

Antetokounmpo put up 11 from 19 from the field at 57.9 per cent, while Brook Lopez chipped in a handy 14 points, although he and Holiday both missed all five of their three-point attempts.

Booker, who had his worst game of the playoffs in Game 3, responded with an excellent performance, shooting at 60.7 per cent from the field.

The young Suns guard almost fouled out late, with a non-call on a Holiday bucket with 3:30 to go but ultimately it would not be decisive.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Eastern Conference Finals took a titanic turn in Game 3 when the Atlanta Hawks' star point guard suffered a freak injury.

An unfortunate injury to the 'Greek Freak' in Game 4 presented yet another massive twist in this series.

With Trae Young considered questionable and Giannis Antetokounmpo listed as doubtful for Thursday's Game 5, the path to the NBA Finals got significantly more challenging for the Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.

Knotted at 2-2 in the East, the question now becomes which team is better equipped to overcome the loss of its superstar.

The first major injury setback of this series occurred with the Hawks up by three points in the final minute of the third quarter on Sunday, when Young accidently stepped back onto the foot of an official after passing the ball. He went down and stayed on the court until the next whistle before heading to the locker room.

While able to return in the fourth quarter, Young was not his normal explosive self. He hobbled his way to just three fourth-quarter points on four shots and Atlanta was outscored by 15 when he was on the court as Milwaukee pulled away for a 113-102 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.

A day after the game, an MRI revealed a bone bruise in his right ankle and although he was able to go through morning shootaround prior to Tuesday's Game 4, he was ultimately ruled out shortly before tipoff.

 

The second enormous injury in the series arose a few hours after Young was scratched.

Midway through the third quarter of Game 4, Antetokounmpo jumped to try to defend a Lou Williams alley-oop pass to Clint Capela and his left knee buckled awkwardly while landing. After remaining on the floor in pain for several minutes, he made his way to the locker room and was diagnosed with a hyperextension. An MRI the following day showed no structural damage.

The Bucks fell behind by 10 on Capela's dunk on the play Antetokounmpo was hurt and shortly after he exited Atlanta went on a 15-0 run to put the game away in a 110-88 win.

That run was fuelled by a trio of 3-pointers by Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finally looked he has overcome his own injury.

Bogdanovic has been saddled by right knee soreness that Hawks coach Nate McMillan said began to crop up in Game 5 of Atlanta's Eastern Conference series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the Hawks' five-game first-round series against the New York Knicks and their first four games against the 76ers, Bogdanovic averaged 16.4 points on 41.4 per cent shooting and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. His 27 3-pointers led the team and Young was the only Hawk to average more points at 28.3 per game.

In those first nine playoff contests, Bogdanovic also played more minutes than any Hawk, averaging more than 37 a game.

Over the next six games, however, he averaged 6.2 points on 26.8 per cent shooting and 16.7 per cent on 30 3-point tries in a little over 25 minutes per game.

In need of a spark with Young sidelined in Game 4, Bogdanovic shook off any lingering ailments and poured in 20 points while draining six 3-pointers – one more than he made in his previous six games combined. He once again found his shooting stroke on wing 3-pointers, connecting on 5-of-6 shots from there after misfiring on 18-of-20 attempts in the previous six contests.

Not only is his production invaluable for the Hawks, Bogdanovic also excelled when teamed with Young's replacement.

Bogdanovic played 28:55 minutes with Williams and made 7 of 15 shots and half of his 12 3-point attempts when they were together. In just under five minutes without him, Bogdanovic missed all four of his shot attempts – including a pair of 3-point tries.

This entire postseason, Bogdanovic has shot better from 3-point range when teamed with Williams, connecting on 41.9 per cent (13 of 31) with him compared to 27.5 per cent (25 of 91) without him.

While Bogdanovic stepped up, so did the man who was inserted in the starting lineup in place of Young.

In his first career playoff start in his 87th postseason contest, Williams made an immediate impact. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year had 13 points by half-time – the same number of points he had in the first three games of the East Finals – and finished with a game-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

In 35 minutes, the 16-year veteran had just one turnover while assisting on eight baskets, with three going to Capela as the two worked the pick-and-roll.

 

At 34 years old, Williams obviously is not as dynamic as the 22-year-old Young, whose averaging 29.8 points and 9.5 assists in the playoffs, but he proved to be plenty capable of leading Atlanta's offense, as he either scored or assisted on more than a third of the team's 43 made baskets.

Similarly to Young on the Hawks, it’s impossible for the Bucks to replace Antetokounmpo, who was averaging 29.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists in the 14 games before his injury.

Good news for Milwaukee, however, is it has not had that big of a drop-off in production without him this postseason. The Bucks are averaging 108.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the playoffs compared to 103.2 without him. By comparison, the Hawks are averaging 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Young on the court in the playoffs and 97.5 without him.

Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez are expected to handle more minutes with the backcourt tandem of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday shouldering more of the offensive load, and all four have shot the ball a bit better this postseason when not on the court with the two-time league MVP. (Middleton 47.9 per cent without Antetokounmpo/41.1 per cent with him, Holiday 45.5 per cent without/40.4 per cent with, Lopez 58.8 per cent without/53.9 per cent with and Portis 54.3 per cent without/45.8 per cent with.)

Middleton, meanwhile, has also already proven he can pick up the scoring slack.

He had eight of Milwaukee's first 10 points after Antetokounmpo left on Tuesday, and has three games this postseason with 35 points or more. In Bucks franchise history, only one player has more 35-point games in a single postseason and that just happens to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had six in 1973-74 and five in 1969-70.

Ultimately for Milwaukee, it could simply come down to Middleton's ability to make shots as the biggest difference between the team winning or losing. This postseason, the Bucks are 9-0 in games when Middleton shoots 40 per cent or better and 1-5 in games when he fails to reach that mark.

It is obviously not an ideal situation to be in, but Antetokounmpo and Young could still end up playing, though if they do suit up neither will likely be at full strength.

Both teams have also found some success navigating their way without their best players – the Bucks were 6-5 in the regular season without Antetokounmpo and the Hawks improved to 6-4 this season without Young on Tuesday.

Thursday's game is unlike any of those previous contests, however, with the winner moving one victory away from a berth in the NBA Finals.

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