Giannis Antetokounmpo is refusing to put pressure on himself as the Milwaukee Bucks aim to get back into contention in the NBA Finals.

The Bucks – in search of their first championship since 1971 – have left themselves with a lot to do heading into Game 3, with the Phoenix Suns holding a 2-0 lead in the series.

Though back on home turf for Game 3 and Game 4, the Bucks do not have history on their side. Indeed, in Finals series, teams that have taken a 2-0 lead have gone on to win the title 31 out of 35 times (88.6 per cent).

The Suns are used to seeing out victory from this position, too, having led 2-0 in three consecutive series.

However, Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo, whose 28.1 points per game ranked fifth in the NBA in the regular season, insists Milwaukee must enjoy the occasion in order to get themselves back in the fight.

"Obviously, I know it's the Finals; we all understand what kind of game we are getting ourselves into," Antetokounmpo told reporters, as quoted by ESPN.

"So, we know what we have got to do. But at the end of the day, you've got to keep it light. You cannot tell yourself, 'Oh, it's the Finals, you've got to do this, there's so much pressure, man.'

"No, it's still basketball. It's easy to say, hard to do; but at the same time, you have to try to approach it that way. Just got to keep it light, got to keep the ball light, got to keep the atmosphere light.

"Once we go out there and you see the fans, you know that you understand what kind of game you're into. But personally, one thing that helps me that I do is keep it light and enjoy that.

"Knowing I enjoy things, I really put my heart into it. If I don't enjoy it, I'm just going through the motions. So, I just try to enjoy it, enjoy this, try to enjoy that I'm here.

"We have come a long way to be in this position, and we've got to try to make the best out of it. That's what we did, I guess, in the first round, in the second round, in the third round. That's what we'll do now, and hopefully, it works out in our favour."

Devin Booker led the Suns with 31 points in Game 2, but veteran Chris Paul – excelling in his Finals debut – continues to be the primary topic of conversation in Phoenix.

“Watching film with [Paul], he'll call something out that was so far away from the ball or what happened," Booker said.

"He’s going to make sure he gets right back to it. He's going to rewind it, no matter if it was a minute, two minutes ago in the game, and stress it. Those are the details I'm talking about that we've learned can make or break a game for you. And in this time of the year, you need every game you can get.

"It's the highest level of basketball, and for me, it's been a new experience. It's been a joy to be a part of it and dissecting the game and doctoring the game in that regard."

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Phoenix Suns – Devin Booker


Booker has been outstanding for the Suns this postseason and has averaged 29.0 points in this series so far, but he has turned in two very contrasting displays.

The sixth-year guard, involved in the playoffs for the first time, shot a disappointing 38.1 per cent in Game 1 but made 10 of 10 free throws. His Game 2 field-goal percentage increased to 48.0 per cent – carried by seven-of-12 shooting from three – yet he did not visit the foul line once.

Should he be able to combine the two, both drawing fouls and making shots, Milwaukee can have no answer for Booker.

Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo

After a slightly unconvincing Game 1 on his return from injury, Antetokounmpo was back to his best in Game 2 with a playoff career-high 42 points on 68.2 per cent shooting – also matching his best postseason field-goal percentage, set against the Boston Celtics in 2019.

But the Bucks still lost, as their second and third men failed to fire. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton – one out of form, the other inconsistent – are averaging a combined 34.0 points per game and 36.4 per cent field-goal percentage as the team's starting backcourt, while Paul and Booker are together delivering 56.5 points on 49.4 per cent shooting.

Those numbers simply have to improve to keep Antetokounmpo in games; the two-time MVP might be looking to "keep it light" but needs the platform to be a difference-maker.

The Milwaukee Bucks may be trailing 2-0 in the NBA Finals but star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo wants to keep things relaxed ahead of Game 3 on Sunday.

Antetokounmpo was outstanding with 42 points and 12 rebounds in Thursday's 118-108 loss to the Phoenix Suns which left the Bucks 2-0 down ahead of the series moving to Milwaukee.

Out of the 35 sides who have trailed 2-0 in NBA Finals history, only four have lifted the title, but despite that the Greek star was in a relaxed mood ahead of Game 3.

"I know it's the Finals," Antetokounmpo said at Saturday's media conference. "We know what we've got to do but at the end of the day, you've got to keep it light.

"You cannot tell yourself, 'Oh, it's the Finals. You got to do this. There's so much pressure, man.' No, like it's still basketball.

"It's easy to say, hard to do; but at the same time, you have to try to approach it that way. Just got to keep it light. Got to keep the ball light. You've got to keep the atmosphere light."

Antetokounmpo backed under-fire team-mate Khris Middleton, who only managed 11 points in Game 2, when pressed on his performances.

The 26-year-old also said he approached Game 2 with more aggression, leading to his improved output after 20 points in Game 1, which marked his return from a knee hyperextension injury.

"I was just trying to be more aggressive," he said. "That's all and we didn’t win the game, so it doesn’t really matter.

"From Game 1 to Game 2, I was just trying to be more aggressive and involved in actions."

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said small forward Torrey Craig's status was uncertain ahead of Game 3 after twisting his right knee in the third quarter on Thursday.

"He got some testing done yesterday," Williams said. "All of that came back clean, but he's still sore. So I can't make much of a statement on his availability or anything like that."

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."

The Phoenix Suns have shot their way to a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals with a 118-108 Game 2 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.

The Suns drained 20 three-pointers, including eight in the first quarter, shooting at 50 per cent from beyond the arc on their way to victory, headlined by young guard Devin Booker with 31 points, five rebounds and six assists.

Booker hit seven-from-12 three-point attempts, while veteran Chris Paul scored three three-pointers in his 23 points for the game, along with eight assists.

Mikal Bridges scored a personal playoffs-high 27 points, while Deandre Ayton was slightly subdued in the paint, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, in his second game back from his knee hyperextension, was heroic for the Bucks with 42 points including a massive third period but could not inspire his side to victory.

The Greek forward shot at 68.2 per cent from the field, but only hit one from five beyond the arc. He also had 12 rebounds, three blocks and four assists.

But Antetokounmpo lacked support, with Khris Middleton struggling with 11 points shooting at 31.3 per cent from the field. Jrue Holiday managed 17 points but only shot seven from 21 from the field.

The Bucks started strong in the first quarter, scoring 20-0 in the paint and leading by as much as nine points, before Phoenix hit back with a 30-16 second quarter to open up an 11-point half-time lead.

Antetokounmpo scored 20 points in the third quarter to keep Milwaukee in the hunt, trailing by 10 points at the final change. The Greek's 20 was the most in an NBA Finals quarter since Michael Jordan's 22 against the Suns in 1993.

The Bucks got within five points in the last but the Suns always had the answers when challenged, with Booker and Paul knocking down crucial final quarter threes.

Booker was benched late, in order to preserve his body after playing 44 minutes, after Phoenix lost another player Torrey Craig to injury, to join Dario Saric on the sidelines after the Croatian tore his ACL in Game 1.

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.

Mike Budenholzer says Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves great credit for playing in the NBA Finals opener and expects the Milwaukee Bucks superstar to make a bigger impact in Game 2.

Antetokounmpo revealed he initially feared he would be out for a year after suffering a left knee injury during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks last week.

Yet the two-time MVP was back in action for a 118-105 Game 1 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo scored 20 points and claimed 17 rebounds in his 35 minutes on court and Budenholzer praised the Greek forward for making such a swift return.

Asked how Antetokounmpo had gone from being doubtful to starting, the Bucks head coach replied: "He had a good workout before the game. I think you've got to listen to Giannis first. He felt good.

"The sports performance group felt good, he had been checking boxes the last couple days and making progress and so he was cleared, and he wanted to go and everybody was on the same page.

"it's just a credit to him. And we talked, just the work he puts in, the work the sports performance group puts in, for him to be back playing in Game 1, it's really impressive what he did."

 

Budenholzer was encouraged by Antetokounmpo and is looking forward to seeing what he can do in Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena on Thursday.

He said: "I think there were a lot of good things, considering five days and what he's been through these last five, six, seven days.

"I think 17 rebounds, 20 points, some great playmaking, passing, defending the rim, he's just like everybody else. I'm sure we'll find some things where he could be better.

"I think it usually takes him playing - he's a rhythm guy. So, I'm excited about how he'll improve from Game 1 to Game 2. We'll see how he feels. But I think play-wise, he always gets better when he plays."

Chris Paul – making the first Finals appearance of his stellar career – posted 32 points and nine assists, while Devin Booker added 27 points and Deandre Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds in a strong start for the Suns.

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.

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.

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."

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."

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