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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he witnessed "greatness" after Khris Middleton led the Milwaukee Bucks past the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

While Antetokounmpo posted 33 points and 11 rebounds, Middleton fuelled the Bucks with a monster fourth quarter in Sunday's 113-102 NBA playoff victory away to the Hawks.

Middleton scored 20 of his career high-tying 38 points in the final period, singlehandedly outscoring the Hawks (17), to help give the third-seeded Bucks a 2-1 series lead.

After Middleton's big display, which also included 11 rebounds, seven assists and six three-pointers on 15-for-26 shooting, it was the second time ever a Bucks player had a 30/10/5/5-three playoff game. The first was also Middleton.

Bucks superstar and two-time MVP Antetokounmpo hailed Middleton post-game.

"What he did today was unreal," Antetokounmpo said. "He was unbelievable. Carried the team at the end. ... What I saw today was greatness. Simple as that."

"He turned the ball over like two times and after that he was locked in. Like, 'Pass me the ball,' and we gave him the ball. ... We know when to set screens for him, we know when he wants the ball, and that was the moment.

"We were like, 'Get the hell out of the way, get him the ball, take us home Khris.' And that's what he did."

Of two-time All-Star Middleton, Antetokounmpo added: "The day you retire is going to be the toughest day of my career.

"He's special for a reason and he showed it tonight."

Middleton said: "I just finally got them to go. I've been struggling some with the ball going in the basket. Finally they started dropping for me at the right time. I'm thankful for that."

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer also lauded Middleton as attention turns to Tuesday's Game 4 in Atlanta.

"Just being around him a lot, he starts to see it go in, he starts to feel good, he gets in a rhythm, he can score different ways.

"He and Giannis in a two-man game, it's a tough choice. So huge fourth quarter. I think he had 20 in the fourth quarter and yeah, just glad he's on our side."

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton led the way with dominant double-doubles as the Milwaukee Bucks overpowered the Atlanta Hawks 113-102 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Antetokounmpo posted 33 points and 11 rebounds and Middleton put up a game-high 38 points and 11 rebounds to lead the third-seeded Bucks to a 2-1 series lead in the NBA playoffs on Sunday.

The Hawks led 85-83 at the end of the third quarter before Middleton took matters into his own hands in the final period.

Middleton outscored the entire Hawks team in the fourth quarter – 20-17 – as the Bucks used a 30-17 period to seize control of the matchup.

After Middleton's big display, which also included seven assists and six three-pointers on 15-for-26 shooting, it is the second time ever a Bucks player has had a 30/10/5/5-three playoff game. The first was also Middleton.

As for two-time MVP Antetokounmpo, he joined Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with 10-plus 30/10 games in a single postseason since 1963.

Trae Young huffed and puffed with 35 points and four assists, but the fifth-seeded Hawks lost to the Bucks on home court in Atlanta.

Hawks star Young entered the contest with 61 assists across five home games in the 2021 playoffs (12.2 per game). The last player to have 60-plus assists in their first five career home postseason games was Chris Paul in 2008 (67).

 

Clippers at Suns

The Phoenix Suns can clinch a spot in the NBA Finals with victory at home to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Monday.

 

The Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks are the last two teams left standing in the Eastern Conference - but who will be going through to the NBA Finals?

While the Bucks survived a deluge of points from Kevin Durant to see off the Brooklyn Nets in a thrilling Game 7, the Hawks caused another upset as they defeated the Philadelphia 76ers on the road in a tense series decider.

There is little time for either to dwell on the past, however, as they meet in Game 1 on Wednesday at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Bucks have dominated against Atlanta, going 11-2, though a six-game winning streak came to an end on April 25 as they lost 111-104 at home in the regular season.

The Hawks have already knocked out higher seeds in both the New York Knicks and the 76ers, seeing them become just the fifth franchise since 1980 to reach the Conference Finals following a mid-season coaching change. The other four all went on to win the title, too.

Nate McMillan stepped up from his role as assistant to replace Lloyd Pierce following a 14-20 start to the season. He is now just four wins away from steering them to the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise moved from St Louis in 1968.

Standing in the way are a Milwaukee roster who have made it this far for a second time in three years – they went 2-0 up on the Toronto Raptors in 2019, only to then lose four on the spin to the eventual champions.

While seeing off the Nets was impressive, Giannis Antetokounmpo made clear in the immediate aftermath that the focus must remain on the bigger picture, saying: "The job is not done. That's the message here and in the locker room, we've got to keep our heads in the game."

The Bucks start the series as overwhelming favourites, but the Hawks have shown they have no issues playing the role of dangerous underdogs during a postseason that has already thrown up plenty of surprises.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks - Khris Middleton 

Antetokounmpo became just the fifth player in NBA history to reach 40 points and have 10 or more rebounds in a Game 7, but it was by no means a one-man show in the battle against Brooklyn.

Middleton is averaging 23.3 points per game during the playoffs, a number boosted by scoring 38 in Game 6 against Brooklyn to help get Milwaukee back on level terms. He is also set to be part of the Team USA roster for this year's Olympic Games in Tokyo, alongside fellow Buck Jrue Holiday.

Atlanta Hawks - Kevin Huerter

Trae Young is undoubtedly the lead act for Atlanta, but Huerter stole the show in Game 7 in Philadelphia. 'Red Velvet' smoothly managed a team-high 27 points – his best performance in the postseason so far – as he went 10 for 18 shooting.

He had been shut out in Game 5 yet rediscovered his scoring touch when it mattered to help the Hawks progress, raising his postseason average to 11.6 points per outing.

KEY BATTLE – Young v Holiday in PG match-up

Both Young and Holiday had Game 7 outings to forget, despite their respective teams coming out on top. The former finished with 21 points but landed just five of his 23 shot attempts from the field, with two of those successful efforts coming from long range.

Still, the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft is averaging 29.1 points per game in these playoffs, making him the focus for the Bucks on defense. Holiday could well be charged with keeping quiet one of the frontrunners to be crowned the MVP of the playoffs.

HEAD TO HEAD

There is nothing to split the teams in terms of playoff meetings – they have each won 11 apiece. The most recent series came in the first round in 2010, with the Hawks coming out on top in Game 7 having at one stage been 3-2 in arrears.

The matchups are set for the NBA's Conference Finals – and few would have predicted these four teams would still be in the running at the start of the year.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets' superstars fell to the Milwaukee Bucks while the Atlanta Hawks stunned the Philadelphia 76ers.

Western Conference leaders the Utah Jazz became the latest team to give up a lead to the Los Angeles Clippers.

However, the Clippers on Sunday lost Game 1 of their series with the Phoenix Suns, who had been resting since sweeping the Denver Nuggets.

So, which big names were key to deciding these unpredictable battles? Stats Perform takes a look in the latest edition of NBA Heat Check...
 

RUNNING HOT...

Paul George

Clippers superstar George understandably took a lot of criticism for his playoff performances last season, when he shot 39.8 per cent from the field and scored 10 points or fewer as many times as he reached 30.

But just as Kawhi Leonard went down against the Jazz with a knee injury, for which he has no return date, George found his scoring touch again.

Across four straight wins over Utah – three were last week – George contributed 31, 31, 37 and 28 points. His 37, along with 16 rebounds, came on the road in Game 5, putting the Clippers up for the first time in the series while Leonard sat out.

Even as a surely tired LA team lost to Phoenix on Sunday, George kept them in contention with 34 points to end the week averaging 32.5 per outing, as well as 9.5 rebounds (up from 23.3 and 6.7 respectively in the regular season).

Khris Middleton

Middleton is another impressive regular season performer who has been scrutinised for his postseason displays – and far more recently than last season.

Across the first five games of the Nets series, the wildly inconsistent Bucks forward shot 38.1 per cent from the field. He had 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3 but had gone six-for-23 in Game 1, making none of his five three-point attempts.

Yet Middleton's 38 points won Game 6, as he and Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as the only team-mates in NBA history to each have 30 points and 10 rebounds in the same game twice in the same playoff campaign.

With a key role again in the series decider, Middleton became the first player to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in consecutive postseason games since steals were first tracked in 1973-74.

Devin Booker

Booker played just once last week but put in a performance that cannot go unmentioned. Without veteran Chris Paul to help him, the sixth-year guard weighed in with a 40-point triple-double against the Clippers (also 13 rebounds and 11 assists).

Only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age in the playoffs than the 24-year-old, while Steve Nash – another Hall of Famer – was the previous Suns player to score a postseason triple of any kind back in 2005.

Kevin Durant

Another player whose contributions must be highlighted, even with his team now out of the playoffs, is Durant. With 43.0 points per game last week, he showed the greatest improvement in the league from his regular season performances – up 16.1 on 26.9.

His 12.3 rebounds per game put the two-time Finals MVP second in improvement in that regard, too, but it was not quite enough.

A toe on the three-point line meant Durant's late leveller in Game 7 against the Bucks was not a game-winner, before the Nets lost in overtime despite his 48 points – one short of a heroic Game 5 tally and two shy of his career postseason best.
 

GOING COLD...

James Harden

That Durant was asked to do so much was due to injuries to both the other members of Brooklyn's 'Big Three'. Kyrie Irving did not play after Game 4 against the Bucks due to an ankle sprain, while Harden returned in Game 5 after missing the previous three.

To anyone watching, though, it was clear Harden was not healthy.

One of the league's great scorers, he made one of 10 field goals in his first game back, with five points in 45 minutes. Harden had never previously scored as few as five in half an hour of play or more.

His form did improve slightly with returns of 16 and 22 points, but Milwaukee won both, with Harden shooting 29.4 per cent from the field as he proved more of a hindrance than a help to Durant with their season on the line.

Ben Simmons

When Harden moved to Brooklyn, Philadelphia was seen as the potential alternative destination, although that would likely have meant the 76ers reluctantly giving up Simmons. After the defeat to Atlanta, Simmons may now leave regardless.

An outstanding defender, the guard's offense has long been a concern and so it proved again as he averaged 7.5 points last week, significantly down on his modest regular season (14.3).

Simmons made single figures in three straight games, twice shooting only four times from the field despite being on the floor for 38 and 35 minutes respectively.

His eight-point effort on Wednesday included going four-of-14 when shooting from the foul line.

Rudy Gobert

This is the first time since 1994 that both top seeds have failed to make the Conference Finals. The Jazz, just like the Sixers, needed more from their second star.

Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year but looked a liability as the Clippers went small in Game 6, when his plus/minus was a dismal -24.

The Frenchman's output was down in all three defeats last week as he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, having put up 13.5 in the regular season.

Kevin Durant turned in the most productive Game 7 performance in NBA playoffs history, but it was not enough to get the Brooklyn Nets through against the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Brooklyn's 115-111 overtime loss in the Eastern Conference semi-finals decider saw the exhausted Nets give everything they had before the visitors prevailed in the end. 

Durant scored a Game 7-record 48 points but could not do it all as a Brooklyn team missing the injured Kyrie Irving did not have enough weapons in the end. 

 "We've got to give credit to the Milwaukee Bucks," Durant told reporters. "They're a great, great team who've got a good chance to win a championship.

"The story should be about them and how well they played this series -- how well they played all year."

Though Milwaukee ultimately prevailed, few have performed better than Durant on the big stage. 

With little in the way of a supporting cast, he played all 53 minutes in defeat after carrying the hobbled Nets through the series as Irving missed the decider and James Harden played the entire game though he has not been fully healthy for some time. 

"I can't even speak about how much we missed Kyrie out on the floor and how much we missed James to start the series," Durant said.

"I could go for 40 minutes on both of those two and how much they care about us and how much they put their bodies on the line to help us out as a team.

"Kyrie had a gruesome ankle injury and he was thinking about when can he play next -- that shows that he cares about us so much.

"James, playing on one leg, came out there and gave it his all. ... There's nothing but respect and love for those two guys; we missed them out there. But we still had a chance to win."

The second-seeded Nets ultimately came up short, as head coach Steve Nash ran out of options to help ease the load on Durant. 

"We didn't have a lot of buttons to push at the end in this series," Nash said. "But we had a chance to win, so that's all you can ask for."

Now the Nets are left to look forward rather than back, as they can only hope they will be at full strength this time next year. 

"We want to win every game we play, we want to win a championship, just like every team," said Durant. 

"So the last game of the season, you lose ... but the beauty of our profession is, we get up and keep going.

"Everybody on this team works extremely hard, they care about the game, so we get ready for next year."

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a record-breaking performance from Kevin Durant to defeat the Brooklyn Nets 115-111 in overtime in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semi-final series. 

Antetokounmpo scored 40 points and Khris Middleton had 23, including what proved to be the game-winning shot, as the Bucks won a Game 7 for the first time in 20 years, stunning the Nets in Brooklyn. 

Durant finished with 48 points, the most ever scored in a Game 7, and for much of the game appeared ready to will the Nets through to the next round on his own. 

Brooklyn was playing without the injured Kyrie Irving and leaned on Durant to carry the load as he had throughout the series. He played 53 minutes, making 17 of 36 shots from the field and 10 of 11 from the line, but he did not get enough help in the end. 

James Harden was just five of 17 from the field, including two of 12 on three-point attempts, but every time the Nets needed a shot down the stretch they went to Durant. 

That worked for a while, most notably at the end of regulation when he hit a turnaround jumper with his foot on the three-point line to tie the game at 109-109 and force overtime. 

But the Bucks clamped down on Durant and everyone else in the extra session after Bruce Brown hit a jumper early in the period to put Brooklyn up by two.

The Nets would not score again the rest of the way, as Antetokounmpo tied the game with a shot over Durant with 1:12 to go before Middleton hit a jumper from the middle of the lane with 40.7 seconds remaining to take the lead and Brook Lopez added a pair of free throws with 0.3 seconds left for the final margin. 

Entering the game, home teams were 109-31 in Game 7s in NBA history, but Milwaukee bucked that trend to advance. 

They will await the winner of Sunday's Game 7 between the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Final.

 

Hawks at 76ers

The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers host the upset-minded Atlanta Hawks in Game 7, with Atlanta looking for their fifth road win of the playoffs so far. Earlier Sunday, the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns open their Western Conference Final series. 

Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo starred as the Milwaukee Bucks forced a deciding Game 7 in their Eastern Conference semi-final thanks to a 104-89 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.

Bucks forward Middleton top-scored with an NBA playoff career-high 38 points, including five-from-eight three-pointers, and had 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals, as Milwaukee levelled the series at 3-3.

Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo produced a more aggressive display inside the paint to stay alive in the playoffs, putting up 30 points and 17 rebounds in a double-double display at home to the Nets.

Antetokounmpo played a key role in 14-0 fourth-quarter run, including a strong offensive rebound and slam, which warded off Brooklyn's threat.

Milwaukee's Antetokounmpo did not attempt one three-point shot in a clear change of strategy after criticism for his shooting earlier in the series.

James Harden started again for the Nets after returning from a hamstring injury in Game 5, getting through 39 minutes but was visibly hampered, lacking power and finishing with 16 points, five rebounds and seven assists.

Kevin Durant had another busy shift, playing 40 of the 48 minutes, however he could not carry the second-seeded Nets, scoring 32 points with 11 rebounds following his monster triple-double last time out.

PJ Tucker and Jrue Holiday were strong defensively, with the latter having four steals, harassing Durant – who only shot at 50 per cent from the field and two-from-eight beyond the arc.

Milwaukee led 59-48 at half-time with Antetokounmpo having 18 points in the opening half, shooting eight of nine from the field.

The Nets rallied in the third quarter and put pressure on the Bucks early in the last period with a 10-0 run.

Milwaukee hit back with their 14-0 run which led to Brooklyn benching Durant and Harden late.

The Nets will welcome the Bucks to Brooklyn for Game 7 on Saturday.

 

76ers at Hawks

The east and west's top seeds – the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz – could be eliminated on Friday, with the Atlanta Hawks and the Los Angeles Clippers both looking to wrap up their Conference semi-final series on their home courts leading 3-2.

Donovan Mitchell produced another monster performance as the top-seeded Utah Jazz took down the Los Angeles Clippers for a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semi-finals.

After going off for 45 points in the opener, All-Star Mitchell posted 37 points to lead the Jazz to a 117-111 victory at home to the Clippers in Game 2 in the NBA playoffs on Thursday.

Mitchell was supported by fellow All-Star and newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who put up 13 points, 20 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in Utah.

Utah's Mitchell is averaging 28.4 points in his playoff career, only behind LeBron James (28.7), Jerry West (29.1), Kevin Durant (29.2), Allen Iverson (29.7) and Michael Jordan (33.4).

The in-form Jazz extended their winning streak to six games – the team's longest unbeaten run in the playoffs since celebrating seven consecutive victories in 1998.

Kawhi Leonard and the fourth-ranked Clippers were looking to even the series by splitting Utah's homestand, but the visitors fell short in Game 2.

Reggie Jackson had a team-best 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting as Paul George (27 points and 10 rebounds) and Leonard (21 points) contributed.

In the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Milwaukee Bucks escaped with an 86-83 victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3.

The Bucks had their backs against the wall after falling into a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Nets, 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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 33 points and 14 rebounds, while 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.

Durant's 30 points and 11 rebounds were not enough for the Nets, who were again without injured superstar James Harden (hamstring).

 

76ers at Hawks

The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers will visit the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup on Friday. The series is level at 1-1.

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